Every culture has its traditions for health and wealth for a New Year. Here in Ohio’s Amish country, the tradition is to eat pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day. As my dad always said, if you want to have “money in your pocket” for the next year, you have to eat sauerkraut.
Why pork and sauerkraut?
True to our Swiss and German heritage, the pork custom is based on the notion that fattened pigs symbolized wealth, progress and forward-thinking. For example, when searching for food, pigs will root in the ground, pushing their snouts forward. Therefore, a pig is always pushing forward in the future. It’s also difficult for a hog to look backwards, unlike a chicken or turkey which scratches backward when foraging. It’s said that a Pennsylvania Dutchman would never eat chicken on New Year’s Day.
Sauerkraut, a long-standing tradition in Germany, is believed to bring blessings and wealth also. Those seated at a New Year’s feast would wish each other goodness and as much money as the number of shreds of cabbage in the pot of sauerkraut.
Translated from the German as “sour herb” or “sour cabbage”, sauerkraut is finely shredded cabbage that has undergone fermentation by lactic acid bacteria. The lactic acid lends the distinct sour taste to the cabbage. There is no vinegar in sauerkraut, though it can be used with fresh cabbage to make coleslaw. Easy to grow and easy to preserve, the humble cabbage is high in Vitamin C and lactobacilli (healthy probiotic bacteria). It is said to be good for digestion and provides a nutritious meal to combat diseases such as scurvy.
Years ago, almost everyone in Amish country was a farmer and had a big garden to grow cabbage and other produce. Before grocery stores and processed food, people had to work hard to grow, preserve and store food for the lean winter months. Everybody made sauerkraut, including my Grandma. Although I was too young to ever participate, my aunt filled recently fill me in on her kraut-making technique.
First, she harvested and washed the fresh cabbage, removing any brown leaves. The next step was to cut the cabbage and shred it into fine pieces. She saved the hard crisp center of the cabbage as a snack for the children.
Next she placed the shredded cabbage in a freshly-scrubbed 10 gallon ceramic crock (ceramic or glass is important – metal won’t work), mixed in salt and let the cabbage set until it wilted slightly. The wilting of the cabbage indicated that fermentation was beginning. The next step was the cleaning a large round piece of slate, cut to exactly fit the diameter of the big crock. The slate was fitted into the crock on top of the cabbage. She then pressed the slate down on the cabbage to compact it and remove as much air as possible. A large heavy field stone was placed on top of the slate to weigh it down keep pressure on the cabbage.
It was important that the crock remain in a cool dry place for the rest of the fermentation. Grandma placed her sauerkraut crocks in the central part of the old farmhouse basement, away from the drafts of the coal-furnace, so that the temperature would remain constant and cool. Depending on the temperature, the sauerkraut was ready to eat in about 6 weeks. A longer ferment would yield a more acidic or sour taste to the kraut. The sauerkraut was served with homemade sausage from the home-raised pork that my Grandpa would butcher by himself each winter.