(Courtesy of probiotic-info.com)
My dad used to make his own sauerkraut.
This was back when he was what you’d call “a younger man,” although I can’t remember a time when I thought of him as anything but old. Dad was born in 1918. He married Mom when he was 32. By the time I came along in 1957, he was already an old man in behavior and, I think, in his own eyes.
He didn’t do much for enjoyment and nurtured no real friendships (although he had passing acquaintance with a couple of men in the neighborhood). His relationship to his cool German parents was dutiful and with his siblings, strained. He was never a laugher or one to do things with his children, a ghostly figure who rose before dawn, went to work, came home, ate dinner, and fell asleep in his chair. Weekends were reserved for chores around the house. He never played with me or my sisters, never showed tenderness, never said “I love you” or bestowed a hug or kiss unless forced to. He was neither warm nor approachable.
He liked to fish, but only in the company of my maternal grandfather on our yearly vacation to Maine. He league bowled once a week with my mother, an endeavor he approached with a seriousness that leached all enjoyment out of the event. (Constant intense “coaching” — and desire to make me a “pro” — made me give the sport up entirely.) He played cards — Hell’s rummy at family gatherings, and pinochle, canasta, or cribbage with the men at the bindery where he worked. I also have a vague Christmas memory of him participating in a game of “Twister,” but only as the one responsible for spinning the color wheel, never by actually getting out on the plastic game “board.” Once or twice, he dabbled at making wine from the grapes which grew wild behind our house.
And he made sauerkraut.
Why that particular dish? I’ve no idea. He never cooked unless Mom was sick (and sometimes not even then). He had no particular flare in the kitchen (although he has since turned into a passable short-order cook). He’s always been a strict meat-potatoes-two vegetables sort of guy, so even when he does cook, there isn’t much variety. I don’t know if the sauerkraut recipe was handled down from a favored aunt or grandmother, or if it was something he came up with on his own, but he made it.
Lots of it.
The crock he used was approximately two feet high by about a foot-and-a-half across. I can’t even guess how many cabbages he shredded into it — five? Six? Enough to nearly fill it. Curious, I was allowed to watch, but not participate in the alchemy. Once the cabbage was shredded, Dad mixed it with salt and caraway seeds and perhaps some other spices I can’t recall. He’d press it down tight into the crock, place a dinner plate directly on top of the mixture and weigh it down with a one-quart canning jar filled with water. The crock and its contents then went into the dark (and often dank) recesses of our dirt-floored basement. In twenty-four hours, the cabbage would have given up enough fluid to be completely submerged.
Dad checked the progress of his creation every couple of days for two weeks, making sure the cabbage stayed beneath the fluid and away from air, and skimming the surface free of scum. (Yum.) When the fluid remained clear, the entire dish rested another two weeks, at which point he put the sauerkraut into containers and stored it in the frig. (Considering the sheer quantity he made, he must have given some of it away or, perhaps, canned it, but I don’t recall.)
For the next six months or more, we enjoyed the fruit of Dad’s labors. Not unlike Forrest Gump and his beloved shrimp, Dad had more sauerkraut recipes than you can imagine. We ate the usual hotdogs with sauerkraut, but he also partnered it with kielbasa, pork chops, and apples among other things.
I think the reason I remember all this is that the making of sauerkraut afforded Dad an opportunity to make a rare joke, a jest he repeated every single time the big crock emerged from its storage place near the freezer, the only “joke” he knew. He always used to say that sauerkraut was a good thing for him to make because he was a “sour Kraut.” (Very un-PC, I know.) He’d laugh then, as rare and longed-for a thing to me as the sight of a unicorn. I’d dutifully laugh, too young to understand the joke, but delighted that for a brief moment we felt like family was supposed to.