Sauerkraut

There really is no other way to explain it but convergence. The German genes run strong, even though the family has been in the US since the 1730s. They were never quite as bad as the Amish near Lancaster, where there are only 9 different family names. In that part of the state, though, there wasn’t really anyone with a surname that wasn’t German. There were Shafers, spelled any number of different ways. There were Dahuffs and Dunkles and Schneiders, as common as Smiths, but not so many Smiths. The tale was that there were seven brothers who came over. When they got to New York, either they or the immigration man weren’t too literate, so phonetic spellings abounded. People with the same last name were instantly from seemingly different families.
He loves to experiment, whether it’s gardening or work or orchids or food. The greenhouse runs off the back of the house, exiting the basement at ground level. It consists of 2 layers of plastic (better insulation) over hoops set on block knee walls. Space is always at a premium. Heat/cooling are expensive. When he first added the house on, he planted three trees, but not just any trees. Now it is shaded from the south by 3 bald cypress. Deciduous, they give a light, open shade in the summer to keep the house from getting too hot & allow what passive solar there is in the winter to help with the heating bill. There are always a few garter snakes to keep the grandkids honest (at least the snake-fearing ones). The snakes aren’t the problem in the greenhouse. They keep the pests down. Things like white flies and slugs and mold and space are the real issues. Introduce some predators for the white flies.
The pots are jammed shoulder to shoulder on the benches. Like any good collector, even though he sells a few plants, he buys more than he sells. There were orchids hanging from the greenhouse frame, some in pots, some that are epiphytes growing happily on pieces of bark. Space is past being at a premium. The plants clamor for space. So he specializes in miniature orchids. He can put ten or maybe even twenty small plants in the space a big Cattleya might take. They are things of beauty, little miracles of color and detail and adaptation. Adapt.
There’s a path runs around the interior of the greenhouse: benches around the perimeter, an island in the middle. He’s never afraid to ask “what if?” So if you think about this, you can only be on one side of the island at a time. How could you make more usable space without increasing the building’s footprint? He created a bench that slides on rollers. Now he has room for a path-width more plants. The space filled instantly. It’s like moving from a small house to a bigger house. The bigger house is filled. You wonder how it all fit in the smaller house at all.
He also likes to ferment things. For a while there were arbors of different kinds of grapes. He always said if you can add sugar to it, you can make wine out of it. In his former life, he was a chemist, so things like dilutions and specific gravity are unintimidating. There’s more experimentation: how to make a sweet wine? A fruity one? Fermentation tends to consume sugar; it is the food for the yeast that makes the alcohol. They also tend to alter the esters that we know as fruity smells. Add sugar after the fermentation is complete and the yeast have died. Add fruit juice then too. Raspberry wine that smells and tastes like raspberries. What a treat.
He’s not really a big fan of yogurt. He’ll tell you that his grandfather always said “when our milk got like that, we threw it out.” That same grandfather was known for eschewing onions. Pigs wouldn’t eat them; he wasn’t about to. Sort of a canary-in-the-coal mine approach, it could be argued. We figured he never knew what he was missing.
Fermentations are all around us. They really are part of the natural decay that keeps detritus from piling up around us. Some of them are quite tasty, as with the raspberry wine. The trick is to find the right organism to do the rotting for you. The wrong yeast in your wine makes it unfit to drink. Something about new wine not being put into old skins. Once your food has been properly rotted, it tends to keep better. Fermentation is a method of preserving food. Who knew. We just thought it tasted good, at least when done by the right thing (germ) in the right way.
Oxygen is the enemy. All of these fermentations occur in its absence. Since wine is a liquid, that’s easy: just put an s-shaped water trap in the neck of the carboy the wine is fermenting in. Something like chopped cabbage, soon to become sauerkraut, presents more of a challenge. In the past, it was accepted that the top, as much as 1/5 of the crock of cabbage was going to be spoiled in a way that we find unpalatable. Necessity being the mother of invention, reducing the undesirable spoilage (as opposed to the desirable spoilage, of course) so that there is more for us to eat, has been a motivator. More about that in a bit.
He loves a good deal. There are several auctions in this part of the state. Some sell animals. Some sell produce. Some sell both. Over at Middleburg, there’s a produce auction. He says it’s doubled in size in the last year. Last week he came back with whole flats of sweet William, porchelacca, ageratum, begonia, and who knows what else. And cabbage. It was eighty-nine cents a head instead of $.89 a pound, as it is in the grocery store. Usually such deals only come around in late summer. Sauerkraut season came early this year. The black raspberries aren’t even ripe.
With a bit of negotiation, the time to massacre the cabbage was set. Saturday morning at 09:30. It was sort of a Henny-Penny call: who will help me shred this cabbage. Payment, aside from sauerkraut that’s better than anything that can be purchased in a store, is a few hours spent with him. He’ll be eighty here in about three years. Crusty. Conservative. Arthritic, which hurts sometimes more than others, knuckles becoming knobbly. He’s known affectionately by his grandchildren as “the Grouch.” As such, he has a reputation to uphold. Most of his vitriol is delivered with a twinkle in his German blue eyes.
His daughter arrives a few minutes late, subject to reproval. Pushing 60. Built like her grandmother, a brick outhouse. She’s still the student in some ways, the seedling suppressed, growing under the master, seeking light not filtered by his crown. She holds her opinions as firmly as he does; something about the nut not falling far from the tree. In deference to her gender, seemingly demure but passively passive aggressive. Listen. Listen. Agree. Nod. Then do what you want, you will anyway. A bit more circumspect in her approach than he.
She comes in the front door. Hello?!, yelled. “Down here,” muffled, from the basement. Her knees hurt, the result of too many years of tasting good cooking in the endless effort to discern what is missing. With a swinging gait she crosses the kitchen. Her hands brace against the stairway walls, added braking against the inexorable pull of gravity. One step at a time, sideways, she descends, huffing and puffing like a steam engine into the basement. The cave-like darkness waits patiently in the corners and crevices, temporarily pushed back by buzzing fluorescent lights.
He has the assembly line set up. First there’s the slicer. Technically for slicing lunch meat, it’ll slice anything that can be cut, including the knuckles of those who are too engaged in conversation to notice how close they’ve gotten to the razor-sharp, rotating disc that does the cutting. It doesn’t ask permission. It just does the work at hand. Not that he’d ever let his romantic, softer side show through, he waxes prosaic as he describes an antique sauerkraut machine a friend has acquired. He says, a bit wistfully, that it has a cone-shaped auger that takes the heart out of the cabbage head. Once the heart is out (it tends to be too fibrous to be good to eat), the head is thrown into a tub that rotates above stationary knives. Ah, the quantity of shredded cabbage that could be made in a day, he muses. The efficiency of the machine, built to do a job that it does so well, that is a thing of beauty. But, to the matter at hand.
The slicer discharges onto a plastic sheet that can be used to dump the cabbage into a five gallon pail. In its former life, the pail held hydraulic oil for logging machines. In response to her raised eyebrow, he assures her that it has been well cleaned. A measured amount of salt, appropriate for a five gallon batch of sauerkraut, sits on the table next to a like quantity of pickling spice. A teaspoon per quart. Five gallons is twenty quarts. Sixteen teaspoons in a cup. Total of a cup and a quarter. It just works out right for chicken feeders.
Chicken feeders!? Well, he explains, back in the eighties, he and the boys had a sawmill. The local farmers would figure up lumber lists for their projects and come rambling in to the mill yard in their Dodge pickup trucks, tailgate or a door held shut with a bungee or some bailing wire. They had an unpolished etiquette about them, not necessarily too much schooling, but a certain taciturn, Spartan wisdom garnered from years of blizzards and floods and droughts and heat. Sometimes they’d drive their old Farmall Ms or John Deere Bs and bring logs up on their hay wagons. Especially the Bs would thump and chuff. For a long time the youngest boy thought the sound of a grouse drumming in mating season was some farmer out in the mountain pulling firewood with a B, getting ready for next winter. Sometimes our brains make the data fit what we’re familiar with.
One day this fellow comes into the yard. He’s got his list. He says he needs twenty-two foot 1x4s. Four of them. Really? Queries Jay, the millhand. You know they’re like spaghetti, and if there’s the smallest knot in them, they’re prone to breaking and then they’re not 22 feet anymore. Well, says the farmer, I’m making chicken feeders out of ‘em. Twenty-two feet makes eleven pieces 2 feet long, and it works out just right. How about a mixture of tens and twelves, says Jay. Nope says the farmer. Don’t try to pull any of that funny math on me like they got up there at the college. I’ll stick to the twenty-twos. Then I know I’ll have the right number of pieces. It just works out right for chicken feeders. All you can do is nod and say yes sir.
From the slicer, the cabbage in the oil pail gets the requisite amount of salt and pickling spice added. Then it is pummeled with a piece of a cherry 4×4. He had a friend turn the one end round on a lathe so that it is easier to handle. A rhythmic, vertical ka-chunk, ka-chunk ka chunk tells of the maceration occurring in the bucket. It’s important to the process of fermentation. The microbiologist in him speaks, learning remembered from an earlier life. It’s a complex fermentation, he says. Not just one organism does the work, like when yeast goes to work on sugar to make wine or beer. No, this fermentation is a collaborative effort between a yeast and two different bacteria. The real wonder is that these three little buddies occur naturally on the surface of the cabbage. Mash. Mash. Mash, with the cherry pestle. Crush the cell walls, release the cell juices. The salt helps draw them out osmotically and it discourages other organisms that might make the fermentation less to our liking. One might say they could ruin the spoilage. Isn’t it a wonder, too, that something that is 90-something percent water is a solid? He muses. Once the cabbage has been appropriately abused, it is unceremoniously dumped into another oil pail lined with two plastic bags. The pounderizer mixes the cabbage and salt and pickling spice some more. The water starts to draw out of the cabbage.
Once again he reminisces. He’s full of stories. When he was about ten, his dad was a doctor in the Army, stationed in South Carolina. The south was known for having parasites like hookworms, in the soil. So shoes were required. Always. His mother was a stern, imposing woman, built like her granddaughter. It’s that German heritage. He was the recent recipient of new patent leather shoes and was under strict orders to keep them nice. The shoes were new. They chafed as new shoes will. His heel grew a blister. Perhaps it was spite. Perhaps it was naughtiness. Whatever it was, it was done in the name of obedience. On the way home from school the shoes stayed on his feet. In the creek. Through the mud and the hitch hikers and the tall grass and the briars with their ripe blue-black berries. There wasn’t a shiny black spot left on the new shoes. He knew there’d be hell to pay, still, he felt vindicated. The shoes hadn’t left his feet. If they wouldn’t make such rules, there would be far less trouble in the world. Besides, everyone knows that a pair of leather shoes worn when they’re wet will fit better later on.
The cabbage is all shredded. The pail is full. The bags are twisted and pushed down into the bucket to squeeze out all possible air to assure the desired fermentation. Oxygen is the enemy in this case. All three organisms are anaerobic. To allow air to remain in contact with the cabbage is to assure spoiling the spoilage, er, fermentation. In the past, the fermentation occurred in a clay crock. A piece of slate was laid flat atop the nascent sauerkraut. A rock, the sauerkraut rock, a special rock it was, was devoted solely to holding the slate against the fresh kraut. The slate, covered with brine of the same salty concentration as the cabbage, kept the air from the curing cabbage. Today, though, with the plastic pail in a wine maker’s cellar, the bag is twisted and compressed. The brine is added. The plastic snap-top is pounded into place. He’s bored a small hole in the lid. In the hole is inserted an S-shaped water trap of the sort used in the wine making enterprise. Its job is to let CO2 generated in the fermentation, out of the pail while keeping unwanted air out. The result is less spoilage, more good kraut. Now all that remains is to wait for September. Then there will be Reuben sandwiches.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s