Sauerkraut

Doug Wetzel shows off some of the approximately 100 pounds of in-progress homemade sauerkraut in the basement of his home. (Karl Merton Ferron / November 26, 2013)

The workmen who built the Great Wall of China ate it for strength. Sailors on early American clipper ships consumed it for health during long voyages.

It has tickled Teutonic taste buds and made its way across France, England and the New World. It has never lost its in-your-face pungency, its low-calorie, high-vitamin profile — or, in modern times, its capacity to tease just the right flavors from a hot dog or Reuben sandwich.

It's sauerkraut, that tartly tantalizing fermented-cabbage dish that long ago took its oddball place alongside gravy and sweet potatoes as a staple of Baltimore Thanksgiving dinners.

Though the custom has shown itself elsewhere, notably Maryland's Eastern Shore, foodies and food historians agree that the habit of consuming sauerkraut with the Thanksgiving bird is as essential to Charm City as painted screens and the pagoda in Patterson Park.

It's also a point of pride — one on which locals have opinions as pungent as the vegetable dish itself.

"I've had it every year since I've been born, and we'll be having at our house this year," says Joseph "Turkey Joe" Trabert, 77, noted connoisseur of Baltimore kitsch and folklore.

The juxtaposition of Thanksgiving fowl — with its rich, almost buttery flavors — and strategically decomposed vegetable is not, to be sure, to everyone's liking. Even locally, it's not hard to find a diner or two who consider the combination less than appealing at best.

"I've never been a fan of kraut. I think it smells like feet," said Tracey Hartman of Annapolis, a Severna Park native whose grandmothers — and mother — served the stuff with love every Thanksgiving. "I also think it ruins the delicious smell of turkey."

Delectable or distasteful, sauerkraut and turkey have been a local tradition for at least 150 years. Sauerkraut itself, in one form or another, has been a staple of the human diet for much longer.

The ancient Egyptians are said to have built altars in honor of the salutary powers of cabbage. About 200 B.C., the Roman statesmen Cato wrote of preserving cabbages and carrots with salt.

Genghis Khan is said to have brought fermented cabbage from China to what is now Central Europe about 1,200 years after that, and Tatars separately imported it to the area from the Volga River region two centuries after that.

Since then, Germanic people and those from certain regions of eastern France, notably Alsace, have made sauerkraut (German for "sour cabbage;" in French, it's called choucroute) a central part of the regional diet, complete with its low cost and its high vitamin C content. Its sour flavors also seem to complement the taste of sausage and take the edge off the gamy flavors of duck and goose.

But how did sauerkraut, with its heady international history, end up dolloped on the same plate as turkey, that richly bland mainstay of the traditional Thanksgiving meal in North America? And why in Baltimore?

The answer, historians tell us, lies in demographics.

Baltimore was a leading gateway for German immigration during the 1800s, so much so that by 1863, the year President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, one in four of the city's residents were transplanted Germans and spoke the tongue as their first language.

Most who ponder the subject say those immigrants were equally caught up in the traditions of their new country and interested in sprinkling them with the customs they brought with them.

One historian cites a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition that derives from the Eastern European custom of stuffing goose with fermented cabbage. William Woys Weaver, author of "Sauerkraut Yankees," a book of Pennsylvania recipes and food lore, says traders from the York and Chambersburg areas brought it to Baltimore, a frequent stop.

"That tradition was written about as early as 1840," he says.

Local lore has a slightly different twist.

"My wife and I think the immigrants from Germany and Poland settled in Highlandtown and the area around Broadway generations ago, and they celebrated Thanksgiving the way we did, but they also wanted to add a touch of home to their meals," said Nickolas Antonas, who with his wife, Mary, owned and ran the Eastern House restaurant for 44 years.

The pair always served a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, but they didn't think to include sauerkraut when they first opened in 1966, said Nickolas, who is of Greek ancestry.

However, so many customers asked for the stuff during the holidays that the couple added it to the Thanksgiving menu and served it that day for more than 40 years — with bacon or sausage, with applesauce, with grated onion and carrots and even, at times, with ginger ale for "a kind of champagne taste."

Now retired, the Baltimore natives became converts long ago.

"You have the sweetness of the sweet potatoes, then you add the sauerkraut, which is a little tart. Then you add the turkey and country gravy, and it just becomes a nice combination," said Antonas, adding that he'll be whipping up a batch for the holiday meal at their Rosedale home.

Local residents of a certain age well remember versions of the lengthy pickling procedure. Marc Attman, who owns Attman's Delicatessen, said that when he was a boy, his father, Seymour, and uncles would pack hundreds of pounds of cabbage in wooden barrels and roll them up and down Lombard St. to agitate the contents.

Half a century or so ago, he said, the deli usually got sizable advance orders of the stuff as Thanksgiving loomed.

Today they're one of the few establishments in Baltimore that still cure their own sauerkraut. Most restaurants, like most consumers, rely on the packaged variety, which is more convenient but also offers much less flavor and texture, gourmands say.

Most of the deli's kraut, though, goes on sandwiches these days, making it a steadily popular condiment year-round. "For us it's like salt and pepper," Attman said.

Attman's does offer a day-after specialty, the Double T (Thanksgiving turkey) sandwich that features turkey, cranberry sauce and sauerkraut on pumpernickel.

Many locals tell stories of grandparents making batches of sauerkraut in the family basement in the weeks before Thanksgiving, creating an aroma that became associated in their minds with the holiday's comforting feel.

John Shields, a Baltimore native who grew up to become the proprietor and chef at Gertrude's restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art, speaks of his late grandmother Gertrude Cleary, who made a batch every year in the cellar of her rowhouse near St. Ann's Catholic Church on East 22nd Street.

The tradition meant so much to him, he told a Baltimore Sun reporter in 2007, that it sparked the idea of creating Kraut Fest, a celebration the restaurant will hold this January for the 10th straight year.

Restaurant staffers begin their work a few days before Thanksgiving, working in the basement to quarter, core and shred 300 pounds of white cabbage. They pack it into several sanitized, industrial-sized trash cans, add salt (three tablespoons for every five pounds of cabbage) to allow for extraction of water, and oversee a six- to eight-week fermenting process.

Doug Wetzel, the executive chef at Gertrude's, has become something of a keeper of the custom's flame.

He now oversees the restaurant's kraut-curing process and speaks lovingly of each step. They fill jars of water to weigh the kraut down inside the barrels. They lift the lids every two days to spoon bacteria-laden foam from the surface.

After several years at the helm, he has developed a routine: Wetzel, 30, transports the cans to the high-ceilinged basement of his early 20th-century single-family home in Brooklyn Park. There, he places the equipment near a vent (aromas start wafting from the containers within a couple of weeks) and lets it all sit in temperatures that are usually 10 to 15 degrees cooler than the outside.

The stuff is stewing there now, in fact — and even as it continues fermenting today, Wetzel and his wife will serve their Thanksgiving guests a separate batch of kraut.

"I love [sauerkraut] with turkey now. The flavor takes the edge off the [turkey] taste. It has to be there on the table or I get very upset," Wetzel said.

As early as 1907, an unnamed Baltimore Sun reporter waxed poetic about the kraut-and-turkey blend.

"Of all the multitude of duties that confront a public journal," he wrote, "none is more genuinely pleasant than that of noting, each autumn, the reappearance of sauerkraut upon the tables of the great plain people. … It is the first course in that gastronomic saturnalia which reaches a climax or culmination in roast turkey."

Seventy-seven years later, another reporter, Carleton Jones, complained that the tradition "shocked" him at first and that he'd never gotten over the feeling there was something distasteful about it.

"Turkey Joe" Trabert has no such concerns. He even adds his own Bawlmer touch every year, heaping gravy on the kraut. And he can't name one friend who doesn't serve the pickled stuff with his big bird.

"What the hell's unusual about something when everybody you know is doing it?" he said.

And on Turkey Day 2013, it isn't just old-timers carrying the banner.

Six months ago, when Meaghan and Shane Carpenter started their boutique foods company, Hex Ferments, they did so in the belief that fermented foods are as flavorful, healthy and relevant to the human diet today as they've been for centuries.

The married couple, 30-something transplants from the upper Midwest, cure their own sauerkraut in the old-fashioned way in a variety of flavors, including red beet and garlic. They create kimchi, Korea's breath-busting answer to sauerkraut, and kombucha, an effervescent fermented black tea drink.

They'll soon be selling their wares from a shop in Belvedere Square.

But they'd never heard of Baltimore's turkey-and-kraut habit — at least not until a friend filled them in a couple of weeks ago.

It was too late to work up a big new batch for today's holiday, but they're smelling opportunity.

"To find this as part of Baltimore culture is fascinating," said Meaghan, who expected to be cooking some kraut in vodka to go with a neighbor's turkey. "I wish we'd learned about it sooner. But next year, we'll have a lot made up. We'll be doing something special."

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com