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.