Tonya Thomas was an adult and well into her career as a chef when she discovered that Black people outside Maryland don’t normally serve sauerkraut as part of their traditional Thanksgiving dinner.
The fermented cabbage dish accented with pig tails or other smoked meats was a staple in Thomas’ home growing up and for generations of her family dating back to the early 1800s in Calvert County. Now Thomas, 55, carries on the culinary tradition at her home and in the Thanksgiving meals offered by her new catering business.
“No matter what your race, if you are in Baltimore, sauerkraut is on the Thanksgiving table,” Thomas said.
For Black Marylanders, sauerkraut has become an unlikely, but essential dish during holiday meals, especially Thanksgiving, and has wedged itself in alongside the soulful sides such as baked macaroni and cheese, collard greens and sweet potato pie — most likely found on tables in Black homes around the country.
Eating sauerkraut is not unusual for Americans of German and Polish descent, but is “very unique” in Black American culture, according to Adrian Miller, food historian and James Beard Award-winning writer.
“It’s a hyperlocal tradition,” he explained. “I have not seen that anywhere else other than the Baltimore area.”
The backstory of how this may have happened is served up in a tale connected to Baltimore’s complicated racial history. Germans, who accounted for one in four Baltimoreans when Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, employed freed Black domestics, in addition to owning slaves. Black cooks most likely learned to prepare the meals in German kitchens, according to Miller.
“What usually happens in these narratives is that you have enslaved cooks making this food, and they are familiar with it. Not always, but often these foods get incorporated into African American foodways when they have time to cook on their own and have more autonomy of what they cook,” Miller said. “They remember these dishes that they cooked for slaveholders and, so then those dishes transition to African American foodways.”
Miller says there are other examples of German influence on the foods that Black Americans, along with many others, eat today.
“You see German foods showing up all over the place in Southern and African American food. You just don’t think about it. The best example is potato salad and how that has been fully embraced in Southern and also African American foodways. And even coleslaw,” he said.
He attributes the phenomenon of sauerkraut consumption among Black Marylanders at Thanksgiving to the uniqueness of the region, likening it to the way that Baltimoreans call whiting fish “lake trout.”
“You don’t see that anywhere else,” he said. “I just think it is local flavor.”
While the dish started with German immigrants, Black folks added their own take on it. The biggest difference between the two versions of sauerkraut is the meat that each group uses in preparing the dish, local cooks say.
While most white Marylanders use sausages as a nod to the dish’s German and Polish roots, Black Marylanders typically use pig tail — either smoked or fresh — or neck bones. Smoked turkey is also being used more often as more Black people have started to eat less pork, Thomas noted.
The use of pig tails and neck bones in sauerkraut is a remnant of when Black enslaved people learned to use animal scraps and organs that white owners didn’t want to use. Black cooks found unique ways to prepare and season these less-desirable meats, turning them into culinary delights, according to Black food historians.
“The hallmark of Black cooking is an emphasis on seasoning,” Miller said.
This approach has not always been welcomed by their white counterparts. In fact, Black people’s use of various bolder seasonings was labeled as “vulgar” while white versions of foods were called “balanced,” according to Miller.
But it was Black people — whether working as cooks while enslaved or free — who mastered the balancing act of being able to cook both ways, Miller and Thomas said.
“When they were cooking for white people, they certainly toned it down. When they were cooking for their own people, they turned it up a notch,” Miller said.
Keeping the tradition alive
Black cooks preparing the dish fuels a brisk business for some local butchers. Take Lexington Market, the city’s storied marketplace that features dozens of vendors selling everything from produce to fresh butchered meats.
It’s one of the few places where you can purchase an abundance of scrap and organ meats such as chitterlings (pork intestines), hog maw (pig stomach) and pig tails. During the holiday season, the location is bustling with Black customers searching for authentic ingredients as they re-create recipes passed down from generation to generation.
Just days before Thanksgiving, Patricia Rodgers, a lifelong resident of Baltimore, was picking out her ingredients for her sauerkraut side dish at J.A. Regan’s, a vendor in the downtown market. That meant buying a package of sauerkraut and some fresh pig tails.
“Hell yeah!” she exclaimed, saying that pig tails were necessary to make the dish. “It gives it a different taste. A smoked taste.”
Rodgers said she learned to make the sauerkraut dish from her father. Her family’s secret ingredient was cinnamon.
“I’ve eaten it all my life,” she said. “It’s just a holiday delicacy.”
Sauerkraut and pig tails are the perfect partner, according to Grace Cho, owner of J.A. Regan’s.
“They go together,” she said as she emphasized the point by putting her hands in the air and joining them together.
Cho, who has owned the business for the past seven years, said that almost all of her customers buying sauerkraut and pig tails during the pre-Thanksgiving weeks are Black.
“They make up 90% [of sales],” she said. “It’s almost everybody. That is the culture.”
Nearby at Buffalo Bill II, owner Joe Lee said he sells 500 pounds of pig tails — half of his total sales for the year — in the 10 days that lead up to Thanksgiving. The reason? Sauerkraut.
As he chopped smoked neck bones with a butcher’s knife, he said all his customers are Black.
Many Black Marylanders say the Thanksgiving meal is not complete without sauerkraut. For instance, Thomas, who with her husband, David Thomas, led Ida B’s Table before opening The Sinclair event space in Baltimore’s Bel Air-Edison neighborhood, says the sour, savory dish with a hint of sweet from brown sugar, is the perfect complement to the soul food classics.
Sauerkraut will be a featured side dish as part of the holiday meals this year sold through their food group, H3IRLOOM, described on their website as “spanning catering, events, educational platforms, and sustainability through farming.”
Although there will be four generations represented at her Thanksgiving meal this year, Windsor Mills resident Cherreise Bromley will be in charge of making the sauerkraut dish as she has been for decades.
“It is a must-have for us,” Bromley, 48, said. “It is not a centerpiece, by any means, but our Thanksgiving would not be complete without it. We look forward to all those familiar sights and smells during the holidays.”
She added: “You don’t eat a lot of it. You dress your plate with a couple of tablespoons.”
Sauerkraut is more than the food, according to Thomas. It reminds her of trips to her grandmother’s home along North Avenue in the city’s West side and shopping trips to neighborhood markets and butchers — which have now closed — to source ingredients for dishes like sauerkraut.
“I’m very nostalgic,” she said. “I like to do those things and bring those traditions back.”
Thomas plans to teach her 11-year-old granddaughter, Julia, how to prepare sauerkraut this Christmas. Thomas’ 78-year-old mother will also be there.
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“I want to give people that history. It’s about teaching the next generation about why sauerkraut is on the table. I think the next generation should learn that. It’s about passing on that knowledge.”