Meaghan Carpenter, co-owner of Hex Ferments, talks about her company's method of making sauerkraut, a Baltimore Thanksgiving staple.
Chris Franzoni of Federal Hill grew up eating fermented cabbage two ways around the holidays: stewed with Ostrowski’s sausage, the way his German grandma made it, or fried with brown sugar and butter, the way his Polish side of the family did.
For Franzoni, like many Baltimoreans of German and Eastern European descent, sauerkraut is a must-have addition to the Thanksgiving table, a custom as old as the celebration itself, dating back to when President Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday.
Sure, there are those who don’t understand the appeal of the sour stuff. These days, when Franzoni, 38, who runs the Instagram account EatmoreBaltimore, is charged with making sauerkraut for family feasts, “My partner does not like it because it smells up the whole house.” The smell can take days to dissipate.
But fermented cabbage is more than a stinky side dish. It’s actually a digestive aid, one rich in probiotics and nutrients, with a history that goes back thousands of years.
“I think sauerkraut can save the world,” said Hex Ferments cofounder Meaghan Carpenter, whose Baltimore business produces a few tons of it each month, in multiple varieties. Business is booming; the company, which also produces kimchi and kombucha, is looking to expand to a bigger facility next year.
“This whole probiotic and prebiotic craze is really popular right now,” said Michalea Gale, lead clinical dietician at MedStar Harbor Hospital, pointing to the growth of probiotic supplements and kombucha, a fermented, tart and slightly alcoholic tea. Market researchers expect the global probiotics market to reach more than $77 billion by 2025.
Gale cautions that probiotics, which are live microorganisms that can benefit the digestive system, need prebiotics, a type of dietary fiber, to feast on. “It’s important to have an adequate amount of both,” Gale said. For that reason, probiotics are most effective when eaten with foods like garlic, onions or bananas, Gale said. (And no, piling a spoonful of sauerkraut on your plate this Thanksgiving won’t cancel out the effects of overindulging, sadly.)
And moderation is key. “Too much acid can actually cause a detrimental effect on your gut,” Gale said.
One advantage that sauerkraut has over other probiotic-rich foods like kombucha or yogurt: it doesn’t have added sugar — it’s just cabbage and salt. For that reason, Gale calls it “one of the best probiotics you can eat."
While Hex Ferments recommends people eat sauerkraut cold to maintain the probiotics in the dish, around the holidays, most people like to cook it for hours, often with turkey or sausage. That’s how Carpenter grew up eating it at family dinners in Minnesota, prepared by her grandmother.
The practicality of sauerkraut has endeared it to generations of foodies the world over. The builders of China’s Great Wall ate fermented cabbage for sustenance; today, it’s a staple of Korean cuisine. Genghis Khan is said to have introduced it to Central Europe, and Germanic people served it with sausage and goose. Until the end of the U.S. Civil War, historians say krauthobblers, or “cabbage-shavers,” went door to door in American cities, slicing cabbage for home cooks preparing sauerkraut.
The tradition of sauerkraut at Thanksgiving in Baltimore appears to come from the many Germans and Eastern Europeans who lived in the city when it was declared a national holiday. Simple and cheap to make, the dish at times has seemed to embody the city’s own working class ethos. A 1906 article in The Baltimore Sun on the eve of “sauerkraut season" called it “aliment for heroes” and “the great Teutonic dish,” while defensively blasting “the snobbish distrust of sauerkraut which lingers in certain circles.”
Today, Carpenter and others at Hex Ferments may be just as enthusiastic about sauerkraut as The Sun writers were in the 1900s.
On a recent visit to the company’s Homeland production facility, rock music blared while employees moved in a quiet choreography to chop up dozens of heads of fresh white cabbages, green on the outside. Others lifted heavy crates full of kraut that has been stewing in salt for months. The older the better, they think.
“I like it vintage,” said production manager Aylén Maquehue Ober.
Her coworker, Margaret Palmquist, loaded a gloved fistful of sauerkraut into a glass jar while staring at the piles of cabbage. “I’m telling the cabbage: this is what you’re going to be,” she said. “This is like telling a little kid that you can be president.”