Sauerkraut: Baltimore's holiday gift


Massachusetts may have handed us the Thanksgiving dinner tradition, but Baltimore made it taste good.

Our gift to what might be an otherwise bland fowl supper is soured cabbage, the sauerkraut that will be on tables from Essex to Eldersburg.

While most people buy their kraut in a plastic bag or a tin can, this is not the way my grandmother produced hers. She looked askance at most things that were not the product of her own hands.

She headed a household of 12 and provisioned it accordingly. It was a great source of consolation growing up under her roof. The cellar was filled with cases of canned goods, preserves, home canned fruits and specialties like her homemade ketchup and pickles. It was also stacked with cherry pitters, meat grinders, bottle cappers, apple corers and cast-iron household implements. Each was used in its season.

Lily Rose Stewart came by her domestic values honestly. Her father was of Scottish descent. His people settled along the Maryland-Pennsylvania border in Harford County. Her mother was German. The bloodlines combined to produce a dominant household philosophy of thrift and plenty.

And on this day of all days, there was an often-repeated family story of one experience Lily had with her kraut.

She believed in making purchases in bulk. I can imagine her getting a couple of bushels of cabbage at the old Belair Market and transporting them back to the house. She cut her cabbage by hand. As a child, I'd watch her chopping and cutting. I never learned why she didn't take her fingers off with a paring knife.

She had an inventory of ancient stoneware crocks in the cellar. These were heavy crockery vats decorated with blue where she stored her victuals. November meant sauerkraut. Come December, she'd fill the jars with her Christmas cookies.

But in late fall, she took the cut-up cabbage and cured it with a boiling mixture of water, vinegar, salt and sugar to produce the sauerkraut that went with turkey or roast pork. The curing kraut went in the big crock. She sealed it and forgot about it for a couple of weeks.

Lily always produced a great Thanksgiving dinner. She didn't raise turkeys or grow cranberries, but she made just about everything on the old Oriole range. What she didn't produce herself, her sister, my Great-Aunt Cora, did. She was the pastry cook and chief household partner. Each sister was up before dawn every day, but Thanksgiving was one of their best shows.

By noontime, the house smelled of a mixture of roasting turkey, steaming sauerkraut vapors and the slightly musty smell of the best lace tablecloth that had been in storage since the previous Christmas. The place looked good too. Thanksgiving was the first holiday after their weeks of fall housecleaning.

People normally never complained about Lily's cooking, but there was one Thanksgiving when the kraut just wasn't that good. It tasted funny.

Lily did not agree or disagree. She continued to dip down into the crock and retrieve more soured cabbage for meals after the Thanksgiving feast. But she quietly acknowledged the dilemma and that something was off. Maybe some unscrupulous market vendor sold her something bad.

The taste did not improve. In fact, it began to grow worse.

Finally, Lily had enough. She got to the bottom and discovered the source of this culinary mishap.

Lily, who used everything in the kitchen and pantry until there was nothing left, could not bear to discard cooking grease. She saved it and made lye-based soap for household cleaning. She was proud of her pinkish soap cakes that were always at the kitchen sink. She claimed her soap would clean anything and occasionally gave it to friends who said they had trouble removing a stain.

It seems that over the summer she had stored her soap in the sauerkraut crocks. One small bar of soap stuck to the crock's bottom and remained there during the transition period to sauerkraut season.

Her family roared when she came clean with her discovery.

Lily's ever practical response to the bubbly kraut? Something like, "Well, it didn't kill you. Go on and finish your supper."

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