I suppose it is true that sauerkraut existed before Baltimore did. But I have a hard time swallowing that fact.
History books report that fermented cabbage, essentially sauerkraut, was a main source of nourishment for the crews that built the Great Wall of China in third century B.C. That predates, by a few hundred years, the establishment of Baltimore in 1729.
While other civilizations may have had it first, few can match the ardor with which Baltimore embraces sauerkraut. This appetite shows itself every November when kraut appears on the traditional Baltimore Thanksgiving table.
The fondness for fermented cabbage also struck me recently when I visited the Baltimore Museum of Art, one of the city's temples of culture. As soon as I walked through the museum's door, the pungent scent of sauerkraut washed over me.
I followed my nose to Gertrude's restaurant on the museum's first floor. There, basking in its off-gray glory, were pans of fresh, homemade sauerkraut. Mingling with the kraut were bratwursts and sausages, a few pork loins, several servings of stuffed cabbage and some sauerbraten. A queue of eager eaters moved through the serving line, loading up on the tasty fare.
The occasion was the third annual Kraut Fest, a celebration organized by John Shields, the restaurant's proprietor and chef, and Bonnie North, publisher of baltimore eats magazine and his business partner.
Shields, a native of Baltimore and author of several cookbooks dealing with regional foods, said several factors motivated him to honor kraut. The festival has been held in his restaurant for three consecutive years on the second weekend in January.
One factor was tradition, he said. His grandmother, Gertrude Cleary, made sauerkraut when Shields was a boy, fermenting it in a large ceramic pot that sat in the basement of her rowhouse in the neighborhood around St. Ann's Catholic Church at 22nd Street and Greenmount Avenue.
At one time in the city's history, every respectable Baltimore family, especially if it were German, had a pot of sauerkraut in the basement, Shields said. Another reason to celebrate homemade kraut is its taste, he said. The texture of homemade sauerkraut is superior to that of commercially prepared kraut, he said, as is the flavor.
"It has tangy, almost yeasty notes, like a good, dark beer," Shields said. "It is Baltimore's kimchi."
Finally, he said, making sauerkraut now is seasonally correct - almost.
"People used to say that you should make it with cabbage that has been through the first frost; then you could eat the kraut all winter," Shields said. Actually, he said, January is late to be making sauerkraut, but he was too busy during November and December to begin the process. "Now it is dark, the holidays are over; what else are you going to do?" he said.
While his grandmother made her kraut using 5-pound batches of cabbage fermenting in a stoneware crock, Shields and North made theirs using 300 pounds of shredded cabbage curing in large, sanitized plastic barrels.
The cabbage was shredded and sprinkled with salt. Some recipes call for 3 tablespoons of salt for every 5 pounds of cabbage, but Shields said he measured the kosher salt used in his recipe "by the handful."
The salt draws the water out of the cabbage, he said, and creates the brine that over time will cure the cabbage. Packing the cabbage tightly in the vessel requires strong muscles and heavy weights, he said. "If you have any big-boned relatives, call them up."
Sanitation is crucial, he said. Anything that touches the cabbage and brine as it is curing must be cleansed. The cabbage must be submerged in the liquid, not allowed to float to the top of the vessel. To keep the floaters under control, tight-fitting lids and more heavy weights are employed.
Periodically, the mixture is pressed down to force water out of the cabbage and create more brine. If you are a little short of brine, and tired of pressing, you can add a salted water solution (about a teaspoon of salt to a cup of water) to top things off, Shields said.
Once you have enough brine to cover the cabbage, the crock is placed in a corner, covered with a cloth and nature is allowed to take its course, sorta.
While it was curing, the kraut was checked every day. Bacteria that had bubbled to the top were skimmed off. This, Shields said, is known in Baltimore as "washing the kraut." If you don't remove this foam, it will ruin your kraut, he said.
It takes about three weeks to six weeks for the cabbage to fully ferment and become sauerkraut. This year, "thanks to global warming," the batch was ready in about three weeks, Shields said. Once it is cured, it goes in the fridge.
Finally, he said, there is one other factor to consider when making your own sauerkraut: your next-door neighbors. While some folks might liken the smell of fermenting cabbage to perfume, others find it repellent. For that reason, Shields cured this year's batch of sauerkraut in the basement of his colleague North's home in Woodberry, not in his BMA restaurant.
Even Shields' grandmother got into trouble years ago over the odor coming out of her basement. Her common-wall neighbors complained about the smell of the curing kraut. She kept making kraut, Shields reported, but moved the odorous operation a few doors down.
This year's batch of homemade sauerkraut, all 300 pounds of it, was devoured, Shields said. But he did save some of the brine. Drinking this sauerkraut "juice" will cure almost anything that ails you, Shields contended, even hangovers.
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