SWEET TRADITIONS OF A SAUER KIND

Staffers share memories of a Pennsylvania New Year's ritual

JENNIFER GISH STAFF WRITER
Section: Food,  Page: E1

Date: Thursday, December 31, 2009

In the South, it is black-eyed peas. In much of Pennsylvania, the New Year doesn't begin without a steaming dish of pork and sauerkraut.


It's not fine dining. It's a sloppy, pale gray-green-yellow mess of cabbage and pork that's rooted in Pennsylvania Dutch tradition and served up on New Year's Day with the promise of guaranteeing good luck. Approaching the first of the year, supermarkets start advertising sauerkraut deals and the most traditional Pennsylvanians prepare to retrieve Ball jars from their cellars filled with sauerkraut prepared the previous fall.


Served up at firehouse dinners and churches and eaten by generations of superstitious folk, pork and sauerkraut is plain, old Pennsylvania Dutch comfort food at its best with brown sugar or applesauce (in some versions) serving as the only "fancy" ingredient. Salt and pepper is as spicy as it gets. But if you've never had sauerkraut juice pool in your mashed potatoes, you are sincerely missing out.


Why is it good luck? Well, there have been theories about cabbage and pigs being symbols of prosperity, but Tom Gerhart, a board member and assistant editor for the Pennsylvania German Society in Kutztown, Pa., like any good Pennsylvania Dutchmen, says that's just bologna.


Instead, he says, the Pennsylvania Dutch -- which includes the Amish, but they're only a small segment of the culture -- are both religious and superstitious. And from generation to generation, eating pork and sauerkraut on New Year's Day was just something you did, much like firing guns around midnight as a way to ward off evil spirits and those things you want to shed from the previous year and to ring in the next one.


Regardless of the reasons -- and whether your pork and sauerkraut brings you a year of good luck or an evening of indigestion -- it's still good eating.


So come here, once, as the Pennsylvania Dutch would say, and a few of the Times Union's Pennsylvanians will share their tributes to the dish.


Jennifer Gish can be reached at 454-5089 or jgish@timesunion.





BOX:


The best stuff came from a Ball jar, not a can.


It was made in late summer/early fall, from mountains of shredded cabbage piled high on my great-grandfather's kitchen table. It started in the rich brown soil of his garden, with carefully tended heads of cabbage harvested by an old, bow-legged gardener who kept his knife tucked blade-down in the earth so it was always ready for removing carrot tops or cutting away leaves from a perfectly matured head of cauliflower.


Heavily salted and "stomped" with a clean two-by-four from his wood shop, the sauerkraut would wait in his ground cellar for weeks in an unpleasant fermentation process that would keep most kids from ever choking down so much as a strand.


But not me. The more sour, the better. It would simmer on our stove all New Year's Day with a pork roast, beside a pot of boiling potatoes my mother would later mash and top with butter.


Eat it, and we'd have good luck for the year, she'd say. Skip it, and, well, who knows? We never took the chance.


By Jennifer Gish, a Times Union features writer, who was born and raised in Liverpool, Pa.





BOX:


More than 20 years ago, Pittsburgh was undergoing a transformation with the loss of the steel mills. On one long street on the South Side, vacant storefronts were being transformed into sports bars, yuppie bars and art galleries, but some of the working class taverns remained.


Home from college and with a handful of friends looking for a place to drink on New Year's Eve, we hit the South Side and found one bar after another with shiny neon lights to be too crowded for us to even get in. We kept walking down the street, where the lights got dimmer and one of us remembered that a little farther down the road was one of the last bars in the area that had a jukebox where you put in a quarter, picked up a phone and a woman -- where she existed nobody knew for sure -- asked you what you wanted to hear.


We headed for that bar, but it was so dark outside we didn't even know if was open.


We went in and the dozen or so gruff-looking men inside -- some still in workboots and coveralls as if they'd just left a construction site -- turned in our direction: a handful of skinny college kids. We ordered beer, found the jukebox phone and requested some songs. We drank at a table by ourselves. Then something strange happened.


A crowd came in -- men and women -- carrying large aluminum-foil trays that were covered. They put it all on a sidetable. Someone turned down the jukebox and turned up the TV, showing Times Square. We had the countdown. People shouted "Happy New Year." Then they turned in our direction, clinking beer bottles. And someone told us to dig in. The covers were taken off the trays to reveal sauerkraut and pork loin. We filled our plates, and the food was wonderful. We weren't even charged for it.


Later, after a few more drinks and the food was gone, Bob Seger came on. Together, all of us swayed to the music and sang along, "Against the wind I'm still runnin' against the wind/I'm older now but still/runnin' against the wind."


By Michael Janairo, Times Union arts & entertainment editor, who grew up in Mt. Lebanon, Pa.





BOX:


Ever since I could remember, my mother would cook pork and sauerkraut on New Year's Day. Sometimes, the sauerkraut would be cooked with a pork roast or pork chops in the oven. To make the meal complete, she would cook black-eyed peas, mashed potatoes and cornbread.


As a kid, I didn't really appreciate the taste and aroma until I was older and realized that, when smothered in hot sauce, the pork and sauerkraut tasted even better. My mother once told me that this meal would bring good luck for the new year, and for some reason this meal would only be served on the first of the new year. I'm not sure why, but that's just how it was. The only other time during the year we would maybe eat sauerkraut was on top of hot dogs. Now that I'm older and have moved away from home, I can really appreciate this hot and filling meal after a night of celebrating the new year.


Every year, I continue the tradition with my own meal and a bottle of hot sauce on the side.


By Tyswan Stewart, Times Union graphic artist, who is originally from Lancaster, Pa.





BOX:


Pork and Kraut (Speck Un Kraut)


Makes 8 servings


From "Pennsylvania Dutch Cooking," published by Dutchcraft Inc.


2 to 3 pounds fresh pork


1 quart sauerkraut


Water, enough to cover pork


Salt and pepper, to taste


Put pork in large stew pan and cover with cold water; cook slowly for 1 hour.


Add the sauerkraut, making sure there is enough liquid in pan to cover. Cook slowly for another hour. Season to taste. Serve with mashed or boiled potatoes.





TIP:


Inside


E4 Recipe, more memories.