Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - August 30, 2013

Cabbage with a connection

Like many women who are older and whose kids are now grown and gone from her home, Mom's desire to cook has waned. So she decided that having the "Meals on Wheels" folks deliver a nutritionally balanced meal to her door once a day sounded like a good answer. But although she has largely enjoyed having a hot meal without the fuss of having to prepare it, she has had one complaint ... the food, although well prepared, is often pretty bland.

Of course, it must be. Many older folks have dietary restrictions on sugar and salt or have systems that don't react well to foods that are spicy. Mom addresses this problem by doing a bit of doctoring. If I drop over to visit late in the morning, a bottle of ranch dressing setting out reminds me that she's prepared for the arrival of her noon meal.

But it isn't just older folks that are frequently presented with a dumbed-down range of tastes. Food preparation companies such as General Mills or Kraft Foods can maximize their profits by appealing to as many taste buds as possible. That often leads to toning down or even eliminating foods that once excited the palates of some of our immigrant forefathers, but also shocked those of others.

Mom is all Swedish and so lutfisk was a staple for her forefathers. But for my generation, the soft fish has come to be synonymous with something that no reasonable person would eat. Husband Art enjoys it, but that may well prove my point.

Foods, such as mincemeat, rhubarb, gooseberries and currants, were used by 19th-century American homemakers to add variety to their table, but have now largely vanished from it during the last half of the past century. Sometimes a more tasty food falls victim to another that has more eye appeal or tolerates shipping or storage better. Food markets discovered that a touch of yellow near the stem area of a tomato that was otherwise red caused some buyers to think the fruit was not ripe. Plant breeding experiments led to the modern tomato that is fully red when ripe, but at the price of much of the tomato's flavor.

But one relatively rare food still plays a major role in our home. With our German kids Tim and Nadja having only two more nights before they had to return to Berlin, Art headed home from work early Thursday afternoon to prepare one of his specialties. When I came home around 6:30 p.m. and opened the door, I knew it wouldn't be long before the feasting would begin.

It's really a simple meal. He places thin-cut pork loins over the bottom of an electric skillet. These are then covered with a layer of sauerkraut, including the juice from the can. To make a big batch, he just adds a second layer.

Then it is time for his two "secret" ingredients. A liberal amount of dark brown sugar is added until a balance is produced between the sweet and sour. He finishes with a thin drizzle of dark molasses over the top. With the skillet temperature set to about 220, he then covers it and lets it cook for at least two hours. When it's done, the sauerkraut has turned from yellow to brown and the pork falls apart at the touch of a fork. Paired with mashed potatoes and some bread, the meal is complete.

Art's mother was all German, so it is not surprising he was introduced to sauerkraut early. And since his home state of Wisconsin had more German settlers than any other, sauerkraut was a common dish. Today, the largest sauerkraut plant in the world is located just 30 miles from Art's hometown. It produces more than all of the plants in Germany combined.

While the taste is unlike any other food I can think of, it is actually very easy to produce. Shredded cabbage is combined with a small amount of salt and the mixture is allowed to ferment in a container that excludes air, such as a jar with a lid not too tightly closed. A week later and it is done.

It would be reasonable to assume Art's recipe was handed down from his German grandparents, but it had a different source. In the early '40s, Art's Aunt Ione worked in the cosmetics area of a Green Bay, Wis. drugstore. Bernice Tinsley was a coworker in the store. She and her husband, Green Bay Packers guard Pete Tinsley, would sometimes invite Ione over for supper. It was at their table that Ione, who was also a good cook, encountered the sweetened sauerkraut meal.

When our meal was over, Tim shared that he hated sauerkraut when he was young. It seems his mother made it in some way he didn't care for and that "soured" him on it. But years later, girlfriend Nadja cajoled him into trying some her mother made and he has been hooked ever since.

Younger daughter Katie leaned back in her chair, complaining she was so full she couldn't move. Daughter-in-law Lacey declared that it was one of Art's best efforts. After we all waddled from the table, I packed some of the leftovers into a plastic container for Lacey to take to older daughter Mariya.

As for me, I ate so much I still felt stuffed when I went to bed. More than 70 years has passed since that recipe came to Art's family and that kraut connection is still delighting the family taste buds.

Left: Art made his sauerkraut meal in Germany this past June. From the left, Nadja's mother Sylvia, Nadja, Art, Tim and Mariya; right: When in the Regensburg, Germany area, we stop for wurst with sauerkraut at what is called the oldest wurst kitchen in Germany. It was built 900 years ago to feed the workers who built the nearby bridge over the Danube River. Only Mariya paused long enough for the picture to be taken while Katie, far left and Lacey, next to Katie, and Art keep eating.

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