Grit Blogs > Musings From Maine

The Making of the Kraut

Mitch LittlefieldLife on the farm offers a plethora of experiences due the nature of the work and responsibilities. One must become adept at dealing with almost every possible situation that will, sooner or later, arise … and, as important, because of dictates due to financial constraints, a farm family must become as self-sustaining as possible. The farm family typically raises all of its meat … beef, pork, lamb, chicken (which also provides eggs), turkey and duck. The clever farmer also knows all the prime spots to hunt deer, partridge, rabbit and pheasant, as well as the best spots to catch trout, salmon, bass, white perch and alewives (a shad-like fish that spawn in coastal Maine streams and which are caught and then smoked). Also, we would often go salt-water fishing for mackerel, striped bass and blue fish, as well as dig for clams during the low tide. We not only raised and hunted this meat and fish, we also butchered, cut and wrapped all the meat for our freezers. Not much went to waste, I can tell you. We didn’t eat just steaks, although we ate steak … oh no ... there was liver, heart, tongue and tripe too.

Mmmmm … tripe. The lining of a cow's stomach … or perhaps you would prefer some Rocky Mountain oysters? Oh yes, we ate them too. Wanna come over for dinner?

If you do, you should be aware of the “golden rule” … you eat what is put on the table and be thankful for it. Settle down … it isn’t that bad.

Anyway, we would sometimes sell “half of a critter” at times to provide some income … which meant that when we butchered, we would also butcher enough to sell to a few regular customers.

Moving right along, the farmer also raises a huge garden … or more aptly put, several gardens.

There are the main vegetable gardens in which the typical veggies are raised … peas, lettuce, Swiss chard, peppers, beets/beet greens, carrots, squash (summer, butternut, buttercup, zucchini), tomato (several types for eating and canning/stewing), beans (bush beans, yellow eyes for baked beans, pole beans, lima), cucumbers, corn (three types … early maturity, later maturity, and a less starchy for freezing), potatoes (three types … red as they are early, russets for baking, and green mountains for wintering), parsnips, turnips, radishes, celery, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage (red and white), and horseradish (to make horseradish sauce … an eye-watering experience, but, oh, so good) and more I’m sure I’ve forgotten.

Then, there were the herbs, usually raised along the sill of the house as it provided protection and warmth … dill, tarragon, sage, chive, basil to name a few. There was a separate garden for the strawberries, a raspberry patch, and a rhubarb patch. We had apple orchards … the summer apples of Golden Delicious, Yellow Transparent, and Granny Smith, but also Wolf River and Mac for wintering. We had bee hives for the honey.

Pup, the uncles and Dad knew all the best spots to dig dandelion greens in the spring, as well as where the fiddleheads were plentiful. Pup would harvest mushrooms from the fields on the farm … white button mushrooms to be sautéed in butter, onions and garlic … oh my! They knew where to go to get the best wild blackberries. We also made our own maple syrup by tapping the rock Maples on our farm. We made our own butter, in an old-fashioned hand-cranked butter churn, from the milk we got from our milk cows.

The freezing, canning, stewing, pickling and preserving of all that our gardens and Mother Nature had to offer was a big job. Hundreds of jars of pickles of many varieties … bread and butter, sour, sweet, dill, corn relish, tomato relish, pickled beets, pickled green beans and pickled fiddleheads. Hundreds more jars of canned green beans, stewed tomatoes, canned fiddleheads and canned carrots. Bags of frozen sweet corn, Swiss chard, beet greens, rhubarb and peas. Barrels of apples for the winter in the cellar, bushel upon bushel of potatoes, mesh bags of onions, turnip, and squash. Bundles of yellow beans drying, ready to be thrashed for baking beans. Jars of honey, and maple syrup, jars of apple jelly, homemade strawberry, raspberry, and blackberry jams. Jars of horseradish sauce.

We always ate biscuits and bread hot and fresh from the oven. Apple pies, apple crisp, raspberry and blackberry pies, mincemeat pies, molasses cookies, oatmeal and raisin cookies were always available and always fresh out of the oven.

Enough to make a fella’s belly growl, ain't it?

Yes, we ate very well … but it was hours of work to accomplish all this. The women-folk worked feverishly doing all the freezing, canning, pickling and preserving in an attempt to keep up with all the produce us men-folk would haul in from the gardens and forages.

Plus, women did all the cooking and baking for a very large family who ate like they worked. There’s nothing like the smell of apple pie in the oven when you come in from the fields for supper.

The women in my family were all outstanding cooks and it didn’t matter to me whose table I sat at to eat, because I knew I was in for a treat. But, even these women, who were so adept at making hearty meals that would make you moan in appreciation when you ate, from time to time … would make a “boo-boo.”

Aunt Bev chuckles when she recalls the time she and Unc Mo sat down with Pup at Mamie’s table one cold winter night, for a supper of biscuits and corn chowder. Mamie served them and then as they ate, she, as was common, busied herself with cleaning. (Mamie rarely sat at the table and ate with her children unless it was a large family gathering) So, Aunty begins to spoon some of the chowder … it was rich and creamy, lotsa potato and onion … Hmmmm … no yellow corn kernels … strange … Unc Mo notices the same thing and asks Aunt Bev, “Is this fish chowder?”

Pup responded, “This here is poor man’s soup.”

Mamie overheard the exchange … looked puzzled for a moment, and then started laughing. She looked over on the cupboard and noticed a bowl full of corn she had taken out of the freezer to make the chowder … she had forgotten to put it in the pot!

Pup, being the gentleman, bailed Mamie out, “Best damn potato and onion soup I’ve ever had Mother.”

So anyway, we, as a family, spent a fair amount of time involving ourselves in all facets of our food to eat. My favorite of these responsibilities was, “the making of the Kraut.”

Every fall we would harvest hundreds of head of cabbage from our gardens, sometimes if we didn’t raise enough, we would buy more heads of cabbage from neighboring farmers who had more than they needed. We then would pile those heads on Unc Gene’s porch and on tarps laid out in front of the porch where the sun was the warmest. It was important to let the heads dry for a few days as it wouldn’t do to have any water in those heads.

basket full of cabbage 

Then, after the heads were properly dried, we would start cutting. It was a production line of sorts – I would grab a head and toss it to Unc Gene standing over a large cutting board, who would take his large butcher knife and chop the head in two and remove the stem. He would then drop the two halves into a bucket. Cousin Genie would take the bucket of cabbage head halves over to Pup who was standing over the cabbage shredder, which was set up on two carpenter “hosses.” The cabbage shredder was a flat board affair about 3 feet long and 1 1/2 feet wide. It has a series of blades in the middle with a rack that rode back and forth on the inside. Pup would put a few of the cabbage heads in the rack and start pushing it back and forth … the shredded cabbage would fall from the blades into a 5-gallon bucket sitting underneath.

We always did this on a warm sunny fall day, in Unc Gene’s yard, in front of his porch. People driving by would gawk at this scene and wonder what in heck we were doing … others, who KNEW what we were doing, honked their horns and waved.

Still, for the uninitiated, it must have presented quite the scene … some kid throwing cabbages at a guy with a butcher’s knife, who was whacking 'em up like a hibachi chef on steroids … another kid hauling a bushel basket of cut cabbage heads over to an older gentleman who was pushing this board back and forth lustily while shredded cabbage was flying through the air. In the front yard … of all places!

As far as I know, we were never reported to the police.

After this fun little exercise we would end up with all these 5-gallon buckets of shredded cabbage. Then, we would go down in Unc’s cellar and haul out two 30-gallon clay crocks and wash and rinse them out. We then set up operations inside of Unc’s woodshed.

This was the part where my stomach would start growling in anticipation, and I’d get “that look” from Unc.

“You know, nephew, it’s gonna be eight weeks or so before this is gonna be ready to eat.”

“I know, Unc … I know …. I can't wait.”

“Well, OK then … try to not drool in the cabbage.”

sauerkraut in a crockSo, Unc would take this “tamper,” which was a stick of firewood (maple) about 16 inches long and 6 inches in diameter. It had been drilled on one end to fit a 4-foot handle. Unc would mash down the shredded cabbage inside the crocks as Pup would add it … throw in a handful of cabbage, an occasional healthy pinch of sea salt and tamp. Repeat. After a while, both crocks would be filled with this condensed, pounded, shredded cabbage and sea salt. We would then, very carefully, lug the two crocks back down to the cellar and place them in the corner away from the wood furnace and cover them with 1/2-inch thick clay cover that sat inside the crock, then covered that with a towel.

It took about eight weeks for the kraut to “work,” basically pickle, and then we would have to test it, of course, to see if it needed more time.

The finished product was this incredible sauerkraut. It would be crisp, yet not fresh. It would have the perfect flavor … a nice tang, but not too sour. It was the perfect complement to many meals, baked beans especially, but it was fantastic on a ham sandwich too.

Over the course of the winter, the family would work on those two 30-gallon crocks stored in Unc Gene’s cellar, so it meant that he was getting visits from family members a lot. My dad would go over to Unc’s with my little brother to get two bowls of kraut at a time, one to have in the fridge to go with meals or sandwiches, and the other to eat on the way home in the car.

I still to this day eat a lot of kraut, but it is “store bought,” made at a farm in Washington, Maine. It is good … real good, but it doesn’t compare to the kraut we made.

I think ours was so much better because we made it ourselves.