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The Contrarian: Sauerkraut

Latest posts by Mel Fisher (see all)

Walter Fecho was an amazing collector of old stuff, what some of us would call antiques, and some would call junk, and we sort of inherited his old wooden cutting board for shredding vegetables. Exactly like but smaller than the one I remember from my youth.

Wood is naturally antiseptic, unlike modern plastic, that’s probably what allowed us to escape all kinds of infection in the days before refrigeration. These were used among other uses to shred cabbage to make sauerkraut.

I remember that as quite an event at our house, even a performance, as a ten-gallon stoneware crock would be filled with shredded cabbage and packed down. Some families would even put a bare foot kid in there to stomp it down! We had a loose-fitting wooden lid held down by an appropriately-sized stone, and the whole thing bubbled away under the reservoir end of the wood-burning kitchen stove.

Incidentally, a ‘crock’ was made of a rough sort of ceramic, usually glazed, sized from a small jug up to say 20 gallons when the empty crock would be almost too heavy to be useful. Larger quantities were kept in a ‘barrel’; in those days, usually 45 gallons capacity, made from oak staves (wooden sticks) bound together by iron bands to form a container.

All this reminds me of a story, first, some necessary background. Before WWII, a car’s front wheels were held to the car with vertical ‘kingpins’, with a brass bushing around them. These would wear, allowing the wheels to adopt let’s say an attitude, and old cars had a tendency to wander, in fact sometimes they were like steering a boat, with the road centerline a navigation aid. My 1940 Chev was a prime example, until my boiler-maker landlord offered to fix it.

He made some steel wedges which we installed between the front axle and the leaf spring, so that the kingpins would slant backward. Of course this did not repair the wear, but I was amazed at how much it helped the wandering.

Most of us have experienced our car going into a skid and fishtailing back and forth, and with loose steering perhaps even run off the road. Now think of say a model T, old with loose steering and those big diameter, wobbly wooden wheels and wimpy brakes, fishtailing, pretty safe bet you will end up in the rhubarb.

Before WW2 many farms had a modified old model T with most of the body cut away and not much behind the driver’s seat but a wooden box. Sort of an early version of a pickup truck, or a motorized version of the horse-drawn buggies common in years before.

Back to sauerkraut, in the days before electricity and freezers and refrigerators, most settlers, especially those of an eastern European background, made a crock or a barrel of sauerkraut as a vegetable which could be stored for winter. It would provide some variety from rutabaga and potato and canned stuff. It has lots of vitamins and minerals in it, and might have saved our good health. Part of why we are still here. Making sauerkraut was a major fall event.

A similar major spring event at our farm in my childhood years was my mother’s specialty, making rhubarb wine. Again, out came that stoneware crock, and into it went a whole lot of rhubarb, cut into small chunks, along with some oranges and lemons and perhaps ingredients not made known to the kids, and yeast of course, again with that wooden lid and a stone to hold it down. Again, bubbling and working away under the reservoir end of the cookstove for quite a while before being put into bottles for medicinal purposes.

Be patient, this will all tie together next week.

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