Cincinnati’s Sacred Sour Condiment: Sauerkraut

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I’d hate to admit that our city has a sour disposition, but we do.    We’ve come such a long way in erasing our conservative rep. Maybe it has to do with our large Germanic ancestry, but Cincinnati eaters do love their sauerkraut.    In Greater Cincinnati, we’ve elevated it to a holy condiment, and its simmering smell is a good one to locals – one of nostalgia and festival frolicking. August begins the season of local Oktoberfests in Cincinnati – from Germania Park’s, Kolping’s, Donauschwaben’s, Mainstrasse, and finally the big Kaiser, Oktoberfest Zinzinnati.

 

In Germany, sauerkraut is a side salad, not a sausage topper, like we’ve made it on our dogs, brats, and metts. I’ll never make that mistake again of topping a currywurst in Germany with kraut.  I was nearly mobbed and thrown out of Hassburger in Wolfenbuttel, Germany, where I committed the offense.   And, Germans also don’t mix it with sausage and cream cheese, bread and deep fry it like we do with sauerkraut balls – that’s truly an American invention.     It actually fries out all the healthy benefits of sauerkraut. Legacy recipes from now closed Black Forest and Forest View Gardens restaurants rival as the best of the balls.

 

Our local love for sauerkraut is all in the numbers.   It is estimated that just at the German themed festivals our yearly consumption of sauerkraut balls in Greater Cincinnati is over 300,000.   Oktoberfest Cincinnati reports that we consume about 3600 pounds of sauerkraut alone at the three day festival.     If you take into account all the sauerkraut sold as sausage toppers at the two stadiums, concerts, church festivals, and backyard picnics, the amounts are staggering.

 

We even fused sauerkraut with our Cincinnati chili, when Gold Star Chili introduced their Oktoberfest Cheese Coney. This “Zinzinnati-style” Oktoberfest Cheese Coney featured a brat, spicy brown mustard, Gold Star Chili, cheese and optional sauerkraut.

 

Our neighbors to the north, Lebanon, Ohio, have put on a Sauerkraut festival for over 40 years.   There you can eat sauerkraut pizza, brownies, and other unique sauerkraut laden foods.     Many Cincinnati German families have recipes for sauerkraut cakes, cookies, and even German sauerkraut salad, with red peppers, celery, carraway and sausage bits.

 

And, when we cook sauerkraut, with pork, or in other hot dishes, we amp it up with additives like caraway and celery seed, sliced apples (like my mother does) and Juniper berries.

 

Probably the greatest misnomer is that sauerkraut was invented in the Germanic kingdoms.   That’s actually not true. There is a theory that the Tartars introduced the acid cabbage from China into Eastern Europe – think of Korean kimchee as its distant cousin – and from there kraut went to Germany, Alsace-Lorraine, and France, not necessarily in that order.   The Austrians love their sauerkraut strudel.

 

With today’s packaged, pasteurized sauerkrauts like Vlassic, Boar’s Head, and others, the true flavor layers and actually health benefits have been stripped from our ancestral dish.   In today’s hipster environment of ‘look-at-me-I’m-pickling’ foods, we’ve rediscovered the health benefits of unpasteurized probiotics and their flavors.   We now know that the lacto-fermentation of vegetables produces lactic acid, which prevents harmful bacteria growing, acts as a preservative, and gives us the characteristic sour flavor of our kraut. Many people are making their own sauerkraut again, rather than buying the bland, flavorless mass produced versions.   The probiotics and acid in the unpasteurized kraut help in digestion. Historically this was why it was served as an accompaniment with the fatty German sausages and foods.  It’s also a good source of vitamin C and B.   Because of this, and that it didn’t need refrigeration, Dutch sailors used it as a foodsource to avoid scurvy.

 

We still have some legacy sauerkraut brands made in Cincinnati that rank highly with the imported German brands. Third generation, family run, Kaiser Foods, founded by Harry Kaiser in 1920, on the West End, still makes sauerkraut and hand packages their pickles.   A. J. Linz has been making sauerkraut since 1919 and is supplied by some of the legacy butchers like Avril Meats on Court Street downtown.   For many years, the J.C. Steele Company operated their pickling and sauerkraut operation out of a German Lutheran Church in Northside, built in 1855.

 

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The ghost sign of an old Cincy sauerkraut company on the side of the old Bruckmann Brewery malthouse near the Ludlow Avenue Viaduct.

At the turn of the last century, if you were to step into a Findlay Market pickle stall, you’d see a lot more variety in sauerkraut.   Scanning advertisements from some of those Findlay market sauerkraut vendors, we see there were other varieties of kraut, including turnip kraut, ‘sour heads’, and red cabbage.   Theodore Kunkel opened his pickle and sauerkraut stand at Findlay Market when it opened in 1852. According to family lore, Theo had been caught hunting on the Kaiser’s land and deported.   His stand sold a kraut cornucopia of turnip kraut, sauerkraut, and pickled beets, beans, and onions.

 

Turnip kraut, called sauerruben in Germany, has a different flavor than sauerkraut.   It can be made with shredded turnips or rutabagas, or a combination of both.   It has a sweet- radish-like or mustardy bite that mellows over time. Many people like it better than the standard sauerkraut.

 

Sour heads are harder to find these days. Kaiser Foods used to make and package sour heads up into the late 1980s, but no longer make them.   They’re a pickled whole head of cabbage that originated from Eastern Europe, in particular, Bosnia.   The Bosnians use the whole pickled leaf in their stuffed cabbage, called sarma.

 

Red Cabbage, called rotkuhl, is even another variety.   It’s a sweet and sour version of sauerkraut, using red cabbage and is often seen accompanying sauerbraten or schnitzel and a side of spaetzli, the German macaroni.     It’s my favorite and why we don’t use red cabbage to make sauerkraut balls or as a topper on brats is a mystery to me.

 

I think it’s time I try my hand fermenting a batch of rotkuhl for my summer cookouts!!

 

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