The Folklorist Next-door: Sauerkraut in the Texas Hill Country
Sauerkraut in the Texas Hill Country was released Dec 16, 2022, as Episode 3 of Texas Folklife's Podcast Series The Folklorist Next-door.
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Sauerkraut in the Texas Hill Country
Julie Gossell: What if I told you that there was an incredibly nutritious and healthy food, and that if you ate it every day, it would strengthen your immune system, reduce your risk of certain diseases, including cancer, and even cause you to lose weight. Would you eat it? Many people find it delicious despite a gale force odor.
Are you curious to know what it is?
Today on stories from deep in the heart? The topic is sauerkraut.
I am Julie Gossell. I have been living in the Texas Hill country for the past four decades. This is an area settled in the mid-1800's by German immigrants who brought along their cultural food staple sauerkraut. We will explore how sauerkraut got here, how it is made, and why it is still an important cultural food in the Hill Country.
Recently I visited the Sour Beckman Living History Farm. This is a Texas State Park in Stonewall, right across the Pedernales river from the famed LBJ Ranch. Visitors to the park get to experience what daily pioneer life would've been like. Park interpretive workers wear pioneer clothing and operate the farm as the early German settlers did.
The day that I visited, the Rangers had set up the necessary equipment for making sauerkraut on a long table in the dog run or an outdoor open space in the middle of the house. The equipment included the wooden cabbage shredder, a large pottery bowl, a scale, and a five gallon crock.
I asked Hannah Kellogg surrounded by park volunteers and workers, when and how did sauerkraut arrive in the Hill Country?
[00:02:21] Hannah Kellogg: Sauerkraut was so important to German culture. And it's also not just German culture. It's most of Eastern Europe. Fermented foods go back even and earlier. The earliest records are from China, from thousands of years ago, where they were first putting some of their hardier vegetables in like a rice wine. And that was a way to preserve your vegetables. Cause food preservation is such a huge thing. We take it for granted now. You can buy canned food, you can put your food in the freezer, in the fridge, you expect it to last. If you're living off the land, you don't have a way to preserve your food, cabbage grows good in cool weather, which is great for Europe and it ferments very nicely.
So once you have enough salt, you have enough trade going in with Northern Africa and other places that you're getting salt from, then you can start to ferment your foods. And it's not just cabbage. You can ferment radishes and and other things that you can also put in there that are nice, hearty vegetables.
Sauerkraut, which is just fermented cabbage, does a great job on sea voyages. It becomes part of the culture of exploration, when Europeans start exploring the rest of the world. They're taking big old kegs of sauerkraut with them because it's so high in vitamin C. That helps prevent scurvy. Make some sauerkraut, and it can last you for months and months and months and months, as opposed to what fruit can do for you.
This helps save people on ocean voyages. It becomes spread around the world that way too. Germans who came to Texas in the 1840s would've been familiar with sauerkraut from home.
[00:03:35] Julie Gossell: I asked Hannah Kellogg to describe the process of making sauerkraut as it would've been made on the Sauer-Beckman farm back in the late 18 hundreds.
[00:03:45] Hannah Kellogg: We've got our very nice kraut cutter. You might call it a mandolin, where you can thinly shred your veggies. This one is all wooden. And our wonderful volunteer, Jack Oats, who's right here today, he is the one who rebuilt this forest. We had a historic one that was kind of falling apart. One of the first things he did this morning was he took some of our lye soap and rubbed soap along runners for the square that you run back and forth over blade.
That way it slides a lot better. Once you've got that soap on here, what we're gonna do is take these cabbages and we're going to core them, cut the core off. Then we're going to take this, put it in our little. Got a little hand protector over it and go back and forth and back and forth until we shred it very finely.
And then we're going to take what we've got. We're gonna weigh it and make sure we've got the right amount. We're gonna beat it with some salt. And you wanna make sure that you used canning or pickling salt. You wanna make sure it doesn't have any iodine or anything else into it. No anti caking agents, just pure salt.
And then we're going to beat it up, cause that liquid that's inside these cabbages to release. And then we're going to pack it into our nice crock over there, a nice big blue and white Marshall pottery. And then once you pack it in, then eventually you'll want to cover it with a plate to keep that cabbage submerged underneath the brine that you've created from the salt that's pulling out that water and the cabbage.
We have a very nice rock. We have special sauerkraut, rocks that we have kept and boiled to make sure they're clean. We put them over the plate that keeps the cabbage submerged with the brine, and then we cover it with the cheesecloth and let it ferment for at least three weeks. So that's what we're going to be doing this morning.
[00:05:22] Julie Gossell: The recipe is simple. Salt and cabbage and time. I wondered if anything ever went wrong. Hannah asked fellow park ranger Mark Itz to help with this answer.
[00:05:36] Hannah Kellogg: Have we had anything go wrong with our sauerkraut? I don't think so.
[00:05:39] Mark Itz: Not really. No. I mean, the only thing is you might have to add some extra brine and when you add that extra brine, that rest or what we do is one tablespoon to two cups of water and that's it. I mean, you'll get some mold and scum on the top and you just scoop it off and go with it. I mean, we've never had a problem in all the times we've made it here and I've been down here eight years, so, you know. Comes out good. We eat, we eat the heck out of it.
[00:06:05] Hannah Kellogg: You're gonna put it somewhere cool as long as it stays below, I think it's around 70 degrees. It's going to not grow anything nasty. It's gonna create lactic acid environment and you're gonna have good, healthy sauerkraut. If it gets too warm, then it's -the cans start to grow bacteria, you do not want to be consuming.
So that's why in this area, we tend to, you know, we do our cabbages early in the year. When it's good for the cabbages, we ferment the sauerkraut, and then for us, they would've had to eat it up before it got too hot. But later in the 1800s, beginning in the 1900s, when home canning becomes common, then they're able to can their sauerkraut and then they have it year round.
So that's what we do. We're showing you 1918 and by this time, you know, Mason and ball and all of those companies are around. So we ferment ours for about three weeks. We sometimes leave it in there for six, seven weeks, a lot longer.
[00:06:51] Mark Itz: it was a little long this year. And we just got really tired of the smell, also. We had, we had 250 pounds in the kitchen for a minute, at one time, so it took me about three months before I could even eat any sauerkraut after we canned it.
[00:07:05] Julie Gossell: My interest in sauerkraut is not just because I live in the Hill Country. I'm also the director of a small museum in Boerne, which is 45 miles south of the Sauer-Beckman Farm. It's called the Khulmann-King Museum. Last year I established a sauerkraut program that runs twice a year. I noticed that the German descendants living in the area seemed to be very nostalgic about sauerkraut. I asked Hannah about that nostalgia.
[00:07:35] Hannah Kellogg: So this is a German tradition. This is a German area, because it brings back memories of their childhood and memories of your family. If you think about your favorite traditions, maybe you didn't grow up making sauerkraut, but maybe you have really strong Christmas traditions or Thanksgiving traditions. You recreate those cuz it brings back that sense of home and belonging and working together with your family to accomplish a project.
But for many of these folks, it was part of your culture. To recreate that is to re create memories - culture and smells . Smell is one of our strongest triggers of memory. It's not taste, it's not necessarily sound, but a smell can trigger a memory more than anything else. We have folks that come all the time, step into our kitchen and they smell that wood burning stove.
And we've had folks start crying cause they said, I haven't smelled that since my grandma. And they, all of a sudden they feel like they're close to their grandma. Sauerkraut has a lot of smell, a whole lot of smell. So I imagine it's a very strong trigger of a lot of memories. Hopefully most of them positive of being with your family, working with your family to accomplish a project and keeping alive that culture that's been -that food culture. A lot of our culture is what we eat, and this is German, so it's been handed down for generations.
[00:08:42] Julie Gossell: Lastly, Hannah had advice for anyone wanting to try their hand at sauerkraut making.
[00:08:48] Hannah Kellogg: In the modern context. A lot of folks get very nervous about making it. We're not used to having our food sit out for weeks.
You know, we're so well trained, it needs to go in the fridge, it needs to go in the freezer. . So when folks say, oh man, I tried to make sauerkraut. And then, and then it got all scummy on top and it looked nasty, so I tossed it out and we said, no, no, no. That's just part of the fermentation process. Don't get scared if all of a sudden you, you lift up your cheesecloth, whatever you've got covering it, and you see some scum on top. You scrape it off, toss it out. You make sure that that cabbage is underneath the brine. If it's underneath the brine, you're just fine. There's lots of great probiotics in the sauerkraut. They're so good for our gut, and so when we can it today, which is what we have to do in 1918, cause we don't have a way to keep it cool. That canning, introducing heat, does kill the probiotics. It's still full of vitamin C. It's still great for you, but it doesn't have that -quite all the benefits that it has for your gut if you leave it fresh. And so in modern times, you can keep it in a court jar in your fridge for a very long time.
[00:09:44] Julie Gossell: From the Rangers at Sauer-Beckman Historic park, I learned a lot about the history of sauerkraut. I found myself wondering about current traditions of sauerkraut making in this region. Were there any families still making sauerkraut? I live just outside of Boerne. I got in touch with local residents, Marilyn and Charles Vogt, who I know through our local historical society.
You must be Charles. I'm Julie Gossell! Thanks for coming.
[00:10:19] Charles Vogt: No problem. Mom's on her way.
[00:10:21] Julie Gossell: We arranged to meet at the Kuhlmann-King Museum in Boerne, where Marilyn told me when her ancestors came to this area.
[00:10:30] Marilyn Vogt: They all had gotten here as early as 1845, but they all arrived here by 1859. Different groups came at different times.
That long history in the area does not mean that the Vogt family food traditions have been lost, but they nearly were. Charles told me that when his grown children asked him about making sauerkraut as well as other traditional German foods such as sausages, it started him on a quest to find the old family recipes.
[00:11:02] Charles Vogt: Our kids said, how do you make this? If, if we waited any longer, it would be nobody would know how to do it anymore. Once a month during the winter we got together to teach the kids how to do it, because we don't do it enough. We still do it. Some of the fam, well, we don't wanna give up our recipe. And I said, we're not selling it or anything, but if we do it, we want to spread the recipe out, you know, and let everybody have it, because a lot of these recipes have died with my grandmother. Dad had to go into the nursing home every day or like once a week for a month and get her to write down the recipe because she had Alzheimer's. And to make sure it all coincided every time.
[00:11:41] Julie Gossell: Charles and Marylyn told me that making sauerkraut involves multiple family members.
[00:11:46] Marilyn Vogt: It starts out with my husband planting it in a seed. He plants it in a big pot. To get the seed up. Yeah. When it's about three or four inches tall, he then takes it to the garden.
[00:11:58] Charles Vogt: First thing is go out in the garden and harvest it. If you don't have fresh cabbage, it's not near as good. We go out, cut the cabbage out, peel the outside, leaves off, and then start shredding it into a, a big tub or big pot. And it'll be just fluff. And so we'll do about 30 pounds at a time, generally. We have our salt measured out for that weight of the cabbage, and don't shred the core in there. The cabbage heads have a core, and it's gonna be hard. Start putting cabbage into the crock and sprinkling salt. Put cabbage, sprinkle salt, and then take your fist or something similar to a baseball bump and start smashing it down. And more cabbage, more salt and maybe let it set for a little while and then come back and smash it some more. And that salt will draw the juice out. And you don't want no air pockets in there. You want to have it all pressed tight. You get it all packed down in there. And you should have in a three to five gallon crock, I try to have about two, a good two inches of uh, liquid salt brine at that time.
And then you weighted that down to hold it down. And I'll take a gallon Ziploc bag. Put- make a brine in that. So if it leaks, it's not- it's gonna be salt water and weigh the plate down. With that, the old timers, I know there's some rocks around the wash house that they used every year. Put it in a cool location, depending on what time of year we make it. Different times of the year.
My preference is, is about 65 to 75 degrees. The more heat you have, the faster it's gonna ferment and maybe ferment too much. And the colder it is, the slower it's gonna ferment. My grandmother didn't put brown sugar in it. Alvin Sultenfuss put eight teaspoons to 24 pounds of cabbage.
You don't wanna put too much sugar because you're gonna make wine or or alcohol out of it, so, but that will help it ferment.
[00:14:00] Julie Gossell: The Theda Charles is referring to is Marilyn and Charles relative and beloved Kendall County resident Theda Sultenfuss. Theda demonstrated sauerkraut and mustang grape winemaking during San Antonio's annual Folklife Festival for close to 50 years.
Starting with her parents and then continuing on her own. Sadly, theta passed away a few years ago, but the Vogt family carries on the sauerkraut making tradition.
[00:14:36] Charles Vogt: It will never taste the same. Even if you use a recipe. The humidity, the temperature, it all turns out different. But a very seldom does it taste exactly the same.
You'll have better batches and batches that aren't as good. That has to do a lot with the temperature and the quality of your cabbage.
[00:14:53] Julie Gossell: My investigative reporting regarding sauerkraut made me very curious to try my own hand at the task of making it. I must confess that I did try once before a year ago, but it ended in a disastrous batch of black and purple hued, nostril pinching sauerkraut. That batch went to the chickens.
This time I am armed with more information. Which recipe to use? Hmm. Charles Vogt had shared one of his favorite sauerkraut recipes with me.
[00:15:32] Charles Vogt: Southwest Sauerkraut. This recipe here is 30 pounds of cabbage. Four jalapenos, one batch of cilantro, 46 of garlic, six bunches of green onion, 18 tablespoons of sea salt.
And four teaspoons of cumin. And we mix all that up and put it in the crop all at one time. Mark Itz from Sour Beckman also had a recipe that he got from a park visitor.
[00:16:06] Mark Itz: We had a , had a lady come in, tell him about her father growing, making sauerkraut. So he'd go down and, and he would, he'd stir it up and he'd pour some beer in there, and then he'd get him a leftover cigar. And he'd chew it up and he'd go into the sauerkraut . And they ate it. And they ate it.
[00:16:31] Julie Gossell: I think I'll go with the Southwest sauerkraut. I follow the process expertly described to me. I cut and core, I shred. I mix the cabbage with salt. The pounding takes a surprising amount of effort.
Lastly, I pack the very juicy cabbage into a crock. As the days go by, I lift the lid looking for mold or scum. It is July and we are in the middle of a Texas heat wave. The thermostat at my house is set to 80 degrees, which has sped up the process of fermentation. The distinct unpleasant aroma of sauerkraut has spread throughout my entire house.
By day 12, I suspect that the sauerkraut is ready, which forces me to confess to you that I have never tasted sauerkraut. Since I can't judge the quality of my batch, I ask my more food adventurous daughter, Molly, to taste it.
[00:17:42] Molly: It is really good.
[00:17:44] Julie Gossell: Is it ready? Do you think it's fermented enough?
[00:17:47] Molly: I think so.
Mm-hmm. . How's, how's the smell? Molly?
Do you wanna try it?
[00:17:59] Julie Gossell: No. I'll, I'll wait. The child in me thinks that I won't like sauerkraut. But the adult in me is willing to give it another try. At a recent family dinner, I finally tried sauerkraut. It was so much milder tasting than the smell. To me, it tasted like pickles. So here's to hair on our chest and to enjoying sauerkraut.
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This episode was hosted and produced by Julie Gossell, a 2022 Community Folklife Fellow.