Sauerkraut in the Hill Country
Listen to Julie's Podcast Episode
Sauerkraut is an important cultural food of the German descendants living in the Texas Hill Country. It inspires strong yearnings for days past, and many jokes due to its very odiferous nature. It was the perfect topic for my very first-ever podcast!
I chose the topic of sauerkraut after witnessing German descendants at my local museum, the Kuhlmann King House Museum, where I am the director, relating nostalgic stories of their relatives making sauerkraut and of eating sauerkraut. Sauerkraut was way more popular than I ever imagined that it would be!
My podcast focuses on how sauerkraut got to the Texas Hill Country, who is still making it today, and lastly, my personal journey in becoming a proficient sauerkraut maker. I interviewed Park ranger Hannah Kellogg at the Sauer Beckmann Living History Farm in Stonewall. Hannah tells the history of sauerkraut in the area, as well as gives a very insightful answer to why the strong feelings of nostalgia over sauerkraut for German descendants still living in the Hill Country. Next, I traveled 45 miles south of Stonewall to Boerne, and interviewed a mother and son, Marilyn and Charles Vogt, whose annual sauerkraut-making is still a family affair. Recipes are shared as well as tips for producing a successful batch of sauerkraut.
My personal journey as a sauerkraut maker started last year, when I dragged home the heavy 10-gallon sauerkraut crock from my museum, and first tried to make a batch of sauerkraut. Such a simple recipe, I thought, how hard could this be? It was much harder than I had anticipated. My sauerkraut was a disastrous batch which turned an ominous black and purple color. It smelled terrible. After three weeks, it was thrown out in the yard for the chickens, who ate it with gusto! The recipe is simple, just cabbage, salt and time, but I needed to learn more about the fermenting process before I was able to make a successful batch.
After interviewing Hannah Kellogg and Charles Vogt, I started my 2nd batch of sauerkraut. This time, it progressed as it was supposed to. I did not use the antique crock, which likely had hairline cracks or might have benefited by a bleach soak before using it. I cored, cut, and shredded the cabbage into a fluffy pile. The cabbage is then pounded with a stick to release juices. That took a surprising amount of effort. I bought a small one-gallon new crock and packed the cabbage tightly. The new crock came with clay weights to hold the cabbage below the brine. The year before, I had used an old metal iron, which got wet after a few days and corroded. That mistake helped give my first disastrous batch of sauerkraut its ominous color.
Fermentation was sped up, as it was July, and we were in the middle of a Texas triple-digit heat wave. My thermostat was set to 80 degrees. The perfect temperature for fermenting sauerkraut is under 70 degrees. Every inch of my house was permeated with the aroma of sauerkraut fermenting. The smell blasted me, no matter which door I used to enter my house. I kept the crock in my utility sink, located off my kitchen and close to my garage door. As the days went by, I nervously lifted the lid, dreading what I would find. This batch never grew scum or mold. It almost bubbled, it was working so hard at its job of fermentation. Sauerkraut usually takes around 21 days to complete its fermentation process, but this batch looked like sauerkraut by day 12.
My next hurdle was the taste test. I had never tasted sauerkraut. It would be difficult for me to judge it’s doneness. Luckily my daughter Molly enjoys sauerkraut. I drove to her house with a small plastic container of my sauerkraut. As she opened the lid, sitting in my car, the smell of sauerkraut quickly filled the car. My daughter Molly proclaimed it to be "pungent but good.” The sauerkraut smell stayed in my car for about a week. I found that living in the smell day after day, I became immune to the smell, until I left the house or car and came back inside. I began to wonder if I smelled like sauerkraut?
As a kid in Minnesota, my Mom kept a jar of sauerkraut in the refrigerator for my Dad. He loved sauerkraut on a hot dog. My Dad was always campaigning for me to try it by proclaiming that “it would put hair on my chest.” Virility was not important to me, and certainly not important enough to try that smelly food! My Dad continued his sauerkraut campaign with my children, giving them the same pitch, a bite for a hairy chest. It didn’t work on them at the time either.
Giving that I am a very picky eater, the idea of actually trying such a smelly food was hard for me to overcome. My kids convinced me that me trying sauerkraut for the first time needed to be a part of my podcast. In late July, at a family dinner with my two 30 something kids and their significant others, I tried sauerkraut. It was a surprise as it tasted so much milder than it smelled. It tasted like pickles. I am not much of a fan of pickles, so sauerkraut is never going to be on my list of foods that I enjoy. But I ate two bites. My Dad would be proud. It did not produce a hairy chest.
My goal was to make an interesting and entertaining podcast on sauerkraut making in the Hill Country. I appreciate all the people who helped me get there. First Jeannelle Ramirez at Texas Folklife, who took a chance on a senior citizen with few technology skills. Hannah Kellogg and Mark Itz at Sauer Beckmann Living History Farm, Marilyn and Charles Vogt, and my son-in-law Jaime for the great sauerkraut theme song that he wrote and recorded for me. My daughter Molly learned to can the sauerkraut, and canned all three batches of sauerkraut that I completed over the course of my sauerkraut adventure.
When I completed the application to be a storytelling fellow, I did not anticipate all the places this project would take me. I met some great and interesting people, who freely shared their time, memories, and stories with me. The monthly three hour class we attended was always interesting and informative. Teachers were college professors or professionals in the field of recording folklore. I learned a lot. My retired brain got a shocking wake-up call, when I had to learn new technology skills. I added brain cells! This was the hardest part for me of making a podcast. I worked myself into a frustrated lather several times trying to get the computer programs that I was expected to use, to perform correctly. Luckily, I was able to get extra help on several occasions and in the end, I completed a successful podcast. I would do it again if they would let me! (You can only participate in the program once).
I plan to continue using the recording skills that I acquired to record oral histories for the Kuhlmann King Museum about Boerne’s past. I would love to put together another podcast on the Hill Country dance halls, built by the German immigrants as a place to gather and socialize. Anhalt Dance Hall, near to me, was founded in 1879 by German families that founded the Germania Farmer’s Verein. The hall features beautiful hand curved beams and a wooden sprung floor. It is the only remaining club that I know of where women are not allowed to join. A sign proclaims that no pedal pushers can be worn or bad language can be used. It is a unique vestige remaining from days gone by. I have had the honor for the last two years to be one of the leaders of the Grand March during its annual Maifest and Oktoberfest polka dance. An old tradition where participants march through intricate patterns before ending in long rows faces the band. I have attended dances at Anhalt for 25 years, and it would be another great Hill Country story.
I hope that you enjoy my podcast and perhaps gain a new appreciation for sauerkraut!
Listen to Julie's Podcast Episode
About the Author
Julie Gossell spent her working years teaching elementary school in Boerne, TX. Now retired, Julie is the director of the Kuhlmann King Historical Complex in Boerne, leading tours, and bringing Boerne History box lessons into the schools. A life long dancer, Julie performs with Urban 15 in San Antonio, and two steps in the Hill Country dance halls on a Saturday night. An avid hiker and traveler, Julie just completed a 100 mile hike around Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula. She still doesn’t like sauerkraut.
About Texas Folklife's Community Folklife Fellowship
The Texas Folklife Community Folklife Fellowship program is a statewide, NEA-supported pilot program that provides training in oral history, interviewing, audio storytelling, archives, and podcast production for adults. Participants learn to document community traditions in their own cities and towns throughout the state, through workshops and community partnerships. The program supports applicants from diverse regions and communities of the state of Texas.
Learn More About Community Folklife Fellowship