One of the problems of pioneer nutrition was the lack of raw, vitamin-rich foods although few “pioneers” had ever heard of vitamins. The almost universal hole-under-the-floor cellar could keep such roots as carrots, parsnips, beets, and rutabagas usable until spring. They would keep very well if properly buried in sand inside bins or boxes to prevent evaporation. Cabbage, too, could be keep until Christmas if heads were hung upside down in a root house cellar. But if properly prepared and cared for, fermented cabbage called sauerkraut or simply “kraut” would keep in an earthenware crock or wooden cask well into the next summer.
Many a pioneer family put down a barrel of sauerkraut every winter. Making kraut was a job for late fall after the weather turned cold enough to stop outdoor chores, but only if you intended to keep the cabin somewhat warm. Delaying until the cabin became frigid overnight was not a good idea because too-slow processing resulted in a poor taste. Also, a longer time meant that the place stank of the peculiar smell of fermenting coleslaw. Generally, people who didn’t like kraut were put off by the preliminary odour that greeted one at the door of any house where sauerkraut was “working” or cooking. However, many people who would not eat ordinary cabbage found kraut digestible. Apparently the sulphur or other irritant was given off in the escaping gas.
We have found a detailed recipe for the preparation of the delicacy. It makes the process sound ever so much more demanding than in fact it usually was.
A careful or finicky housewife shredded her cabbage into fine uniform shreds with a sharp kitchen knife — the thinner the slices she took off the head the finer the quality in her estimation. Under no condition could the cabbage be ground up. The average homesteader had a “slaw-cutter” or “kraut-cutter” with which the shredding was done with great speed. Any homesteader could make a shallow wooden trough with two pieces of planed 1″ x 6″ board, two wooden strips and inch and a half or so wide, and any old piece of metal that would take a cutting edge. This edge stuck up above the slotted bottom of the tray, slanted at an angle towards the holder of the cabbage. The cored cabbage head was slid swiftly over the cutter. The only art needed was a certain amount of judgment about when the head was sliced down just far enough so that the nubbin would keep the fingers of an enthusiastic slicer from getting into the cutter!
Most pioneers owned crocks of fired earthenware that could be purchased cheaply. However, quite common was a small wooden barrel. Also needed were an old fashioned wooden potato masher, a clean, bleached flour sack, a piece of cheesecloth, a wooden lid, and a scrubbed and scalded rock to use as a weight to keep the kraut submerged in the brine that formed as it was pounded into the fermentation container.
Comes the cutting-up day. The shreds are not left lying to dry out, but are packed immediately in the container, and pressed until juice begins to appear. In every community there were stories of immigrants who pressed large quantities in big casks by tramping with their bare feet. I’ve never seen that happen, but I did know people who declared that nothing pressed kraut for optimum flavor like a doubled-up first on a bare arm! The ordinary maker generally settled for a peeled sapling about four inches in diameter which was wielded up and down — not too vigorously — like a churn dasher.
When the container was nearly full and juice just covered the contents, the piece of cheesecloth or thin rolled oats bag was placed over top. Any scum would form above this, and could be lifted off easily. Then the lid and weight on top would be covered with the flour sack to keep out dust and foreign bacteria, and the whole thing would be left to ferment near the cook stove — but not too near. Before many days had passed, the mass of vegetable would begin to “work”. Bubbles would begin to rise and fill the house with the undeniably “bad” smell of kraut on the make. The housewife prayed fervently that the clergyman or non-sauerkraut eating neighbors didn’t call until the desired degree of acidity had developed for optimum flavor, when she could move the cask out of the kitchen into the cool cellar. The juice being fairly heavily salted, it could go into an outside shed for a long time without freezing.
Sauerkraut, well made by a clean housewife was an article for barter to those who didn’t want the bother of making it. Nobody can estimate how much scurvy was prevented by the little snack of uncooked “salad” snacked in passing out the contents of the kraut container. And to the initiated there is nothing of a winter’s day quite so satisfying as a dish of sauerkraut boiled with pig’s trotters or the meaty end of spare-ribs. Don’t boil the kraut too long — with some crispness remaining it is more palatable and retains more vitamins. This is a modern dissertation on the making of sauerkraut which is a food so ancient that it is reported to have been provided for the laborers building the Great Wall of China!