Polish Luck

I absolutely hate sauerkraut. People living in the greater Pittsburgh area would automatically feel the full force of such a bold claim, but for my non-Pennsylvania readers, one question often arises that is essential to address before we move forward, and that is: what the heck is sauerkraut? Sauerkraut directly translated means “sour cabbage” and never was a thing more aptly named. In appearance, it is basically your standard translucent, whitish-yellow cabbage that has been shredded beyond recognition, boiled in a cauldron of water, seasoned according to the cook’s taste, and given time to ferment. I’ve been given to understand that traditional preparation of the meal is more elaborate but it is currently veiled in mystery for me, as I’ve only ever seen it done using modern amenities. However, in my own opinions that admittedly linger from childhood, the most distinctive thing about sauerkraut is the smell. It is absolutely impossible to cook sauerkraut properly without the entire house knowing about it. The scent permeates from room to room and, despite repeated exposure, is almost impossible for me to describe because all I can think to say is that it smells like sauerkraut. I know nothing comparable to it beyond the thing itself. Suffice it to say my younger siblings and I used to walk around with our noses plugged when my mother’s sauerkraut was cooking.

Despite our mild protestations at being forced to smell (and then later eat) this less than enticing dish, to my mother it was a labor of love. To her it was a part of our heritage, an important link to those that had come before us. It was a constant reminder to her, and subsequently to us, that our comfortable suburban life was not merely chance but a result of serious sacrifices that had been made on our behalf and were not to be taken lightly. I still remember my mother working most of the afternoon to prepare this food, with the steam rising around her, referring to a notepad with an old, hand-written quasi-outline of how to prepare the meal. The details of that outline can only be filled in by watching the meal be prepared by someone who already knows how, and somehow I sense that’s the only way it works. When we finally gathered around the dining table she would sit opposite my father with the grace of a queen in front of her feast. My father would then turn to my mother and praise her cooking as he would serve it up. My younger brother and I were often less enthusiastic than dad, thinking our youngest sister was lucky because she was still in the baby food. However my mother never raised her voice at us, didn’t even force us to eat it. She would only smile and say “it’s tradition.” She’s a saint.

My mother’s particular heritage is an Eastern European blend that is heavily Polish and Russian. Her family was one of the many to come through Ellis Island and land in the Pennsylvania coal mines to a life that was full of difficulties and often cut short. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the ways my mother’s side of the family kept their culture alive was through their cuisine. Despite the fact that sauerkraut is predominantly associated with German culture, it plays an important role in most central/eastern European tradition. For example, all people with an ounce of Polish heritage are required to eat sauerkraut on just about everything (excepting dessert, thankfully) on the first day of the New Year to bring good luck. I have no idea how this tradition started or even if it works, but most every year my mother makes the standard pork tenderloin with sauerkraut and a side of pierogies. A pierogi is another Polish food that is basically a dumpling filled with some combination of cheese and/or potatoes. It’s a much better introduction to Polish cuisine than sauerkraut because it smells and tastes exactly as delicious as it sounds.

However, to avoid giving the wrong impression I must add that the staples of this meal are certainly not exclusive to the New Year. I have been to many a wedding, Communion, birthday party, graduation, and Steelers football game viewing (that tradition is a separate story) where these foods have been present. For my mother’s side of the family food is largely social and is meant to be shared, which is ultimately unavoidable since my mother is the youngest of eight. I can’t remember having any meal with my mother’s side of the family, sauerkraut or otherwise, that wasn’t full of laughter and animated gossip. It’s almost like a play, with the entire family speaking from a script that never seems to lose its genuine feeling. Whenever we arrive we all greet each other like we haven’t seen each other in 20 years, my parents talk about the drive while my aunts crowd around my siblings and I to remark on how much we’ve grown, tell us we are too skinny, and proceed to usher us into the kitchen and make us a plate of whatever is in the poor host’s kitchen. We are then offered more food continuously until I, on behalf of my three younger siblings, say that if we attempted to eat any more food of any kind we would simply explode. It’s a slight exaggeration, but nothing less will satisfy the consistent, but well meaning, quandary. I’m then asked if I have a boyfriend, and the respective family gossip commences.

I’m aware that much of what I’ve described is blue collar, and largely unrefined, but I love it simply because it would be hard to respond to the love that was passed down through our meals together with anything less than reciprocity. Despite my distaste for sauerkraut, I know that many years from now that come the New Year I will be standing over a steaming cauldron with a hand-written quasi outline of the recipe cooking some up for my family to bring them good luck. After all, it’s tradition.

Wishing you and yours a very Happy New Year!