“Not everyone is fond of sauerkraut something I will never understand but then I have difficulty understanding why some people don’t like scrapple.”
Sauerkraut and other traditional Thanksgiving Day dishes
By Scott Armentrout
Thanksgiving is a time when we give thanks for the many blessings of living in this land. We don’t always take the time to reflect upon the sacrifices made by our forefathers and our contemporaries over the decades.
Thanks are due to our God, our ancestors, both immediate and distant, as well as to our many national heroes.
Having started this column out on a lofty note, I find myself thinking about cool fall weather and favorite Thanksgiving dishes. Thus, I shall now proceed to sink into the common swamp of Thanksgiving commentators. I suppose 90 percent of the ink and oral commentary devoted to Thanksgiving centers around recipes, meal planning, increasing calories, reducing calories, roasting the turkey, frying the turkey, jumping the dessert count from three choices to five, and on and on to the limits of gustatory endurance. This will be only slightly different.
Each of us has his or her own particular favorites: maybe sweet potatoes with marshmallows (only the large ones, not those little bits which disappear); oyster and cornbread dressing; chestnut dressing; regular dressing (cooked inside the turkey or outside? with raisins or without?); roasted squash soup; candied yams; gobs of devilled eggs; molded gelatin salad—no, this is Thanksgiving, not a funeral. You could add dozens of other dishes.
Roasted turkey is always a staple, though it’s a trick to cook it so the dark meat and the white meat match up with each other: the dark cooked through and through while the white stays moist. Maybe that’s why fried turkeys and burned down houses have become so popular. Several chickens would be much easier, I think.
While some members of our family would not agree, one of our more successful Thanksgiving dinners featured a crown roast of pork with a great prune stuffing—something the Pilgrims certainly did not eat, but so what. The fact that Pilgrims did not have pumpkins, sweet potatoes or apples has never stopped us from consuming those “non-authentics.”
Speaking of what Pilgrims did and did not eat, I’ve not read anywhere that they had lobster at the first Thanksgiving. That’s hard to believe. All they had to do was to walk out at low tide and pick them up, but that’s consistent with a non-hedonistic crowd whose range of taste probably went from A to B or B minus. After all, their descendants were feeding lobsters to prisoners 100 years later. But that’s another story.
I was addressing favorite Thanksgiving dishes. Mine is sauerkraut. Not everyone is fond of sauerkraut— something I will never understand—but then I also have difficulty understanding why some people don’t like scrapple.
Good kraut is tasty enough on its own straight out of the refrigerator, mixed with sausages or any other way you want to eat it. It is particularly wonderful as a contrasting taste with turkey, real country ham, sweet potatoes, fried oysters, and all the other dishes found at the Thanksgiving table. Regardless of how Thanksgiving kraut is seasoned, it is always improved by just messing around on the plate with all those other things that are themselves improved by the kraut. Maybe that’s why my grandmother always referred to it as a “mess of kraut”. Of course, my grandmother was always making a mess of something or another, green beans, chicken, greens, etc., and the messes were always superb. I used to think she founded the Mess Hall franchise located on military bases throughout the world.
Different regions of the country have certain special items that always appear on the table at this time of the year. New Englanders are partial to something called “Indian pudding,” a mixture of cornmeal and molasses that can come in two styles: delicious and inedible. I’ve had both, and the former is to be preferred.
Indian pudding, or something similar to it, is one dish which the Pilgrims were very likely to have prepared at the first Thanksgiving. Of course, New Englanders also eat baked beans for breakfast and will call a milkshake a “cabinet.” You won’t find sauerkraut at too many Thanksgiving homes there. They do fix wonderful things with the cranberry, which has a special tartness. I’ve not been in California for Thanksgiving and would not dare try to guess what might appear on Thanksgiving plates there.
There are almost always exceptions to broad generalizations. About 12 years ago, I learned that there are indeed people in New England who eat kraut and do so with great enthusiasm. They all live wonderfully active lives measured in centuries (just like those yogurt eaters we read about in Russia) in a little town called Waldoboro in the mid-coast area of Maine. This area was settled by Germans, and about 100 years ago one of the townspeople decided to make fresh kraut commercially. This was doubtless a great relief to many of the housewives who no longer had to oversee this delicate procedure. Some of the more squeamish residents also believed that by concentrating the production aromas in one spot, it also improved the aromatic qualities of each home as well. Succeeding owners continue to make the fresh kraut in the same fashion with no preservatives.
As soon as the weather cools down sufficiently so that fresh fermenting kraut is not likely to explode on the UPS truck, I call the folks in Waldoboro and start getting ready for Thanksgiving, Christmas and every other day of the coming fall and winter months. I will also ponder other puzzles of our gastronomic world. Why is corned beef and cabbage only served on March 17? Are ramp eaters* some sort of super or sub humans?
We should all savor our Thanksgiving with gratitude along with our favorite foods.
*Ramps, which grow in the mountains, are akin to wild onions. Very pungent, and folks who attend "ramp festivals" in the Spring (often at country churches or fire halls) reek of ramps for days and days. They are known as "ramp eaters" and are sort of a culture unto themselves. Not as bad as snake handlers.