High Cuisine, Lowly Kraut

WHERE the Inn and the Ilz rivers enlarge the off-blue Danube, in eastern Bavaria, sits the ancient city of Passau, which I chanced to visit on cabbage day. No doubt other places, largely German, observe the same day, but it was Passau where I had my introduction to the sauerkraut event. Every farmer in miles around had brought his harvest of cabbages to market, and the piles obscured the ancient cathedral, spires in the sky. Wholesale and retail, the sale was on, and for the next few days everybody would be shredding the kraut. Here in Maine, next town to my Friendship, we have a kraut mill of repute, and I think of that day in Passau whenever I pass. A Morse family product, Morse's sauerkraut is as fine as the best in Passau, sold in stores and at the mill, and shipped to some of our better known German-American restaurants. People come for miles, and when Morse offers its new batch every fall we have our own sauerkraut festival so far from Passau.

Our family makes its own. I start the cabbages from seed and plan to grow 25 plants. Every other year, because one batch sees us through, Goodwife shreds and attends the fermentation, and then the kraut bides in Ball jars until we feel the need. To those who praise their roast beef rare with Yorkshire pudding, their pheasant under glass, their lobster thermidor, and such-like paragons of high cuisine, I say only that now and then you can't beat a wallop of kindly sauerkraut with real German potato salad (that's something like Echtedeutscherkartoffelsalat for gracious sakes!), pumpernickel, and a knockwurst gently encouraged with mustard. I like a drop of vinegar on my kraut, but can do without caraway seeds. Some say seeds and some don't, but good kraut doesn't need 'em.

All this at this time of year because my cabbages are ready and the shredding starts. Stand back, folks, and here we go!

Sheila Fowler, ticked off by our local kraut traditions, was telling a comical one the other day. She said her mother, some years back, elected to pass the winter in Florida, and after a few weeks there she wrote home to Maine to say she wasn't altogether taken with the place. The weather was kind, and she had a pleasant cottage, and she'd met some wonderful friends, but it wasn't home and she missed chickadees at the pantry window, and so forth and so on.

This bothered Sheila, because she didn't want her mother unhappy, so she bethought herself of something she might do to put things in Florida in a happier mood. She thought of sauerkraut. Sheila's mother dearly loved a feed of kraut. The Morse mill had just completed its fall run of cabbages, and the finished product was lingering in the great curing barrels, waiting to be broken out for the trade. A good feed of kraut would cheer up her mother!

Sheila accordingly made arrangements, which were somewhat complicated, and a gallon of Morse sauerkraut was made ready in a special container. It would go to Florida by United Parcel Service.

At that time UPS hadn't set up a local agency, and it wasn't easy to dispatch from here. We had an 800 telephone number we could call, and somebody answered in New Hampshire. The next day the friendly delivery boy would stop by. So Sheila called, and her gallon of sauerkraut started for Florida to make Mother happy. But it didn't arrive.

Since it was a chore to make the package ready, and an expense all around, Sheila was anxious, and there was also the consideration that dormant sauerkraut, no matter how carefully it is coddled, may not continue in a melodious condition o'erlong. So Sheila called the 800 number again to make inquiry.

United Parcel Service, proud of its reputation and eager to keep a customer pleased, promised every attention, and the next day a second gallon of Morse's sauerkraut left Maine for Florida.

It didn't arrive. By now Sheila was speaking in very short sentences. United Parcel Service was flustered but polite, and the third, and then the fourth gallon of Morse's finest kraut started for Florida. None arrived.

But Christmas did. On Christmas morning Sheila telephoned to her mother first thing, and cried, ``Merry Christmas!'' Her mother responded and then said, ``Guess what! Yesterday afternoon I got four gallons of Morse's sauerkraut!'' Then she said, ``What do I do?''

Sheila told me she wasn't ready for that one. She thought a second, and then she said, ``Get some knockwurst!''

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