My husband was born and raised right outside Boston, Massachusetts and grew up in New England. He had heard of pork and sauerkraut but was not all that familiar with the dish.
I made it my mission to introduce him to many of the traditional Coal Region foods of my heritage; obviously, pork and sauerkraut was on the menu for our first New Year’s Day together.
My husband’s birthday is December 31st; as a result, his special day sometimes gets overshadowed by the revelry of New Year’s Eve so I thought it would be nice for him to sleep in on New Year’s Day as a continued “birthday gift.”
Before retiring for the evening on the 31st, I assembled some pork and sauerkraut in the slow cooker, turned it on, set the timer, and went to bed.
Early New Year’s Day, still a bit groggy from staying up to usher in the new year, I became aware of my husband stirring in bed and gradually realized he was getting up. I remarked that I thought he would be happy to stay in and relax.
With despair in his voice he said, “I need to get up. Do you smell that? I think one of the dogs had an accident on the floor. I need to clean it up…”
The blissful smile on my face dissolved into a scowl. I turned to him and gave him the “death gaze.” With a chill in my voice as frosty as the sub-zero Pennsylvania weather we’d been experiencing I snarled — emphasizing every word — “That’s. Pork, And. Sauerkraut. You. Smell.”
He sat on the edge of the bed, dead silent for a few seconds. Then this little voice responded, “Ooooh.” And that was the end of that.
I’ll be the first to admit that the smell of cooking fermented cabbage and pork can be, shall we say, rather “pungent.” Okay, maybe “stinky” is the best description. But I will gladly deal with a stinky house any day if the reward is a steaming plate of pork and kraut!
Favored comfort food
Pork and sauerkraut is at the top of the “comfort food” list throughout the Coal Region. It is traditionally served on New Year’s Day “to ensure good luck in the coming year.”
The beloved dish has become so popular it is not unusual to find churches and fire companies serving it at fund-raising dinners — where it is usually a sell-out! It is not uncommon for some restaurants and diners here to have this as a regular item on their menu.
Never a New Year’s Day goes by in my Coalcracker Kitchen without having pork and sauerkraut. My husband has long since made peace with “the smell” and now loves the dish as much as I do.
A little history
The dish originated in Germany and was brought to Pennsylvania by settlers now known as the Pennsylvania Dutch (Pennsylvania “Deutsch” = “German“).
Winter butchering often took place in the months just before Christmas or New Year’s. Families gathered in celebration around a festive meal which usually included roasted fresh pork. Sauerkraut was often added to meals as a side dish and the brilliant combination was born!
Folklore and superstition
According to folklore, it is believed that pork was thought to bring good luck because “the pig roots forward.” This “rooting forward” by the pig with its snout symbolizes progress whereas chickens and turkeys “scratch backward” — which is not the direction you hope to go in the new year.
The Pennsylvania Dutch are known to tell children that if they eat sauerkraut on New Year’s Day they’re in for “a sweet year.”
It’s also claimed that long strands of sauerkraut represent a long life to be lived, and the green color that sauerkraut starts out as (cabbage) can symbolize money: “The more kraut, the more cash.”
However, if you ask people nowadays why they eat pork and sauerkraut on January 1st to usher in the new year and they will often tell you, “because it’s what you do,” just like shooting off firecrackers, ringing bells, or watching The Mummers’ Parade.