“I’ve spent most of my life in Germany, and I have never met so many people who eat sauerkraut as I have in Baltimore,” says Frohmut Fiand, the young German woman working behind the counter at Binkert’s Meats in Rosedale, as she rings up smoked sausages for my friend Joachim and me. We are at Binkert’s buying bauernwurst, debriziner and the smoked pork chops known as kasseler rippchen because we are, as Frohmut noted, making sauerkraut. It’s not Oktoberfest or New Year’s Day or even Thanksgiving, times when many Baltimoreans cook up the brined cabbage. Instead, we are making sauerkraut as a celebration of friendship, a commemoration of two people from different continents who love to cook for our families and for each other, but have never cooked together.
Joachim and I met at The Wine Source many years ago when I was an employee, and since then he has cooked roast lamb and white asparagus for my husband, Kevin, and me, and I’ve made tarte tatin, Indian food and crab cakes for him and his girlfriend (now wife) Tricia. We always talked about preparing a meal together, but before it could happen, Joachim, an astrophysicist, accepted a position at the University of Cologne and returned to his native Germany. Five years later, he and Tricia and their children came back to Baltimore for a five-month sabbatical. A week before they returned to Germany, we decided to mark the visit by making sauerkraut, a dish we both love, and invite friends and neighbors over to sample the results. So after the trip to Binkert’s on a rainy Saturday morning, Joachim and I get to work making two kinds of sauerkraut, a meat-based one (me) and a vegetarian version (him), in the kitchen of his rented Charles Village home.
Despite my Polish heritage and the ubiquity of sauerkraut at my extended family’s wedding celebrations and holiday tables (though never at Thanksgiving), it was a long time before I gave sauerkraut a chance. “I think it was the scent,” I say as I chop bacon into small pieces. The turning point for me, I explain, as I tip the bacon into the pot to render its fat, was when I was invited to dinner at a professor’s house as an undergraduate, and his wife made sauerkraut with pineapple in it. I took some just to be polite, but I ended up loving it, especially the way the sweet pineapple tempered the sourness of the kraut. Soon afterward, I made my first batch with apple and a little beer, and I’ve made it since, tweaking as I go.
Joachim, on the other hand, has been eating sauerkraut since he was a little boy in southwest Germany. While I add hastily chopped onions to a heavy pot on the stove, Joachim sits at the kitchen table, methodically mincing shallots and peeling apples with a paring knife, and tells me about the sauerkraut his family used to make each fall. The adults would shred the cabbage with an instrument similar to a mandolin slicer then layer the cabbage with salt in a large, earthenware barrel-shaped crock. “And then the children would walk the barrel,” he says.
“Walk the barrel?” I ask. “Like, move the barrel across the floor?”
“No,” he explains, “like with grapes and wine.” It seems the barrel is large enough to hold a small child, and when Joachim and his brother were small they would take turns standing in the barrel and tamping down cabbage with their feet, marching like soldiers. It made space for more cabbage— important when you wanted to fill the barrel to full capacity, so that when you took it out of the cellar after several months of fermenting, your efforts paid off.
By late afternoon, two pots of sauerkraut are bubbling on the stove, one rustic (mine), one elegant (his), each spiked with juniper berries and copious amounts of Riesling, Germany’s classic white wine.
I go home to get Kevin and a shower, and we return to Charles Village just after 6 to a house full of company and the hearty scent of sauerkraut. I wend my way through the crowded kitchen and pull the heavy grocery bag of meat from the refrigerator. “Binkert’s!” someone yells, giving a thumbs up, and under the gaze of a dozen hungry eyes I push the pork chops and sausages down under the sauerkraut. Twenty minutes later, we’re feasting.
“I love sauerkraut,” a curly-haired neighbor murmurs as he digs in, speaking for everyone, it turns out. An informal show of hands reveals that the Baltimoreans in the group— nearly half of us— are all fans and that most of us have it on Thanksgiving as well as throughout the year.
At the end of the evening, we raise glasses of bourbon and toast Joachim and Tricia, sauerkraut and sausage, Baltimore and Germany, old friends and new. The smell of sauerkraut lingers, filling the house with a warm fog. After all those years of hating the scent as a child, I now relish it.
(Binkert’s Meats, 8805 Philadelphia Road, Baltimore, 410-687-5959, binkerts.com)