I don’t put food up. After a season of garden-born delights, our empty pantry is the main reason I was inspired to expand my definition of vegetarian cuisine. I have made central to my mantra the theory of ascending totalities; you are what you eat.
Many people tried to discourage me from cooking Canada goose. Too tough, too gamey was the most common assertion. “But they are monogamous!” was the other. The migratory goose is no doubt a marvel, a traveling wilderness, vast and beautiful. Goose in December is not as right as asparagus in May or tomatoes in August. It is the culinary portrait of the rich fields he grazed on.
I believe something magical takes place when the tastes of two things perfectly meet. Such is the case with goose and sauerkraut— and, furthermore, when these flavors are inescapably paired via the season, I believe the meal becomes fundamental, scientific and intentional; a delightful, if not cosmic, success that reassures the diners, in their wine-sopped state, that, modern as mankind is, we are not wholly lost or haphazard. This is what good eating does for the mind. I have never had to worry about my supply of goose or sauerkraut. It is part of my demographic that they should both materialize.
I have a friend who makes his own sauerkraut and he makes enough to share. My friend is well into his 80s and this summer he began to say things like, “I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be around. I better show you how to make it yourself this year.” He’s not looking for sympathy or dissuasion; this is a practical matter for him. He gave me the recipe for his dill pickles under the same auspices. Somebody is going to have to make them.
Toward the end of November, I get my first sauerkraut lesson. We mix two cups of salt with about a third of a cup of caraway seed. Then we decide to set up out on my porch because the weather is so fine: the warm sun, a light breeze, few roses still bloomed on the railing, rain has been forecast.
“There is nothing to it except elbow grease and salt,” my friend says. “You already grew the cabbage.” Making sauerkraut takes no electricity. The only energy expended is ours, and secondarily the work of free fermentation. I halve and core the cabbage as my friend sits and slices. He has special tools for the job: a rugged homemade stand (which he braces between a chair and the porch post) holds a board containing three metal blades. There is a wooden box that the cabbage is set in, and, as he slides the box back and forth, shearing the heads into thin but un-uniform ribbons of slaw, he explains that you don’t need these tools; they just make the work a little quicker.
After we’ve processed a few heads, he tells me to put some of the salt into the large pail. I begin sprinkling salt into the tub. He gestures for me to hand him the bowl of salt and he shovels a few liberal tablespoons into the bottom. I could have said it, but he said it first, “For luck.”
As familiar tasks go, making sauerkraut is somewhere between kneading bread and putting in a fencepost. From the way my lesson is divided between theory and technique, I can tell there are both truths to this art form and flourishes. We throw a few whole carrots in and he goads me to bury back some of the cabbage cores too. My friend does not tell me how to do it, but prefers to demonstrate, taking the salt from my hands, taking the masher and showing me the correct way to compress the cabbage using one’s weight: rocking, leaning, swaying to break that first layer of vegetable and salt into critical brine.
By the time the sun is setting I have 40 pounds of cabbage beginning the journey from perishable to non, in the warmest corner of my house. Every day for the next two weeks or so, I must take a wooden broomstick and push it down through the cabbage five times, taking care not to poke the same place twice. I remove the dinner plate that covers the vat; I witness the intensifying aroma that rises on a tangible cloud of moisture, pungent, sweet and slightly vinegar. And while my friend likes to say there is nothing to it, he knows—and now I know—there is.
Marilee Foster farms and writes from Sagaponack.