ICYMI – The “Essential” Baltimore Thanksgiving side dish

Before my family celebrated Thanksgiving Day yesterday, I learned something I never knew about a food we have always eaten for Thanksgiving – sauerkraut. Turns out, not everyone in America eats fermented cabbage with their turkey and stuffing! From the Baltimore Sun’s Jonathan Pitts:

“It’s sauerkraut, that tartly tantalizing fermented-cabbage dish that long ago took its oddball place alongside gravy and sweet potatoes as a staple of Baltimore Thanksgiving dinners.

Though the custom has shown itself elsewhere, notably Maryland’s Eastern Shore, foodies and food historians agree that the habit of consuming sauerkraut with the Thanksgiving bird is as essential to Charm City as painted screens and the pagoda in Patterson Park.

It’s also a point of pride — one on which locals have opinions as pungent as the vegetable dish itself.

“I’ve had it every year since I’ve been born, and we’ll be having at our house this year,” says Joseph “Turkey Joe” Trabert, 77, noted connoisseur of Baltimore kitsch and folklore.

The juxtaposition of Thanksgiving fowl — with its rich, almost buttery flavors — and strategically decomposed vegetable is not, to be sure, to everyone’s liking. Even locally, it’s not hard to find a diner or two who consider the combination less than appealing at best.

“I’ve never been a fan of kraut. I think it smells like feet,” said Tracey Hartman of Annapolis, a Severna Park native whose grandmothers — and mother — served the stuff with love every Thanksgiving. “I also think it ruins the delicious smell of turkey.”

Delectable or distasteful, sauerkraut and turkey have been a local tradition for at least 150 years. Sauerkraut itself, in one form or another, has been a staple of the human diet for much longer.”

OK, so not everyone likes the sauerkraut with their turkey dinner. But why was it even added to the Thanksgiving menu here in Baltimore?

“The answer, historians tell us, lies in demographics.

Baltimore was a leading gateway for German immigration during the 1800s, so much so that by 1863, the year President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, one in four of the city’s residents were transplanted Germans and spoke the tongue as their first language.

Most who ponder the subject say those immigrants were equally caught up in the traditions of their new country and interested in sprinkling them with the customs they brought with them.

One historian cites a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition that derives from the Eastern European custom of stuffing goose with fermented cabbage. William Woys Weaver, author of “Sauerkraut Yankees,” a book of Pennsylvania recipes and food lore, says traders from the York and Chambersburg areas brought it to Baltimore, a frequent stop.

“That tradition was written about as early as 1840,” he says.

Local lore has a slightly different twist.

“My wife and I think the immigrants from Germany and Poland settled in Highlandtown and the area around Broadway generations ago, and they celebrated Thanksgiving the way we did, but they also wanted to add a touch of home to their meals,” said Nickolas Antonas, who with his wife, Mary, owned and ran the Eastern House restaurant for 44 years.”

Have you ever eaten Thanksgiving dinner, sauerkraut or no, at the Lord Baltimore Hotel? Tell us about it! Email stories@lordbaltimorehotel.com

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One thought on “ICYMI – The “Essential” Baltimore Thanksgiving side dish

  1. I worked with someone who had never heard of sauerkraut on Thanksgiving. She was from PA. It accidently slipped out in a conversation we were having about the smells of Thanksgiving. I told her she had to try sweet potatoes, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes on one fork at dinner, that’s my favorite!
    You might know it started in Highlandtown, hon!

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