BRIMFIELD TOWNSHIP: Jodi Ashcraft, a 28-year-old Kent city school teacher, doesn’t have a lick of German blood in her, but she was there in the kitchen of the German Family Society, alongside a group of women many years her senior, stuffing cabbage leaves full of spiced pork and rice.
In October, Ashcraft will marry her longtime boyfriend, Nicholas Bohnert, but she already has said “I do” to his family’s longstanding tradition of membership in the German Family Society of Akron.
After dating for 12 years, Ashcraft of Stow knew how much the society meant to Bohnert’s family, and she was happy to embrace its traditions, working alongside her fiance’s mother, Theresa Bohnert, and grandmother, Theresia Guld.
On this particular day in early June, the kitchen at the society’s center at Donau Park on Ranfield Road was filled with about 20 women who would spend the day turning 350 pounds of cabbage and 300 pounds of ground pork into more than 1,250 stuffed cabbage. They would be frozen to be served at the society’s Old European Days & Bierfest, which takes place Saturday and Sunday.
“I love it,” Ashcraft said, as she used an ice cream scoop to portion out meat for the cabbage rolls. She was encouraged to get involved by her fiance’s aunt, Helga Hippich of Lake Township, Theresa Bohnert’s sister.
“We’ve got three generations here today,” said Sandy Clark of Akron, a member of the association’s board of trustees, who helped to gather volunteers for the cooking.
This is one of the few kitchens in town where if you call the name Helga, more than one woman will turn her head. “We’ve got a whole bunch of Helgas here,” Hippich laughed.
Hippich, who is ladies group president and has been in charge of food at the society for the past 13 years, explained that the group uses all pork in its filling, not a mix of pork and beef that others may use. The filling is seasoned with onions, salt, pepper and garlic and lots of paprika before being rolled up into the cabbage leaves. Cayenne pepper gives the filling a little kick.
In preparation for the festival, the group also made schnitzel: taking slices of pork loin, pounding them flat, and seasoning with salt, pepper and garlic powder. The cutlets were then dredged in flour, dipped in beaten egg, and coated in bread crumbs before being deep fried in hot oil.
“They use very little beef in Germany,” Hippich noted.
Because wars and treaties made for fluid borders in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, society members claim their roots in countries like Slovenia and Croatia, as well as Germany.
Many were part of a group of Germans known as the Donauschwaben, originally from Swabia in southwestern Germany. They headed down the Danube to eastern areas of the empire, where they melded their culture with those countries that eventually would become Yugoslavia. Their name, Donauschwaben, means Swabians of the Danube.
After World War II, many headed to the U.S., and in 1955, local Donauschwaben founded the German Family Society in the basement of St. Bernard Catholic Church in downtown Akron.
The group has a lot of members like Guld, Hippich and Bohnert’s 85-year-old mother, who identifies herself as Croatian, but lived in Austria and Germany before emigrating to the U.S. in 1951.
But there are new families too, like Christina Dreher-Redesheim, 41, of Tallmadge, who met her husband when visiting Germany. After attending one of the society’s Oktoberfest celebrations, the couple decided to join so that her husband could maintain a connection to his homeland, have a place where he can speak German, and expose their children to the culture. The couple’s 5-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter both take part in the society’s youth dance groups, she said.
A high school history teacher, Dreher-Redesheim said she enjoys helping out in the kitchen during the summer because she doesn’t have the time during the school year. “It’s a great place to be; we’ve met so many wonderful people here,” she said.
While history, song and dance all play a role in keeping their ethnic traditions alive, area residents who attend the society’s public events — Old European Days in June and Oktoberfest in September — know that the ethnic food is one of the main reasons to go.
In addition to stuffed cabbage and schnitzel, the crew will prepare homemade sausage, sauerkraut, rotisserie chickens and potato salad.
Beverly Sensius, 74, of New Franklin, is in charge of potato salad production for both festivals. This weekend’s event is an easy one for Sensius; she’ll make only 1,000 pounds of potatoes. In September, that figure will double to a ton.
This is authentic German potato salad with sauteed onions, fried bacon, and an oil and vinegar dressing. Ask Sensius how much vinegar and how much oil to use to make it at home, and she just laughs.
“You just go this way and that way,” she said, demonstrating with her hands as if she is pouring oil and vinegar back and forth over cooked potatoes. “That’s how it was passed down to me,” she said, noting that she already has showed younger members the “go this way and that way” method.
Over the years, the group has gotten their recipes written down and even have them ready in a computer file to print out. The only problem is they are in quantities to make hundreds of servings. Breaking them down to a reasonable amount for making at home is a challenge, as Sensius notes when she tries to calculate how much oil and vinegar to use for the potato salad.
Sensius will begin boiling and peeling potatoes Friday morning, but her recipe (or a pretty close breakdown) is included below along with the society’s recipe for stuffed cabbage, which was adapted from one that would make about 500 rolls.
STUFFED CABBAGE (SARMA)
1 to 2 heads cabbage (see notes)
1½ cups water
2 eggs, slightly beaten
3¼ tbsp. paprika
2½ tbsp. salt
1 tbsp. pepper
¾ tsp. cayenne pepper (optional)
1½ tbsp. garlic powder
5 to 6 lbs. ground pork
2 cups diced yellow cooking onions
2 to 3 cups cooked rice (use converted rice)
For the sauce:
2 cups tomato sauce or juice
6 cups water
2 jars (32 oz.) or bags of sauerkraut, drained and rinsed
1 cup chopped yellow cooking onions
A few days before making, place heads of cabbage in freezer. When ready to make rolls, thaw and leaves will be soft and pliable to cut off the core. Alternatively, place cabbage in pot of boiling water and remove leaves as they soften. Drain leaves on paper towels before rolling.
Whisk together water, eggs, paprika, salt, pepper, cayenne and garlic powder.
In a large bowl using your hands, or in a stand mixer, combine meat and onions and mix for a minute or two to combine. Add water/spice slurry and continue mixing for 3 to 5 minutes more, mixing as you would for a meatloaf.
Add cooked rice and mix until evenly combined.
At this time, you can fry a small portion of the meat to test it for seasonings.
Portion about ½ cup of meat mixture for each cabbage leaf. Place meat on leaf near stem end, fold up bottom, fold in both sides and roll up remainder of leaf.
Mix tomato sauce or juice with 6 cups of water into a loose sauce.
In a bowl, combine sauerkraut, onions and a cup or two of the loose tomato sauce. Layer about half of this mixture into the bottom of a large roasting pan. Line up cabbage rolls in pan. Sprinkle tops with paprika. Spread remaining sauerkraut mixture on top.
When pan is full, pour remaining loose tomato sauce over cabbage rolls until it reaches about two-thirds of the way up the sides of the rolls. You may not need it all.
Cover roaster with foil and bake at 350 degrees for 1 to 2 hours, until meat is cooked through.
Makes about 30 to 35 cabbage rolls.
Notes: This recipe can be halved. Number of rolls may vary depending on size of cabbage heads and size of leaves.
— The cooks of the German Family Society (Helga Hippich)
GERMAN POTATO SALAD
5 lbs. russet potatoes
2 to 3 medium yellow cooking onions, chopped
½ lb. bacon (about 8 slices) cut into small pieces
1 cup canola oil, plus more for sauteing
1 cup white vinegar
1½ tbsp. salt
1 tbsp. pepper
1 tbsp. sugar
1 cup hot water
Boil potatoes with their skins on. When cool enough to handle, peel and cut into chunks.
While potatoes are boiling, saute onions in oil until soft and golden. Fry bacon until crisp. Drain both.
Combine the 1 cup oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, and sugar in a jar and shake well to combine.
In a large bowl, while potatoes are still warm, combine potatoes, onions, and bacon. Pour dressing over and mix well. If salad is too stiff, loosen with the hot water. You may not need it all, or you could need more, depending on the potatoes.
Makes 12 to 15 servings.
— The cooks of the German Family Society (Beverly Sensius)