Southerners eat black-eyed peas, Italians serve lentils, but in Northeast Ohio, the most popular way to ring in the new year is by smelling up the kitchen with a steaming pot of sauerkraut and pork.
There are plenty of reasons why sauerkraut and pork is considered the traditional New Year's dinner here. Most of them are tied to folklore or ethnic traditions — all of which claim that eating sauerkraut (or cabbage) and pork will bring good luck and prosperity in the new year.
A Pennsylvania Dutch tradition says that it's good luck to eat pork for the new year because pigs forage forward for their food and don't look back.
Immigrants from Germany and across Eastern Europe brought the sauerkraut and pork tradition to Northeast Ohio. The practice probably has more to do with harvest and slaughter times than predicting good fortune.
In years past, food in the larder for winter was the equivalent of prosperity. Having a hog to slaughter and pork to eat at New Year's meant a family would have food for the winter months.
Because cabbage is a late fall crop, the most efficient way to preserve it for the winter was by turning it into sauerkraut. Brining cabbage takes 6 to 8 weeks, which means that October kraut would be ready to eat just as the new year was arriving.
Helga Hippich, president of the Ladies Auxiliary of the German Family Society of Akron, said brining cabbage for sauerkraut was an annual event for most immigrants of German or Slavic backgrounds.
Hippich's parents, Josef and Theresia Guld, were from the former Yugoslavia, but their families settled in Austria and later Germany, where they lived for several years before the family moved to Akron in 1951. At that time, most of the meat eaten in Germany was pork, she said. ''Pork was their main type of meat. They raised their own hogs. . . . There was very little beef, there was some chicken,'' she said.
Hippich's parents carried on the food traditions of both their Croatian and German backgrounds, which included brining a crock of shredded cabbage each fall. ''They would salt it and make the brine and they would turn it every couple of days,'' she recalled.
Hippich, of Lake Township, a teacher for Akron Public Schools, said many families continue the tradition of eating sauerkraut and pork for New Year's, but not as many brine their own cabbage today.
Denny Gray, owner and operator of Al's Quality Market and Al's Corner Restaurant in Barberton, said for a time he made his own sauerkraut, but hasn't for several years.
''It was simple. You shred up the cabbage, salt it and let it sit. When it's ready, you scrape off the mold on top and start canning it,'' he said.
Gray said cabbage takes about six weeks to brine into proper sauerkraut.
''There's still a pretty decent amount of folks who make their own,'' he said, noting that gardeners who grow their own cabbage are more likely to make sauerkraut.
In Barberton, a city with a strong Eastern European heritage, Gray said his sales of pork roasts and pork sausages skyrocket for Christmas and New Year's.
''In an average month, we would do about 6,000 to 10,000 pounds of sausage. In December, we do about 30,000 pounds of sausage only. For pork itself, we sell about 10 times more than a standard summertime holiday,'' he said.
Gray said bone-in pork loin ends, center-cut bone-in roasts, and boneless center-cut loins are the most popular to serve with sauerkraut. However, he said darker, fattier cuts of pork, like pork shoulder or ribs, are best.
Because sauerkraut is typically cooked slowly for a long time — as long as 12 hours — trying to cook a lean pork roast with it will result in a very dry piece of meat by the time the sauerkraut is done.
Gray suggested slow-cooking the sauerkraut with a fattier cut of pork to give it flavor, and then roasting a pork loin separately, so that it can be taken out as soon as it is done.
''Most people think you need to cook pork four or five hours and that's not the case,'' Gray said.
When it comes to sausage, Gray said any variety will work well with sauerkraut.
''All sausage will stand up well to kraut. It's really a personal preference on flavor and whether you want it smoked or not smoked,'' he said.
Here are some sauerkraut recipes. They may not bring luck and prosperity to your new year, but they will bring a tasty meal to the table.
COUNTRY RIBS AND SAUERKRAUT
2-1/2 to 4 lbs. country-style pork ribs, each 1-1/2 inches thick
14 oz. sauerkraut, drained
2 cups unsweetened applesauce
2 tbsp. packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. caraway seeds
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Place ribs in a shallow roasting pan meaty side down. Roast 20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 250 degrees.
Turn ribs so they are now meaty side up. Combine remaining ingredients and arrange over ribs.
Cover and bake until meat is tender, about 1-1/2 to 2 hours.
Makes 4 servings.
Note: This recipe recommends Silver Floss or Krrrrisp Kraut brands.
KIELBASA & SAUERKRAUT
3 lbs. kielbasa
2 lbs. sauerkraut
2 apples, peeled, cored, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 tbsp. caraway seeds
1 cup white wine and/or apple juice
Drain sauerkraut, and place in slow cooker. Add apples and onion. Make a combination of wine and apple juice, add to cooker with caraway seeds. Cook on low 8 hours.
Boil water, add kielbasa, bring to boil again, turn off burner and let sit covered 10 minutes. Remove from water, let cool before slicing. Add to sauerkraut for last hour. Makes 6 servings.
Lisa A. Abraham can be reached at 330-996-3737 or email@example.com.