Our sauerkraut in the South has a long lineage, as does every food our grandmothers and ancestors pass down.
Fundamentally, sauerkraut is any type of brined or fermented cabbage. Lacto-fermented sauerkraut is shredded cabbage that is salted, layered, and packed into jars or crocks to ferment. Historians trace brined cabbage to 700 – 200 B.C. in China. To feed laborers working on the Great Wall, they submerged cabbage in rice wine to sustain people through lean times.
In English, sauerkraut is a loanword from German, sauer – sour and kraut – vegetable, specifically cabbage in Southern Germany. Prior to the 1200s, there are no records of sauerkraut in Europe. Mongol people may have introduced it to Eastern Europe during conquests of Genghis and Batu Khan. The Scythian civilization, Central Asian nomads, could have introduced it prior, as they did the sour leavening of bread. Because many Slavic people did not use written languages prior to Christianization, it is unclear if the deep Eastern European culture of sauerkraut predates this time.
Its introduction in the American South is attributed to German settlers, iconic atop a steaming Bratwurst or Frankfurter. Scots-Irish ancestors may have brought their own fermentation traditions from Scotland and Northern Ireland, the Ulster region. We see this in old photos of European settlers, particularly in Appalachia but also in Middle Tennessee, the preservation of huge cabbage harvests in crocks to eat all winter.
To understand how fermentation is rooted in the Mountain South, we have to honor the Native American art of fermentation that flourishes on this land. The Eastern Cherokee and other Indigenous tribes have soured and pickled food for millenia. Sweet Cheeks, who lives on Cherokee tribal land in Western North Carolina, generously shared the following about how much Southern Appalachian cooking is based in Native ways, particularly Cherokee foods.
There is a hickory nut milk beverage called kanuchi, featured in this video about Edith Knight. Kanuchi, like coconut milk and cow milk, can also be soured. Southern kraut collard recipes use cornmeal as a base and in dumplings, thanks to Native people and their close relationship with corn. Other Cherokee techniques include the souring of blended berry drinks, the drying and frying of bean shells known as “leather britches,” and the fermentation of corn drinks and dishes such as grit bread and cornbread. Appalachian pickled vegetables are also of a Native influence.
Hominy is another example of Southern food with roots in Indigenous culture, the boiling of corn in water and wood ash to increase flavor and aid absorption of nutrients, what is called nixtamalization. Similarly, through a food preservation technique, the cabbage in sauerkraut is transformed. It becomes more digestible and the nutrients are more available for immediate use by the body.
According to Nick Polizzi, sauerkraut is high in Vitamin C, B, and K. It is a high source of fiber, it strengthens the immune system, and folk remedies use it for cold sores. Fermenting cabbage also encourages the production of a sulfuric compound found in cruciferous vegetables, plants of the cabbage family. The consumption of veggies with high levels of these isothiocynates have been associated with a lower risk for cancer.
When Sweet Cheeks’ aunt prepares a meal for us with her kanuchi and chow-chow that her mother taught her, a rich food culture is present. Any Southern ferment with tomatoes is possible due to the Native people who have tended tomatoes for millenia. The pickling of okra is an ode to the African people and Black Southerners who introduced the plant.
In this way, sauerkraut is a song of the European settlers, the survival of many different types of Southern people, and the journey of cabbage across Asia to the Mountain South.
Chow-chow isn’t the only pickle or ferment with more than cabbage in it. A coworker’s family from Southern Germany who settled in rural Eastern Maryland in the mid-1800s always included a green apple in their sauerkraut. Her grandmother has memories of her father in their spring house. He drank the brine as a beverage right out of a small crock of finished sauerkraut!
Like her family’s kraut, we make a Gold Zinger Kraut that has sweetness and effervescent tones. Gold Zinger features locally-sourced carrots, turmeric, and ginger that accompany the cabbage in the kraut. Our Caraway Kraut has the German staple flavor of organic caraway seeds.
The Tennessee Kraut that we make celebrates traditional and local flavor through unrefined sea salt and fresh green cabbage. We love to hear about your family’s ferments, especially those in Cannon County and throughout Middle Tennessee. Currently, we are experimenting with hot peppers to offer a new line of kraut.
We are excited for this potential product, a kraut which will join the long lineage of ferments we enjoy in the Mountain South.
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