Is Sauerkraut Southern? The Cloudy History of Salt-Brining Vegetables in the South

by April McGreger

Around 2000, I attended a skillshare hosted by Chapel Hill punks. There fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz, pre-publication of Wild Fermentation, was sharing his knowledge to an eager group of DIYers. We made sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and the sourdough Ethiopian flatbread known as injera. I was already experimenting with fermentation, but I was, up until that point, rather uninspired by sauerkraut. The sauerkraut that I’d grown up with was the sad, out-of-a-can variety, usually cooked with cut-up hot dogs in a dish we called “Kraut & Weenies.” I became a homemade kraut convert that day thanks to the charms and enthusiasm of Mr. Katz.

That fall, I made a dish of ribs and sauerkraut for my parents and told them how I had started making my own sauerkraut. To my surprise, my father chuckled and told me that he could have taught me how to make sauerkraut. As a little boy in North Mississippi in the 40’s and 50’s my father chopped cabbage with the straightened out blade of a garden hoe to fill a big wooden barrel and layered it with salt. My great-grandmother cooked the kraut cooked with pork neckbones, backbones, or spareribs just as her parents had done and just as I was serving it now.

Until that day the tradition of vegetable fermentation or sour pickling had seemed “other”—outside of my own personal/familial/regional history. It was German, Korean, Japanese, Ethiopian, Jewish, or whatever, but not mine. I, like most people, assumed that in the South we eat and make sweet pickles, not the sour pickles and kraut of the North.

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Collard kraut with cornmeal dumplings. Photo by April McGreger.

Despite our sweet pickle obsession, however, there is a rich history of salt-brine pickling in the South, with some traditions unique to the region. In eastern North Carolina, families continue to put down annual barrels of collard kraut. This kraut is not served on top of hot dogs, but simmered with smoked pork and cornmeal dumplings. One could assume from the inclusion of a recipe for collard kraut in Easy to Preserve, a cookbook put out by the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service, that tradition of making and eating collard kraut is not limited to Eastern NC.

The vegetable fermentation traditions in the South are particularly strong in the Mountain South, where they are known to brine everything from snap beans and corn on (or off) the cob to apples and beets. What do we mean when we say fermentation? Fermentation transforms food through the growth of beneficial microorganisms. It’s the oldest form of food preservation in the world. Many of our favorite and most prized Southern foods are fermented – country ham, buttermilk, Tabasco, and bourbon, for instance. In sauerkraut and brined pickles, fermentation occurs when we submerge the vegetables in a salty brine. In that low-oxygen, saline environment, acid-producing bacteria proliferate and create a tart, vinegar-like brine that preserves the vegetables long term.

It is believed that the tradition of salt-brining vegetables was first brought to the South by Palinate and Moravian German settlers, who establish notable settlements across the South – in the Blue Ridge Mountains, around Winston-Salem and New Bern, NC. South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas all had significant German settlements.

NC food preservation
Photo courtesy of appalachianhistory.net. Original 1917 caption to photo reads: CONSERVING CABBAGE IN NORTH CAROLINA (More than 1,000 pounds of cabbage were put up by these women in three ways–kraut in light salt; kraut in heavy salt, and cabbage in brine, or pickled cabbage).

It is worth noting as well that the Eastern Cherokee, who have resided in Western North Carolina for many centuries, have eaten fermented corn soup since ancient times. Ganahena or connohanney, as it is called, is beaten hominy fermented in water and eaten hot or cold. According to University of North Carolina anthropologist Brett Riggs, few Cherokee eat ganahena today, but this ancient comfort food likely conditioned their palate to enjoy fermented and brine-pickled vegetables, which are still popular amongst the Eastern Cherokee today.

If we take a closer look, we’ll find barrel-fermenting in the history of our beloved sweet pickles as well. Modern sweet pickle recipes combine the vinegar and sugar into a one step sweet pickle brine, but our first sweet pickles began by first brining ( or fermenting) cucumbers, watermelon rind, green tomatoes, even peaches. After 2-6 weeks, when the pickles had sufficiently soured, they would be rinsed to remove excess salt and covered in syrup or in a sweet (generally spiced) vinegar.

Of the 25 or so recipes for pickles in Mrs. Lettice Bryan’s The Kentucky Housewife (1839), no less than 20 of them began with first bathing the vegetables (even fruit) in a salt brine strong enough to float an egg from anywhere for 2 days to 2 years! Many were then drained of the sour brine and layered in jars with sugar and spices.

One of the most popular modern recipes for sweet pickles today reflects this history. The recipe begins like this, “Buy a gallon jar of sour pickles.” These easy, sweet pickles were a constant in my grandmother’s refrigerator, where I lovingly referred to them as “pickle candy.”

In this context, the seemingly outrageous Kool-Aid Pickles are part of a rich and varied tradition. The magical and funky combination of candy and pickles has a loyal following of Southern grandmas and children alike. Grandmas use cinnamon red hots to spice bright red pickles common on Christmas tables. This tradition, however, appears to be driven by creative, hungry, African American children of the Mississippi Delta (or perhaps the Up South community of Chicago’s South Side). In the days when peppermint sticks and sour pickles were the few available junk foods, innovative children begin experimenting – stuffing the hollow middle of a sour dill pickle with a peppermint stick (and later Kool-Aid, Jolly Ranchers, Now-and-Laters, Blow Pops, and Red Hots). The pickle juices would melt the candy (or powdered drink mix) and create that sweet and sour zing that we Southerners continue to crave.

Pickle Candy

I love how this recipe combines modern New South convenience (for working women like my grandmother) with a nod to traditional, seasonal canning. My grandmother just kept a big jar of these on the bottom shelf of her refrigerator all the time. She never canned hers, but you can if you wish.

1 gallon of whole sour or kosher dill pickles (Use store bought, make your own, or even sub hamburger dills)

5 lbs sugar (I said “candy,” didn’t I? Feel free to reduce the sugar if you wish!)

4 cloves garlic, sliced

3 Tablespoons black peppercorns

1 Tablespoon whole cloves

Drain the juice from the pickles and slice them ¼”-inch thick. Layer the sliced pickles with the remaining ingredients in a crock or large bowl. Cover and let stand for a few days at at room temperature (or until the sugar melts). Pack back into the gallon pickle jar or other containers and refrigerate. Alternately, you can pack the pickles into pint jars and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes to can.

sweet_garlic_pickle_bowlsweet_garlic_pickle_jars

Photos: Ms. Shelby Ferris’s pickles. Courtesy of Marcie Cohen Ferris.

*Variations

  • Kool-Aid Pickles — omit spices and add two packages of any red or lime Kool-Aid
  • Red-Hot Cinnamon Pickles – Omit garlic. Melt 2 handfuls of red hots into ½ cup white vinegar and pour over the pickles.
  • Hot Pickle Candy – Add a couple of slit hot peppers, even habaneros, if you dare!

For Further Exploration in the World of Fermenting Pickles and Kraut:

Sandor Katz’s Sauerkraut Recipe

A very nice step-by-step tutorial for making sauerkraut in a mason jar on The Kitchn

Watch Vivian Howard make Collard Kraut on A Chef’s Life.

Georgia Cooperative Extension recipe via Clemson for Collard Kraut.

April McGreger first learned the art of preserving at the elbow of her mother and grandmother in a small Mississippi farming town. Among other pursuits, she spent years researching vernacular preserving traditions around the world and experimenting in her home kitchen before founding Farmer’s Daughter Pickles & Preserves in 2007.