My husband was born and raised right outside Boston, Massachusetts and grew up in New England. He had heard of pork and sauerkraut but was not all that familiar with the dish.
I made it my mission to introduce him to many of the traditional Coal Region foods of my heritage; obviously, pork and sauerkraut was on the menu for our first New Year’s Day together.
My husband’s birthday is December 31st; as a result, his special day sometimes gets overshadowed by the revelry of New Year’s Eve so I thought it would be nice for him to sleep in on New Year’s Day as a continued “birthday gift”.
Before retiring for the evening on the 31st, I assembled some pork and sauerkraut in the slow cooker, turned it on, set the timer, and went to bed.
Early New Year’s Day, still a bit groggy from staying up to usher in the new year, I became aware of my husband stirring in bed and gradually realized he was getting up. I remarked that I thought he would be happy to stay in and relax.
With despair in his voice he said, “I need to get up. Do you smell that? I think one of the dogs had an accident on the floor. I need to clean it up…”
The blissful smile on my face dissolved into a scowl. I turned to him and gave him the “death gaze”. With a chill in my voice as frosty as the sub-zero Pennsylvania weather we’d been experiencing I snarled — emphasizing every word — “That’s. Pork, And. Sauerkraut. You. Smell.”
He sat on the edge of the bed, dead silent for a few seconds. Then this little voice responded, “Ooooh.” And that was the end of that.
I’ll be the first to admit that the smell of cooking fermented cabbage and pork can be, shall we say, rather “pungent”. Okay, maybe “stinky” is the best description. But I will gladly deal with a stinky house any day if the reward is a steaming plate of pork and kraut!
Favored comfort food
Pork and sauerkraut is at the top of the “comfort food” list throughout the Coal Region. It is traditionally served on New Year’s Day “to ensure good luck in the coming year”.
The beloved dish has become so popular it is not unusual to find churches and fire companies serving it at fund-raising dinners — where it is usually a sell-out! It is not uncommon for some restaurants and diners here to have this as a regular item on their menu.
Never a New Year’s Day goes by in my Coalcracker Kitchen without having pork and sauerkraut. My husband has long since made peace with “the smell” and now loves the dish as much as I do.
A little history
The dish originated in Germany and was brought to Pennsylvania by settlers now known as the Pennsylvania Dutch (Pennsylvania “Deutsch” = “German“).
Winter butchering often took place in the months just before Christmas or New Year’s. Families gathered in celebration around a festive meal which usually included roasted fresh pork. Sauerkraut was often added to meals as a side dish and the brilliant combination was born!
Folklore and superstition
According to folklore, it is believed that pork was thought to bring good luck because “the pig roots forward.” This “rooting forward” by the pig with its snout symbolizes progress whereas chickens and turkeys “scratch backward” — which is not the direction you hope to go in the new year.
The Pennsylvania Dutch are known to tell children that if they eat sauerkraut on New Year’s Day they’re in for “a sweet year.”
It’s also claimed that long strands of sauerkraut represent a long life to be lived, and the green color that sauerkraut starts out as (cabbage) can symbolize money: “The more kraut, the more cash”.
However, if you ask people nowadays why they eat pork and sauerkraut on January 1st to usher in the new year and they will often tell you, “because it’s what you do”, just like shooting off firecrackers, ringing bells, or watching The Mummers’ Parade.
If Mom only knew
Over the years, my usual method of cooking pork and kraut was to bake it for several hours in the oven like my Mom did, but one New Year’s Day I had some at the home of a friend that had been cooked overnight in the slow cooker. I must say, I experienced a “hallelujah” moment. It was delicious, moist, and fall-apart tender. Mom would have loved it. Once I discovered the ease of the slow-cooker method I never looked back.
Until that discovery, pork and kraut was relegated to my winter-only menu rotation. I had no interest in cooking anything during warm weather months that required extended time in an oven because adding heat to an already over-heated kitchen is rarely my goal.
Using the slow cooker method now meant pork and kraut would be appearing on the supper table far more often that its previous singular annual appearance on New Year’s Day. For this Coalcracker, that was very good news.
This recipe can be made in a conventional oven should you desire. Bake at 350F degrees for 3 – 4 hours in a covered roast pan or until pork is very tender.
Set it and forget it
My recipe using the slow-cooker means you can start your meal in the morning or, as I prefer, the night before serving.
I simply assemble the ingredients in the slow cooker, turn it on before heading to bed and wake up to a pot of perfect pork and kraut. I only need to make some mashed potatoes and the meal is ready to enjoy with a minimum of effort.
The choice of pork is a matter of personal preference and your options are pretty flexible. I often use bone-in thick cut ribs or sirloin pork chops; sometimes boneless country-style spare ribs or a rib roast. I do prefer something not exceptionally lean because pork fat adds flavor and keeps the meat moist.
Some folks also toss in a few pieces of smoked kielbasa or even hot dogs to their pot of pork and sauerkraut. The bottom line is to use what you want to use; remember, cooking is only “good cooking” if you enjoy eating what you make!
This little piggy went to market
Since the days of many people raising a pig in their back yard have passed, grocery stores, butcher shops, and farmers’ markets are prime sources for good-quality pork for this traditional dish. Most grocery stores carry a variety of brands of sauerkraut in bags, jars, and cans on a regular basis. If you have access to homemade sauerkraut, definitely use it!
Pork and kraut is traditionally served with mashed potatoes and often accompanied by apple sauce.
My favored “Dutchie” way to enjoy this is to mix my pork, sauerkraut, and mashed potatoes all together on the plate — then squirt on some ketchup!
Slow-cooker Pennsylvania Dutch Pork and SauerkrautCourse: EntreeCuisine: Pa. Dutch, Coal RegionDifficulty: Easy
A traditional Pa. Dutch/Coal Region dish often enjoyed at holiday time and New Year’s Day dinner.
3 – 4 pounds pork, your choice of chops, roast, boneless or bone-in
2 pound bag of sauerkraut, undrained (I prefer the bagged, you can use the equivalent from cans or jars)
1 eating apple, peeled, cored, and cubed
1 medium onion, in wedges or large chunks
1 large rib celery, cut into 1/2″ slices
1 Tablespoon brown sugar
Black pepper to taste
OPTIONAL: 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
- In the crock, place half of the sauerkraut from the bag and the juice from the bag, half of the onion, half of the celery, and half of the apple.
- Place the pork on top of the layer. Sprinkle the pork with black pepper to taste. (You may add salt to taste, but remember there is natural saltiness in the sauerkraut).
- Place the remaining sauerkraut, onion, celery, and apple on top of the pork.
- Sprinkle with the brown sugar (and caraway seeds, if using)
- Fill the plastic bag the sauerkraut came in about 3/4 full with cold water and pour into the crock (about 2 cups or so)
- Place the lid on the crock, set on low for 8 hours. Once done, pork should be very tender and falling off the bone or breaking apart.
- Either shred or slice the pork and serve with the sauerkraut alongside mashed potatoes.
- To bake in the oven: 350F for 3 – 4 hours in a covered roast pan or until pork is very tender.