Making use of everything, with a side of sauerkraut

Mother, who like so many other fine cooks used everything from a pig outside of its squeal, served sauerkraut and potatoes with pork neck bones, ribs, pigs’ feet, pig ears and tails.

Turning cabbage into sauerkraut was a staple in Mychal Wilmes' family. (Pixabay photo)

The large Red Wing crock would soon be three-quarters full of freshly shredded cabbage and capped with a plate and weighted with a stone. The cabbage hearts that were left would be fed to the hogs, but not before we ate our fill of them.

Mother was an expert sauerkraut maker, dating back to her youth when the German population weathered criticism in World War I. During that time, sauerkraut became “victory cabbage.’’

The crock’s contents would be left to age. (The aroma, which those who thought sauerkraut wicked found sickening, filled the basement.) When it had sufficiently aged, Mother packed it in Mason and Ball jars and stored it on newspaper-lined shelves alongside jams, jellies, sweet and sour pickles, and stewed tomatoes.

Mother, who like so many other fine cooks used everything from a pig outside of its squeal, served sauerkraut and potatoes with pork neck bones, ribs, pigs’ feet, pig ears and tails. Sliced kidneys and brains were cooked in a cast iron pan and poured over mashed potatoes. The latter caused some to recoil, but the dish was fine-restaurant worthy.

She had learned to waste nothing in the Great Depression, when farmers and farms teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. During this time, Dad took a winter job in town shoveling coal off train cars. Decades later, he remembered it as the worst job he ever had and made worse by bitter cold.


We ate well in August. The Leghorn rooster chicks that Mother purchased in spring were full grown. The first birds were harvested for a Sunday fried chicken dinner feast and served with new potatoes. Mother, who refused to lop off the heads of the geese and ducks that she raised, had no trouble dispatching chickens. Tough old hens — doomed to make way for new layers — were canned and frozen for soup and hot dishes.

Sister Joanne, who earned extra money by dressing birds for others, was a master at it. She charged a quarter per bird, a fee that some customers complained about because they thought it too much. Joanne developed a taste for fried chicken feet, which she said was a delicacy but one that I — a consumer of pigs’ brains and beef tongues —found revolting.

The small garden that I raise has yielded a good crop of tomatoes, onions, peppers, eggplant and zucchini. The latter has yielded an overabundance. I have not found enough people who want it. My wife, Kathy, has tried her best to make use of it with zucchini bread, hot dishes, and the like. I have slathered it with olive oil and seasoning and grilled it, but one can only consume so much.

In memory of my parents, I grew four cabbages to make refrigerator sauerkraut. The heads were about two weeks from harvest when they disappeared from the garden.

Who was to blame?

It turned out to be Kathy, who said she had given it away to relatives so that they could make coleslaw.

“Well, at least could have kept one for us,’’ I said.

Kathy refuses to eat sauerkraut in any form, which was the motivation for giving it away. She has consistently refused to allow it to be cooked in our house.


My mother, who was innovative in its use, produced a fine and moist chocolate and sauerkraut cake. It is simple enough to make using a store-bought cake mix and two-thirds cup of sauerkraut along with its juices.

I doubt that Kathy would allow that. It’s possible that she might be more open to trying zucchini chocolate cake.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.

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