Boston has its baked beans. Buffalo is famous for chicken wings. And Providence, Utah, has sauerkraut.
The Cache Valley city's annual Sauerkraut dinner has taken place for nearly 100 years, as a nod to the German and Swiss immigrants who founded the town. (This year's is on Friday.)
"This used to be called Little Germany before they called it Providence," said Ivan Christensen, a longtime resident. "The sauerkraut dinner was a big deal every year."
Christensen's mother, Rachel Scheiss, helped with the annual krautmaking for many years. He has continued the tradition, using the same slicer, large stoneware crock and stomping tools that were handed down through several generations of his family. Then his wife, Deonne Christensen, cans or freezes it.
Sauerkraut, a food product prepared from shredded cabbage and salt, gets its name from two German words "sauer" (acid) and "kraut" (cabbage).
Historically, it was part of sailors' diets to help prevent attacks of scurvy, because of the cabbage's vitamin C content. It also helped pioneer families get through long winters when fresh vegetables were hard to come by.
The Providence dinner first began as a church fund-raiser for the local LDS ward, during a time when many wards hosted "bazaars" selling food, quilts and crafts. The ward multiplied several times as the population grew, but the sauerkraut dinner survived, with 15-20 wooden barrels of cabbage being cured in salted water for six weeks or more, and then home-canned and sold at the event.
"It was a big deal, we would sell out every year; people from Logan and Hyrum and all over would come," Christensen said.
When fund-raising bazaars were discontinued, Providence city took over the annual dinner and sauerkraut-making, with the barrels of sauerkraut stored in city sheds while they cured. Then two years ago, the Utah State Department of Agriculture told the group they couldn't sell the sauerkraut to the public.
"This was a complex problem, and it was handled by my predecessor, " said Doug Pehrson of the agriculture department's regulatory services division, when asked about the issue.
"I don't have all the details, but with any commercial food, the facilities have to meet food-sanitation standards and guidelines for food production. In this case, their facility was unable to do that. The safety of the food processes needs to be considered, too. The food processes weren't validated as we typically would for a high-acid food."
So this year, the dinner is being catered by a Logan company, Culinary Solutions, and the sauerkraut will be commercially made.
"They said we need to do it in a commercial kitchen under sterile conditions," said Providence Mayor Randy Simmons, who acknowledged that the krautmaking methods back in the "olden days" probably wouldn't meet those conditions. He remembers a time when the barrels were stored in an old barn, and every year were soaked in a canal that ran through the fields and cow pastures before they were filled with the salted cabbage.
"That maybe added some flavor," he said. "But, we don't soak barrels in the ditch anymore."
As a teenager, "One of my memories is seeing these really old Germans out there with their canes checking the sauerkraut," said Simmons. "And everyone at the dinner would hold their breath while Anna Bankhead would taste it and announce whether it was good or not. She died a few years ago. I don't know what she would think about this commercial kraut."
But here's what Ivan Christensen thinks of it "I think the stuff you buy tastes totally different. I'd like to see them go back to making their own sauerkraut."
Although they can't sell it at the dinner, Christensen and others in the community still do their homemade version for their families and friends, and they hope to pass this ethnic-food heritage along to future generations.
"The tradition ought to stay part of the younger generation," said Christensen, who retired as a teacher, coach and athletic director of Mountain Crest High School. "But, kids marry and start their own traditions, and you can't blame them for that. I had seven daughters, and they really don't have much desire to make it; some of them don't even like it."
On a sunny day a few weeks ago, Christensen prepared a batch while his grandson, Wade Campbell, watched.
"I'm here strictly as an observer," Campbell said, adding that some family members didn't inherit a palate for sauerkraut. "But some of us start out hating it and then decide we like it."
Christensen says people will enjoy sauerkraut more if they warm it up with a little butter and bacon bits. "The butter gives it a shiny appearance, and it tastes better."
What else can do you do with sauerkraut besides hot dogs and Reuben sandwiches?
Chocolate Sauerkraut Cake was a popular April Fools' Day recipe in the 1960s, according to "America's Best Lost Recipes" (America's Test Kitchen, $29.95). But it makes sense, since vinegar was often added to early chocolate cakes to make them moist and tender. Sauerkraut has the same tenderizing effect, plus it adds a coconut-like texture.
What: Providence City Annual Sauerkraut Dinner
Where: Spring Creek Middle School, 350 W. 100 North
When: 5:30 p.m.
How much: $9.50 at the door for turkey dinner; $5 for hot dog dinner
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
3 large eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups sauerkraut, rinsed and drained
Frosting and Filling:
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips, melted
2/3 cup mayonnaise
2/3 cup sweetened, shredded coconut
For cake: Adjust two oven racks to the upper-middle and lower-middle positions and heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour three 9-inch cake pans.
Whisk flour, cocoa, baking powder, soda and salt in a medium bowl. Whisk water, eggs and vanilla in a large measuring cup.
With an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar together until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add flour mixture and water mixture alternately in two batches, beating after each addition until combined.
For frosting and filling: Whisk the melted chocolate chips and mayonnaise in a medium bowl and reserve 2 cups. To the frosting remaining in the bowl, add 2/3 cup coconut and 1/3 cup chopped pecans (this is the filling).
4 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and diced
8 cups water
3 chicken bouillon cubes
1 large onion, diced
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup sweet hot mustard
1 16-ounce jar homestyle sauerkraut
1 1/2 cups sour cream
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
1 large dill pickle thinly sliced across for garnish
In large soup pot combine first seven ingredients and bring to a boil over high heat. Turn down heat to medium and continue to simmer until potatoes are tender. Remove from heat and puree in a food processor (in batches). Place puree back in soup pot over medium low heat and keep hot.
Stir in the sauerkraut and 1 cup of sour cream. Continue to heat on low, until soup is heated through. Don't allow it to boil.
1 cup sauerkraut, drained and chopped well
2 packages of 6-ounce Mexican Style cornbread mix
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup milk
1/4 cup chopped jalapeno peppers
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease regular size muffin tin with cooking spray.
In large mixing bowl, combine sauerkraut, packages of cornbread mix, beaten eggs, milk and chopped jalapeno peppers. Mix well and divide the batter into the 12 greased muffing cups in the muffin tin.
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