Week 3: Sauerkraut

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What follows is a sample of my Writer’s Diary, which I currently email out every Sunday. This current run has a central focus on food. To receive this in your inbox, subscribe here.

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Hello—and a good Memorial Day to you!
This is coming a day late, but isn’t the Monday of a three-day weekend really, on a spiritual level, a Sunday?

My whole life I’ve thought of Memorial Day as the “unofficial beginning of summer.” Somewhere along the line I also learned that it’s the date after which it’s “okay” to wear white. A good weekend to barbecue!

Yesterday it hit me more than it has before that our cheery little day off is, to take it at its word, supposed to be a day to memorialize the soldiers—humans, mostly men, mostly about my age or younger—who lost their “one wild and precious life,” as Mary Oliver put it, working for Team U.S.A. in the bloody ritual sacrifice by which our species has often resolved its disputes. It’s so intense. I’m not un-grateful for the sacrifice of these men and women. They were brave. I’m especially glad they beat the slavers and the Nazis. The British Empire, too. But more than anything, I wish they hadn’t had to die.

The idea of a memorial has so much power in it. Memory is a fragile thing. It needs preserving—and celebrating.

The physical memorial that inspires the most feelings in me has to be the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. A depression in the National Mall, filled with a vast horizontal monolith. When you get up close you can see the name of every single young man who died in that war, etched on the black stone. Phonebook-thick catalogs are available to locate a particular name from the 58,220: the name of a brother, uncle, father, son, friend. Maya Lin’s design famously captures both the vastness of the loss and the particular tragedy of each missing life.

We need more memorials. A gun violence memorial. A covid-19 memorial. We need to remember. We need to give ourselves space and time to grieve—and to work collectively towards the goal that these stupidities never happen again.

That’s what I’m thinking this Memorial Day.

After writing the preceding paragraph, I found this Sunday’s New York Times at the grocery store. In a small but beautiful way, it actually does this. The first four pages of the paper memorialize 1,000 of those killed by the pandemic. I recommend taking the time to read some of these names—and the brief descriptions that run alongside them, spare silhouettes that gesture at the full lives we have lost.

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I’m honored to have you reading my writer’s diary for a third week now! I’m trying not to dwell too much on the pandemic, as I figure you spend enough time thinking of that without my help. Instead, I continue to be excited to talk to you about my food and the writing life.

This week, I have been full of thoughts about storytelling. Telling a story is so human, so universal. What kid hasn’t found themselves, after an unusually momentous day at school, suddenly excited to answer the eternal question, ‘How was school today, honey?’

‘Mom, you wouldn’t believe it…’

Yet when you call yourself a writer and try to tell a good story, it can seem suddenly, damnably hard. It’s a mystery. I’ve tried to solve this mystery by reading books about the craft of writing. (Some are really quite useful!) I’ve attended lectures, spent mornings deep in writing workshops, and acquired an MFA. I’ve even tried out one of those Hollywood plot formulas called a ‘Beat Sheet.’

But the best way, bar none, that I’ve found to learn about storytelling is to pay attention to the great stories I encounter out in the wild. Some are in the form of novels, movies, magazine articles, histories, podcasts, parables. Others are the stories friends tell—the ones that have me sitting on the edge of my seat, laughing along, asking ‘Then what happened?’

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Here’s a story: When I was three, maybe four, my parents took me on a trip from our home in rural Northern California down to Los Angeles to visit my grandma Mimi, who lived in a condo in North Hollywood. I remember very little about this trip, except for one event—and I remember this event because my grandma never let me forget it.

Mimi was born Mary Anne Morar in Canton, Ohio in 1924. Her parents were each freshly naturalized American citizens. They had separately left Romania to seek their fortunes in the U.S., where they met, married and spent the rest of their lives together. So Mimi grew up in an ethnic enclave of first- and second-generation Romanian immigrants based around the Romanian Byzantine Catholic cathedral there. While Mimi was as American as April in Arizona (in Nabokov’s phrase)—even serving heroically in the Second World War—she always spoke Romanian with her parents, she briefly imported a handsome young Romanian man to be her second husband, and when she passed away last February, at 95 years old, she left behind a small family foundation dedicated to the study of Romanian culture.

Mimi was an excellent Romanian cook, a master of mamaliga, cornulete, and, especially, sarmale—the Romanian version of Pigs in a Blanket. This is where our story truly begins. Because, you see, even as a young child I was a vegetarian. Were a few morsels of salmon to be placed in a dish in front of my high chair, I would cast it to the ground. When my dad dangled a choice bit of flank steak in front of my mouth, I pressed my lips firmly together until he laughed and gave up. I steadfastly refused to take even a single bit of meat. By all accounts I was a pretty easygoing kid, but when it came to meat I was as willful as they come. I have always struggled to articulate the root cause of this inborn vegetarianism, but from birth I basically forced my parents to accomodate it.

This was all well and fine with my generous parents, but when we visited my grandmother and took our meals at her table, it was hard for her to understand it. How would I grow up to be a proper Romanian if I couldn’t eat most Romanian food? (Like so many diasporic communities, ours was within two generations reduced mostly to a cuisine.) She encouraged me to at least try sarmale. She was sure that I would discover it was delicious. The flavor of ground pork, rice, and herbs, all wrapped in a big, pickled cabbage leaf and baked till the flavors mingled into a thing of beauty—what Romanian boy would turn his nose up at that?

I understood how important it was to my grandma that I try this dish, and I really wanted to make her happy. At the same time, I found myself haunted by this phrase, ‘Pigs in a Blanket,’ that everyone kept using to describe the sarmale. It was terrible to think of eating a cozily snoozing animal. I spent a long time thinking about it, and then one evening before dinner I told Grandma that I wanted to try her sarmale.

She was delighted. I remember that very clearly.

For an hour we could both believe that I was going to fulfill her wishes. But then we were all seated at her table, under the chandelier. The sarmale was served. There it was on my plate. The pickled cabbage wrapping was greenish and slightly translucent, a few wisps of steam betraying that it had just come out of the oven. It smelled of cooked cabbage, of brine, and of the umami of browned meat. It smelled good.

I tried, I really did. I picked at it. I sawed off a sliver of cabbage and ate it. I unwrapped till I got to the meat, and then I tried to get my nerve up to eat it. I couldn’t eat it. I wanted to have eaten it. I avoided my grandma’s hungry eyes and pushed the meat around with my fork. I took another little bite of the sour cabbage. How could I get the meat to go away? How could I get myself to eat it?

Finally Mimi couldn’t help herself. She said, ‘Jasper, are you going to eat your sarmale?’

‘Yes, Grandma,’ I said. ‘I am eating it…’ Here I apparently paused for dramatic effect. Then I said, ‘Methodically.’

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Do I really remember saying this? My grandma probably told me the story fifty times. She loved it. I think somehow that the improbable precociousness of a four-year-old dodging his pushy grandma with the perfect $10 word must have so tickled her funny bone that it made up for the sorrow that I refused to eat her prize dish. She was a kindergarten teacher who loved telling stories and dreamed of one day writing her own novel. It was enough that young Jasper loved words.

I do remember sitting there and looking at the wrapped meat dumpling on my plate, feeling nauseous. I remember the chandelier. Maybe most of all I remember the smell of the cooking sarmale, the rich cabbage and pork smell, the smell of grandma’s house before her famous Romanian dinners.

Why did it work as a story when Grandma told it? Well, it had a good punch line. It was somewhat unusual, had different particulars than other stories. But I think the best part was the joy that she took in telling it. She savored how uncomfortable I had been. It was delicious to her how much she had wanted this thing from me. The pathos of it were so intense, the way she told it. And then they were resolved in such an unlikely way. Listening to her tell the story—that’s where so much of the pleasure was. It was in the telling. It was in her joy.

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In the last years of her life, my grandma Mimi lost most of her memories. It was the gradual, inexorable progress of Alzheimer’s disease—every month that went by left her a little more childlike. The body, a vessel filled by nine decades of experience, became empty once more. By the end, most of what remained was her glinting soul, and it was a blessing that Mimi was quick to smile and easy to get laughing, even when she was disoriented and swimming in a sea of confusion.

In the logic of ‘first in, last out,’ many of the memories that lasted the longest were those of childhood. Mimi would talk about her father’s backyard garden and his barrel of sauerkraut in the basement, next to the illicit, treasured barrel of wine. (Prohibition was still in effect.) She would describe the big feasts put on by the Romanian church, and how there would be dancing afterwards.

Around the time last year that Grandma passed away—with all her progeny at her bedside—my dad became very interested in making his own sauerkraut. Just like great-grandpa Vasile, Dad had his own cabbage patch. Now all he needed was to send off to Ohio Stoneware for a pair of three-gallon crocks and he could, in more than one sense, keep the old culture alive.

After his first batch, he gave me an enormous glass jar packed with fermented cabbage to take home with me. Lisa and I ate it all. It was delicious.

A few months later, I was visiting him and noticed a big box of cabbages from the farmer’s market. They had been purchased to make more kraut, but my dad felt like he’d missed the window of opportunity. The cabbages were too old now.

‘What?’ I said. ‘That’s ridiculous. Why don’t I take the cabbages and one of your crocks, I’ll ferment them, and then I’ll give you a big jar of kraut ready to eat?’

This is how I acquired my prize crock: highway robbery. It’s also how I learned to make saurkraut, Romanian style.

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ROMANIAN-STYLE SAUERKRAUT

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This sauerkraut, properly known as varza murata, differs from the classic German-style sauerkraut in one major way: the cabbage is not shredded before fermentation. Instead, it is kept whole (or halved or quartered), so that the leaves may be used later as the wrapper for sarmale. This means that the juices of the cabbage cannot provide, on their own, enough liquid to cover the cabbage. You have to add brine.

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Equipment

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A Really Big Wide-Mouth Jar or Small Crock
A Weight to Hold the Cabbage Down – (the simplest version is a plate slightly narrower than the jar, weighted with a river stone that has been boiled and scrubbed)

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Ingredients

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Cabbage – 4 medium heads, cored
Kosher Salt – 1/2 cup (do NOT use iodized salt)
Water – 16 cups
Whole Black Peppercorns – 2 tablespoons
Garlic Cloves – 4-8, cut in half
Bay Leaves – 2
Fresh Dill – a small bunch (optional)
Fresh Horseradish – two inches, split into sticks (otional)

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Steps

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1. Boil the water and salt, stirring till the salt dissolves. Allow to cool.
2. Pack the jar with the cored cabbage and other ingredients. If you want to, you can halve or quarter the cabbages so they fit more tightly.
3. Pour the brine to cover all the cabbage with about an inch of brine.
4. Place the weight on top, making sure that all of the cabbage is submerged.
5. Cover with cheesecloth and place in a dark corner of your home. The crock should ideally stay around room temperature, but if it’s in a cool place it will just ferment more slowly.
6. Wait four weeks, regularly checking to make sure everything is submerged, adding more brine if need be. You can also ensure that no molds are forming.
7. Around week three, begin tasting your kraut. It should get more and more sour. At a certain moment, it will be perfectly sour for you. This is the time to radically slow down fermentation by transferring the kraut to a jar with a lid and putting it in the fridge. It is ready to eat!

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Serving Suggestions

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Cut into narrow strips, it makes a delicious small salad.
As a sour addition to crunchy salads.
On top of nachos.
On top of a fully dressed baked potato
In breakfast tacos that are also filled with scrambled eggs. (Surprisingly delicous.)
Beside pierogis or latkes, along with sour cream and apple sauce.
With vodka.
With sausages, vegan or otherwise.
As the wrapper for a mystical vegetan version of your grandmother’s sarmale. (I still need to try this one.)

I’m afraid I don’t actually have a picture of my or my father’s Romanian-style sauerkraut. We’ll have to make do with this picture of the 3-gallon crock I stole from my dad. In the picture it had just released a deliciously sour batch of more German-style kraut—a scrumptious pink from the blend of red and green cabbage. This one I mixed up following the recipe in Sandor Ellix Katz’s book Wild Fermentation. If you are interested in fermenting some food of your own, GET AHOLD OF THIS BOOK. Here’s his bio: ‘Author Sandor Ellix Katz is a self-described ‘fermentation fetishist.’ His explorations in fermentation developed out of overlapping interests in cooking, nutrition, and gardening. A long-term HIV/AIDS survivor, Katz considers fermented foods to be an important part of his healing. A native of New York City, the author is a resident steward of Short Mountain Sanctuary, a queer intentional community in the wooded hills of Tennessee.’ How terrible it would be not to have this encouraging, non-prescriptivist fermentation fanatic guiding us on our journeys!

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One of the very best movies I’ve seen this year is The Florida Project. (It streams for ‘free’ on Netflix.) Like Mimi’s story I think this film’s excellence has something to do with the joy of its telling. It is a hectic, harrowing story of what it’s like to be a little kid in difficult circumstances: your young mom is sometimes turning to sex work, there’s no dad in the picture, you’re being raised in a long-term hotel in the shadow of Florida’s Disney World, and the most responsible adult you know is the delapidated hotel you live at’s manager, an overworked and precariously employed man (played by Willem Dafoe). The hotel manager knows what she doesn’t—that her innocence won’t last forever. He and the girl’s mother, flawed people, do what they can, in a society that relentlessly exploits and punishes its weakest members, to protect her precarious childishness. Watch it!

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(& if you enjoy The Florida Project, consider reading “The Magic Kingdom,” a long essay in The Baffler about the film, and Disney World, and the American imagination.)

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The other night, around midnight, Lisa already asleep, I was doing the dishes by the wide open window, through which a soft, warm breeze was blowing, when a powerful feeling came over me. It had wrapped up in it longing, possibility, being-in-nature, and contentment. It washed through my bones.

Though the moon was a waxing crescent, the way I felt I can only call Warm Night Full Moon Feeling. I have felt it before, sitting outside, all alone, under the summer stars. It feels like nature is on your side and you on its. Like everything is possible, everything is just a story. Like the air is there for breathing and you can feel the moonlight on your skin. Like the night will never end.

I hope that this summer you get some Warm Night Full Moon Feeling, too.

Till next week,

Jasper
May 25, 2020