The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

John Hayes Hollow - Making Sauerkraut

By Hazel P. Hedrick © 1985

Issue: October, 1985

Yesterday morning I was standing at the bar in my spacious, bright sunny kitchen chopping cabbage to make kraut. My mind went back to Mama's kitchen in the John Hayes Hollow, and what it was like making sauerkraut there and then. Here I have a large kitchen with every modern convenience except a garbage disposal and a food processor. What my mama wouldn't have given for just running water.

Canning was a chore back then, there were no pressure canners, and to get the jars air tight was really hard with the one piece lids and rubber rings, I have seen mama work with one boiling hot jar ten minutes trying to get it to seal.

Mama's kitchen was a little log room with one small window and two doors, with a large fireplace and a small iron wood cookstove. There were no cabinets, just one small wooden cupboard in the corner and a cornmeal and flour chest behind the front door. A long thin table with a homemade bench alongside was in the middle of the floor. Under the one window was a small table on which to set a water bucket and a washpan, for washing hands. The only bright thing in the room was the oilcloth tablecloth.

The one window did not open and there were no screens on the doors, so the flies were a problem all summer long. I look back and wonder how in the world did my mama can enough fruit and vegetables to feed six children all winter. It must have been steaming hot standing over a boiling kettle on a hot wood stove day after day. I didn't help much with the canning, but I did help prepare the fruit and vegetables, carry wood and water. I was also the babysitter.

I did help make kraut, it was hard work but I liked it. First thing after the morning chores were done and all the dishes washed, mama would sit two or three big galvanized wash tubs in the kitchen floor and give me two buckets, I was to fill the tubs with fresh spring water while she cut and trimmed the big white cabbage heads. Then we would carry at least a dozen cabbage heads to the house and wash them in the big tubs of cold water. Sometimes those heads would be so fresh and tender they would burst open in the cold water.

The cabbage, organic grown, was so sweet and good I wanted to eat it all day long. Mama always told me I was going to be sick from eating raw cabbage, but I never did get sick that I recall.

Once we got a tub full of cabbage washed and drained. Mama got the one butcher knife and daddy's whet-rock and made the knife really sharp. In one dishpan she would chop each cabbage head with the butcher knife for a while, then she would let me finish chopping it with a homemade chopper. This was a baking powder tin can that daddy had cut the top off and left the sharp edges then made some holes in the bottom to let the air pass through as she chopped. Believe it or not that made a pretty good kraut chopper. While I was chopping, mama rinsed a five or ten gallon stone jar. I think it was a ten gallon jar, sat a bag of salt on the table and a long wooden punching stick in the jar. When the cabbage was chopped fine enough, she would dump it in the jar with a pinch of salt and I would punch it down with the stick while she got another pan full ready for me to chop. This went on all day. Sometimes we made more than one jar full. When the jar was full enough, mama would wash some of the green cabbage leaves and lay on top of the kraut and she would find a nice clean flint rock and scrub it good, she would sit a plate on top of the cabbage leaves and lay the rock in the plate. That was to keep the brine over all the chopped cabbage until it was ready to eat. If the brine did not stay over all the cabbage it would turn dark and had to be thrown away.

Mama would cover the jars with a clean white cloth and leave them to sit in the kitchen for a few days, until it started smelling sour, then she and daddy would carry them to the root cellar where it would stay all winter or until all the kraut was gone.

One of the little chores I hated most in winter was, "Hazel wash your hands good and go get some kraut (or pickled beans) for supper." I had to take a bowl, set it beside the kraut or bean jar, take the cloth off the top, take out the rock, the plate and green leaves, then with my clean hand fish out the kraut, squeeze the brine out of it and fill the bowl, then put everything back like I found it, and I best do it right if I knew what was good for me. By the time I was finished my hand would be so cold it was numb, and I had to run through the cold wind back to the house carrying my bowl of delicious sauerkraut.

As I recall, pickled beans were made almost the same way, except they were broken into little pieces, not chopped like cabbage. I have not tasted pickled beans in many years. I wonder if anyone still has the old fashioned recipe. I would like to try making some. I also would like to find some seed, the old fashioned bush garden bean and the old fashioned yellow pear tomato like my mama used to grow. If any of you have these things to share I would appreciate it. My address is Route 3, Box 687, Ridgeway, Va. 24148.