Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Salt, Time, Cabbage...and other secrets of a long and happy life

The brick-wall water filter of the old cistern, now a
ground cellar, is the backdrop of Charlie's
yearly sauerkraut making. 
Charlie learned how to make sauerkraut with his Aunt May starting in the Great Depression. He knows that sauerkraut is more than some cabbage in a crock. There’s salt and time added too. All together, it is more than the sum of its parts, as a good life is more than the sum of its days.

Many different salts have been added to the life of Charlie Fritz. He learned his way around a hammer with the guidance of his father Willard who was a fine cabinet maker. And he got a taste of farm life from his mother’s sister May and her brother Clayton "Geat" Beaver, who ran the family’s small truck patch farm in East Weissport.

Charlie’s early life was also filled with the lore of the hazards and pride of men who worked for the railroad. His grandfather Warren Beaver was a steam train engineer on the Lehigh Valley Railroad. He never drove a car as all his years guiding his engine along steel rails made him unwilling to learn how to steer a car. He retired before having to change over from steam to diesel engines.

Trees planted by Aunt May and Uncle Clayton still produce today.
Growing up, Charlie helped manage the small apple orchard, pruning limbs and sending the harvest to the cider press. One tree that still remains there today was planted in 1909. (He has the paperwork on it.) It was as hollow as any partisan politician, but was twice as fruitful. He remembers Uncle Geat telling him, “Prune it hard enough so that birds could fly through them.” True advice he never forgot.

Charlie shows what is left of Aunt May's ball of twine.
Charlie has a special ball of twine. Aunt May saved lengths of butcher twine for some unforeseen future use. It is one among the many things handed down to him.

Like the sauerkraut he was making this October day, the knowledge of it reaches back to generations before us, along a long string of time. And when it is ready six weeks from now, others will enjoy the fruits of these labors. Charlie and his wife Melba have been making the sauerkraut for their Weissport church for over thirty-years.

Melba prepares the 200 pounds of cabbage by removing the outer leaves and cutting out the “cabbage hearts,” the hard inner stem. Charlie is inside his old family cistern that he converted to a ground cellar which is perfect for fermenting sauerkraut: it keeps the crocks at a steady cool temperature away from light. It also keeps the noxious fermenting cabbage gases outside the house.
Melba keeps cutting out the cabbage hearts outside
the doorway to the ground cellar.
Two hundred pounds of local cabbage.

As a boy growing up in this house, the cistern held water that ran off the roof. It was their only water supply until the 1940s. With the sooty steam engines of the Jersey Central still making their runs along the Lehigh below, as well as other routine roof debris, it was important to let the first part of each rain shower clean off the roof before diverting the water into the tank.

The cistern had a large and a small section. The main part, about 7’ by 7’ by 7’, is where the water entered. It was separated from the smaller 3’ by 7’ by 7’ section by a double, red-brick wall, which by their porous nature served as a filtering system for the water. The drinking water was drawn from this smaller section.

In the dry summer months, they hauled water from the Barry family spring in Long Run. These yearly dry spells allowed them to climb inside the cistern to scrub it out. They got down inside with a discarded wrought iron caboose ladder.

Today five crocks sit inside the old cistern waiting for cabbage. Like the brick, the crocks must not have a heavy glaze on them or the fermenting process won’t quite work. It makes one wonder, who was the first to discover these ways of making food like this and how to filter water in this way?

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The 10-gallon crock is the first to be filled. Using a 3-blade, wooden framed shredder from the 1930s, shredding a half a head at a time, Charlie shreds about two cabbage heads before adding two tablespoons of non-iodized canning salt. It is then gently tamped down with a wooden stomper until it is firmly packed together.

Once, about 30 years ago, while making sauerkraut with Aunt May, Charlie was frustrated with the older, warped shredder they had been using for years. Aunt May told him he could get the brand-new one she had up in the attic. To his surprise, it was still in its original 1938 package. It’s the one he’s been using ever since.
Tamping, not crushing, the shredded cabbage enough to get the air out.
About 1-pound of canning salt per 45-50 pounds of cabbage.

The process is repeated until 100 pounds of tamped cabbage, with two pounds of salt, fills the crock. The six-gallon crock is next to be filled. He uses his Aunt May’s ever-present, but soon to be diminished ball of saved twine to seal the cloth over the top to keep the dirt out while allowing it to breathe.
The cloth will be tied with Aunt May's twine.

Charlie served in the Army Security Agency during the Korean Conflict, intercepting Chinese Morse code. He and his cohorts got so accustomed to listening in on the transmissions, they could discern the sender by their idiosyncratic style of tapping. Being in North Korea, he had nothing to spend his money on so he sent it home. On his direction, his parents bought a 1954 Chevy for him.

Once home, he was re-assigned to Two Rock Ranch Station in California. With a love of travel, he loaded his Chevy with his parents and Aunt Sula. They drove across country, stopping at the Badlands, Sequoia, and Yosemite National Parks. Then his father and aunt flew all the way home by propeller plane, with all the stops that day of flying entailed.

When his enlistment expired, his father flew out alone. This time, father and son drove back across the southern range, visiting the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park. The most memorable was seeing Bryce Canyon with its bright rock covered in snow. It would be the final salt of his father’s life. He died of a heart condition at the age of 47 that October of 1955.

A retiree of Bethlehem Steel, Charlie still enjoys seeing the country as much as he enjoys keeping his family traditions alive. He also keeps bee hives in two locations in Franklin Township. You could say he knows how to take both the sweet and the sour that comes along in life. You don’t have to know Charlie and Melba very long to know that.

This batch of sauerkraut will be ready in about six weeks but it won’t be served until Jacob’s United Church of Christ’s February 5, 2012 Pork and Sauerkraut dinner. All the work and aging will make it just right. (Jacob’s is also having a dinner November 5, 2011, equally tasty, but without homemade sauerkraut.)
Aunt May's ground cellar as it looks today.

Besides the fellowship that always comes with the sharing a meal, these dinners provide a chance to appreciate both the sauer of the kraut and the sweetness of the many deserts. But most of all it gives us time to reflect upon all the things that go into a long and happy life.

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