When I think back to the holidays I spent growing up in Fairview, New Year’s Eve actually evokes many, if not most, of my childhood happy holiday memories. I could speculate why that is, but that’s for a much longer, much more revealing testimony. I only have one memory of Mom and Dad going out on their own on New Year’s Eve, and that was to the American Legion Hall in Fairview (within walking distance from our home). David Hiles “babysat” me and Scott, and Dad got in “trouble” when they got home for dancing with someone, which together may explain why they didn’t go out again. Anyway, from then on, we hosted parties at home. Early on I remember family being at the house; cousins, aunts and uncles, but eventually it became a party of friends; friends of Mom and Dad, my friends, and Scott’s friends. Donna Burkhard-Freiters and I were the ringmasters of a few indelible celebrations, details of which are probably best unvoiced. Scott and Donnie Deal were always into something, but were particularly creative with their mischief on New Year’s Eve. One of the big draws was shooting off the guns at midnight. Yes, I know, not a very popular event in today’s world, but we lived in the country, and it was a different world then. I’m guessing that many back home still do this on New Year’s Eve. There were also fireworks; some commercially purchased and some home-made, like the sauerkraut. There was home-made alcohol; everything from Dad’s attempts at wine and beer, to brandy and moonshine. We had a craft distillery in our basement, along side the fermenting cabbage, long before it was the cool thing to do. But the most comforting memory of all was the food. We also had a beautiful garden every summer, and Dad made sauerkraut from our home-grown cabbage. The first batch of sauerkraut was enjoyed New Year’s Eve. He and Mom prepared a big pork roast, cooked with sauerkraut and kielbasa, meats coming from Slater’s Butcher Shop, and dumplings added at the end.
The process began at the end of the summer, with an abundant harvest of cabbage from our backyard garden, and pickling salt. Dad used a cabbage slicer that looked something like this to shred the cabbage, and oh how I wish I had that thing now. He shredded, and Mom and I packed the shredded cabbage into old ten gallon brining crocks we had, alternating layers of cabbage and pickling salt, your final layer should be of salt. We didn’t monitor quantities closely, or at least I didn’t, but later in life when I asked Dad for guidance, these are the quantities he shared with me:
1 medium head of cabbage equals about 2 pounds
1 gallon equals about 5 pounds of shredded cabbage
3 tablespoons of pickling salt per gallon
According to this, our 10 gallon crocks took about 25 heads of cabbage and nearly 2 cups of pickling salt each, and we filled two, so our little garden yielded more than 50 heads of cabbage in its prime.
Our basement didn’t look quite like this, but it was a messy process. I remember Dad telling us to pack the cabbage tightly, and I recall at least one occasion when Scott was very young and Dad lifting him up, allowing him to stomp the cabbage tightly into the crocks with his little feet. The western PA version of grape stomping, sort of. Once the crocks were packed, Mom boiled tea towels and draped them over the crocks, we then put heavy plates on top of the cabbage and bricks on top of the plates for added weight, Dad explaining that this would help the cabbage release excess water.
A scum would form on top of the crocks over the next few weeks that Dad would skim off while Mom boiled more tea towels to replace the used ones. The towels, plates and weights would be replaced, and this process repeated every few days until the bubbles stopped rising in the crocks. This would take two to three weeks. By then, the basement would be cool enough, under 50 degrees, to store the cabbage for the winter under the plates as long as it was covered by the brine. Some years we canned one of the crocks so that we could give it away to neighbors.
We had an old cast iron roaster that looked something like this, but bigger, and again, I wish I had this now, that was filled with sauerkraut, browned pork roast and kielbasa mid-day on New Year’s Eve. (In later years, Dad started using a pressure cooker, but I still roast in the oven.) Mom seasoned the pot with salt and pepper, thyme and a little brown sugar. The slow roasting began and the house smelled of what became to me the smell of New Year’s Eve, and to this day, when I smell pork and sauerkraut, I think of home, and our New Year’s Eve parties. Just before midnight, Mom would make her dumplings from Bisquick and cook them atop the bubbly mixture, and everyone ate after the midnight toast, and gun fire.
Jack and I have hosted some New Year’s Eve parties in our home in Westlake when I prepared this meal for family and friends, but we’ve spent most of our New Year’s Eves together, this will be our 16th, somewhere other than home. We rang in 2000 in Times Square, we went to the Walleye Drop in Marblehead twice with dear friends Pat and Terri, we were on ski trips with kids a few times, have now spent a few at Three Birds Tavern, and recently back home listening to my beloved nephew’s band, Highway 4, ringing in the new year in Pittsburgh.
This year we are traveling to New Orleans for the 2015 Sugar Bowl, so I won’t be cooking again, but rather enjoying some of my favorite cooking in some of my favorite restaurants in the world. However, now that I’ve written this post, my memories are heightened and I’m pining for a little roasted pork loin, sauerkraut and dumplings that I will be making at home this Sunday.
I wish each of you a very happy New Years, and look forward to sharing 2015 with you as we continue our journey through this adventure called life. Please share your New Year’s Eve traditions with all of us here. I’d like to hear from you.