Saturday, December 31, 2011

Traditional New Years Foods

Today is New Years Eve Day which means another turn of the cycle.  I personally don't have too many superstitions associated with the New Year, but, there are certain food traditions in our family associated with the holiday.  Not surprisingly, these traditions are informed by the local food culture of the Lehigh Valley.

The traditional New Years good luck dish around here is pork and sauerkraut "Schweinefleish und Sauerkraut."  I am told by my brother (a former Wegmans employee) that the year Wegmans opened, there were huge shortages of both pork and sauerkraut leading up to the holiday.  This suggests that the German heritage of the valley is still alive and well among the old-guard and newcomers alike.  My butcher at the farmers market also made sure that I reserved a pork shoulder (Boston butt) well in advance of the holiday because he also has massive runs on the prime cuts.

A little more on the tradition itself . . . .  Many of the original inhabitants of the Lehigh Valley were of German origin.  They were not "Dutch" as the term Pennsylvania Dutch might imply.  Instead the term "dutch" is a bastardization of the German word for German "Deutsch" which early English settlers mispronounced.  The Germans who settled in the Lehigh Valley were mostly from the Electorate of Palatine on the Rhine (around present day Cologne).  Those settlers brought with them many traditional German foods such a sauerkraut (which was used to preserve cabbage for the winter months) and hogs which were the predominant meat in early Pennsylvania.  Both cabbage and hogs grow well in the Lehigh Valley which has a climate similar to the Palatine.

Why pork and sauerkraut came to symbolize good luck I do not know.  However, it probably had its roots in the practicality and sensuality of the meal.  Hogs were not typically butchered until November when the weather was cold enough to prevent quick spoilage of the meat.  Meats that would go bad quickly like offal were eaten first and formed the basis for foods like scrapple or preserved through charcuterie techniques.  Hams were cured and then placed to smoke in the hearth of the home in the tradition of Westphalia.  Other fresh cuts could be preserved for a month or so in brine or made into country sausages--both of which figure in traditional pork and sauerkraut dishes.

Sauerkraut, too, would have been plentiful and much of it would be finishing fermentation around the new year.  Cabbage can be grown most of the year in Pennsylvania and a June/July planting will yield cabbages ready by late October.  These cabbages can usually be left in the ground for another month or so in the November cold and processed into sauerkraut in early December.  (It was important to extend out the cabbage season as long as possible to keep sauerkraut fresh until spring vegetables started to arrive in early May).  Fermentation takes about month and, thus, would have been ready toward the middle to end of December.

And so, come late December, the Pa. Dutch farmer would have had a "second harvest" of pork products and preserved cabbage ready to keep the family going through the winter until the spring thaw.  Certainly, a farm family would have felt blessed to have this new food on hand to bring in another year of the agricultural cycle.  And, the sensuality and savor of sauerkraut properly braised in pork fat followed up with a tankard of beer is enough to sate almost any fear of the unknown and welcome a new and hopeful year.

Having said that, lets review what pork and sauerkraut was not:  it was not a healthy dish.  In fact, it's pretty terrible for you.  The traditional dish was meant to be a thanksgiving for the bounty of land and that land provided foods that were unctuous and sating.  This isn't a bad thing.  Its all right to eat poorly once and a while to remind ourselves of what things used to be like and how the people who lived before us eat and celebrated the lives they lived.  And, lets face it, cabbage braised in pork fat is simply, irrefutably, delcious.  Life is worth the indulgence.

So, that generally, is what what pork and sauerkraut is not.  As a more specific point, pork and sauerkraut is not a pork loin boiled in a can of industrial sauerkraut.  If you ever had pork and sauerkraut and thought it was insipid, raw, and disgusting, this is probably how it was prepared.  Instead, I want to make the following recipe available.  If you make this and savor it you will know why those early German farmers thought this meal meant good luck in the new year.

The following recipe is adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child.  The recipe is for a French peasant dish known in the French as choucroute garnie.  Roughly translated this means garnished sauerkraut.  Although this dish is French, it comes from the territory known as Alsace, which history buffs know was an area of France contested for hundreds of years between the German peoples and the French peoples.  Alsace is, geographically, close to the Palatine, and several wars in the mid-seventeanth century fought in Alsace actually helped spur immigrations to America from the Palatine.  The refinement of this dish marked by removing much of the brined flavor of the cabbage and creating a braising liquid with wine and stock would have been much closer to the Palatine palate compared to the brute flavors of raw sauerkraut preferred in other parts of Germany.

Choucroute Garnie

1 Boston Butt (available from farmers market)
1 Tbs. Lard (or vegtable oil)

2 lbs fresh sauerkraut (available from Farmers Market)

1/2 lb slab bacon (available from the Farmers Market)
1/2 cup thinly sliced carrots
1 cup sliced onions

4 sprigs parsely
2 bay leaves
6 peppercorns
10 juniper berries
1 cup dry white wine (or dry Apple Wine)
2 to 3 cups chicken stock

1.  Forty-eight hours before making the dish, liberally sprinkle Boston butt with salt and white sugar.  Cover and place in a non-reactive pan.

2.  Drain sauerkraut from its container and then place in a non-reactive bowl and fill with cold water.  Swish the sauerkraut around once or twice and after 8 minutes, pour off the water and collect the kraut in a colander.  Return the kraut to the bowl and again fill the bowl with cold water.  After an additional 8 minutes, strain the kraut.

3.  After straining the kraut a second time take small handfuls of the wet kraut out of the colander, squeeze all the water out of it with your hands, and reserve the dry kraut in a non-reactive bowl.  Once all the kraut has been squeezed dry, work to separate the kraut back out into individual strands of cabbage.

4.  Cut the slab of bacon into individual 1/4 inch lardons.  Once cut, add these lardons to a pan of boiling water for ten minutes.  Strain and reserve the lardons.

Homemade Slab Bacon

Bacon Cut into Lardons
5.  Add the lard to a dutch oven over medium-low heat.  The dutch oven should be capable of holding the Boston butt without the butt touching the side of the pan.  When the fat shimmers, add the pork fat side down until lightly browned.  This will render out several tablespoons of lard.  Flip the butt to the other side and brown over medium-low heat.  If possible, try to prevent a fond from forming as it will later discolor the sauerkraut. Once the butt is browned remove it from the dutch oven but do NOT pour off the rendered fat.

Boston Butt Fat Side Down

 Browned Boston Butt

6.  After removing the butt, add the carrot, onion, and blanched lardons.  Sautee over low heat for ten minutes.  Do not allow to brown.

7.  To the onions, carrots, and lardons, add the reserved sauerkraut.  Cover and saute slowly for ten minutes.

8.  While the sauerkraut is slowly sauteing, tie the parsley, black pepper, and juniper berries in a small piece of cheese cloth.  Add this to the pan with the wine.  Add enough stock to just cover the top of the sauerkraut.

9.  Place in a 300 degree over for 2.5 hours.  Check regularly to ensure there is a slow simmer and that the liquid has not been absorbed completely.

After 2.5 Hours with Sauerkraut Pushed to the Side

10.  After 2.5 hours, place the pork, fat side down, back in the pan.  The browned side should remain up over the top of the cabbage to prevent discoloration of the braising liquid.

11.  Return the Pork and Sauerkraut back to the oven and braise for an additional 2.5 hours (5 hours total).  After 5 hours, the liquid should have been completely absorbed.  Serve the pork and sauerkraut with some buttered potatoes and maybe a salad with a sharp vinaigrette. Enjoy and praise the new year!

I'd also like to share a link to another blog on Pork and Sauerkraut written by a pair of Lehigh Valley transplants living in Idaho who shared my blog!  Thanks to them and Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Allentown Fariground's Farmers Market

The Allentown Farmers Market has been an institution in the city since at least 1889.  In the nineteenth century, the market filled a need in the city as a central clearinghouse for crops and livestock.  Farmers from the surrounding country would bring their foods to market and resell them either wholesale or retail to merchants and customers.

Over time, the purpose of the Farmers Market has changed.  With the entry of refrigerated trucking and supermarkets into the food distribution system in the twentieth century, there was no longer a need to locally source food.  Fortunately, the market's central location in a dense urban locale made it convenient for mid-twentieth-century shoppers to frequent the market.  In fact, the fairgrounds building expanded in 1958 up the ramped incline into a new "western" wing.  The narrative of the market through mid-century was continued expansion of the retail market by supplying local meats, regional German specialties, baked goods, and produce.

Things began to change after the mid-century.  Like so much related to the Lehigh Valley, suburbanization would change how the people of Allentown related to space and traditional culture.  I experienced this shift personally.  I was born at the 17th and Chew Hospital and was taken home to a house on the 2000 block of Allen Street.  As a toddler, my mom or grandmother would walk with my brother and me the few blocks to the farmers market.  Once there, we would shop for the entire week, picking up the fresh produce and meats that were needed.  My brother and I also got to pick one treat.  I would normally either get black licorice or show fly pie (Pa. German specialties) whereas my brother (always a precocious eater) preferred souse.

The end of my initial personal connection with the Farmer's Market happened in first grade when we moved to a suburban development in Parkland School District.  A nondescript and sanitized super market replaced the varied sights and smells of the Farmers Market.  Later, when Wegmans opened, I was thrilled to have assess to high quality produce and meats again, but the store lacked the regional specialties, sensuousness, and authentic bustle and interaction of the Farmers Market.

When I went away to college in Lancaster, Pa., I felt a door drop out from underneath me.  The supermarkets close to campus were nothing like the Wegmans I was accustomed to and the Lancaster Central Market turned out to be a tourist trap that mostly sold trinkets.  There were other farmers markets but, they were miles away from the city center.  It was disappointing. 

The Allentown Farmers Market, I feared, would have succumb to the same fate:  tourist trinkets and memories of when the actual community came together to buy local foods.  But, when I walked through the market for the first time since coming home, I was shocked.  The pizza place was still there with the jungle juice I used to love as a child, the amish bakery, the candy store, the seafood sore, Burkholders, the spice man, Mr. Bills, even the vacuum cleaner guy.  The fact that after almost two decades these shops still remained blew me away.

But, why keep going to the Farmers Market when other supermarkets are arguably closer?  The first thing I would answer is cost.  There is a reason why the stalwart matrons of Allentown keep pushing their diminutive carts up and down the aisles.  The Farmer's Market stalls are run my real people who care about making an honest buck.  For comparison, a bunch of Cilantro runs about $2.00 at a local supermarket.  I found it at the Farmer's Market for $0.75.  That actually starts to add up if you buy cilantro as often as I do.

The second reason is that the Farmers Market is staffed by people who make a living by keeping a local institution alive.  That's important to me.  People talk all the time about Allentown in the good-old-days.  Here are people who day-in and day-out make their living by growing vegetables and raising meat like people have done for hundreds of years.  They put their lives where a lot of people put a platitude.  We ought to help them out as much as they help us out.

Third is the fact that you can still buy things at the farmers market that you can't get anywhere else.  The old-timers opine about a time when things were different--when Allentown and the Lehigh Valley had an identity different from the rest of the United States--when we weren't just a suburb of New York City.  Part of maintaining or reviving that cultural identity is having an attachment with the things that made the community different.  Food is a big part of that.  In fact, my main purpose in going to the market today was to buy pork to make the traditional Pa. Dutch pork and sauerkraut for new years day.  My butcher had an excellent shoulder waiting with my name on it.

What you eat and what you think is delicious says a lot about you.  When I, as a young child, moved to suburbia my favorite treat changed from shoe fly pie to fruit-by-the-foot.  That change repeated millions of times over is how our tastes shifted from a somewhat wholesome substance like molasses to high-fructose-corn syrup.  Additionally, the quality of what is available at the farmers market is often higher than what is available at supermarkets.  If you have never had a real piece of slab bacon or had chicken soup made from a stewing hen instead of an insipid Perdue roaster, you are missing out.

Fourth, the market is a place where cultural exchanges happen in happy ways.  Demographically, the Lehigh Valley is changing--its not the strict German enclave it once was.  You might think this is good or bad, but it is reality.  We can either fight that reality or looks for ways in which different peoples and different cultures can teach one another.

While I was shopping, I stopped by one of my favorite food stands for a bowl of Vietnamese Pho (a type of light soup).  The stand has minimal seating so I had to ask a stranger if I could join his table (he was eating alone).  He said yes and we got to talking.  He had just moved to New Tripoli from Texas and also loved food.  We had a great conversation about places to eat in the Valley and things to do.  Its weird to think about:  a Texan and a Pennsylvanian talking about Thai food over a bowl of Vietnamese Pho in the Pa. Dutch shrine that is the farmers market.  But it happened and it was awesome.  There are also Mediterranean food places, BBQ places, mexican food, a pizza bar, and any other number of quick places to grab a bite.

Fifth, the food is mostly local.  My only complaint about the Farmer's Market is that it no longer is entirely stocked with local produce and meats.  But, doing so would be impractical since come February no one would want to subsist on a diet of only turnips and cabbage anymore.  Having said that, most of the chicken and pork is local and so is much of the produce if you know who to ask (and do ask).  Suffice it to say, this is still the closest you are going to get to the farm without sourcing everything directly.

Finally, there is the bustle.  One thing I miss about living in a big city is the hustle of the place.  There is an energy and rythem to a city that has always attracted youth and spurred poets.  The Farmer's Market has that energy.  The people behind the counters are willing to talk; customers line up at counters and money is still typically exchanged with actual bank notes; people collide and laugh or sometimes look shiftily away.  Its actual and authentic in a way that the mad press of other supermarkets is not.  And more often than not, the energy is brimming out of people old enough to be your grandparents. You have to go there to experience it.

Last but not least, there are the traditional Pa. Dutch confections. At some point there will be a whole post about the Valley's doughnut culture.  But, for now, enjoy.

Getting Started

What is it like to be young in an American mid-size city?  More specifically, what is it like to be young in a mid-size city situated in the heart of the northeastern rust belt?  Is community possible?  Are there young-people with vision and commitment to bring the place back to life?  Is there anything to do?

I grew up in Allentown.  I went to Parkland for High School, but then, like many of my friends, went away for school.  My studies took me to some of the greatest cities around the world.  Then, I did something unusual for people my age--I came back to live here.

In the abstract, the Lehigh Valley always had its pluses and minuses:  Urban sprawl versus Appalachian vistas and fertile farms; food deserts versus the bustle of the farmer's market; the death of manufacturing industry versus a superb hospital system and two new medical school.
There is genuine hope in the counter-examples.  It is too easy to fall into despair; to blame others for the cancers of the city; to retreat into the isolation of suburbia.  All too often, the negativity of the Morning Call comment section makes this place seem like a wasteland--like nothing can be done.  This, at least to me, seems short-sighted and self-interested.

In fact, there might be a renaissance afoot if only we could change our perspective--to see the good in things instead of the bad.  This is not an intellectual project.  It is a project of action.  It is a project of actually going out in the community and interacting day in and day out with its institutions and people.

And that, ultimately, is what this blog is about.  What it is like to live in the Lehigh Valley and to appreciate and comment on what is happening.  I'll start later today with a trip to the most Allentown of Allentown institutions--the Fairground's Farmer Market.