By Evelyn Apte
Unsurprisingly, I found myself resistant to the idea of eating sauerkraut as a regular part of my diet. Alba, the physical/massage therapist that I see had been urging me for months to eat sauerkraut——so good for the digestion. She said that she eats it regularly, and that her children eat it as well. As a matter of fact she has a friend who makes it for her. Alba pays for the organic ingredients (cabbage) and the friend then prepares it for her in batches. Delicious, she assures me.
So, why so hesitant?
Sauerkraut is something I eat with a Costco hot dog. So why not at other times? Memories begin to emerge. How is it that something so insignificant can start a whole chain of memories? Not what I expected.
My cousin Lore, some months ago during one of our rambling phone calls from Portland said——Do you remember those family parties, the ones where we all complained; about the food and everything else? We laughed together as the images began to float in of the memories of those long ago times.
We were 6 cousins in all and ranged in age from about 14 down to 9 when these gatherings began. I was the youngest. Marianne the oldest with the others in between. There was a bond between us, but also a lot of competition. Marianne was in charge. The three boys; my brother Jerry and cousins John and Bernard were the boys who teased and sometimes behaved sadistically, especially towards me, the little sister. Alli, the Bergen Belsen survivor, did not arrive in time for these gatherings, so it was basically the 6 of us.
My family was the first to arrive from Germany in 1937 and the others followed us to Portland over the next 2 years or so, right up to the beginning of the 2nd world war.
So yes, there was a lot of food, always a lot of food at these family gatherings. As Lore said, “too bad we did not appreciate it at the time”. There would have been potato salad. The potato salad made the German way with vinegar, oil, salt and pepper. mustards and pickles were a requisite. Ham, always present as well as other kinds of meat; lots of meat and also sausages especially purchased from the local German butcher. A warning was always issued as we drove to Gresham for the German butcher forays: “ do not talk politics with the butcher.”
Hearty breads were sourced from the bakery shops located in the Yamhill Farmers Market stalls in downtown Portland., Moslers and the Star Bakery owned and run by 1st generation Jewish immigrant families from Eastern Europe. Pretty wonderful in hindsight. I doubt if any of these markets still exist in Portland. Desserts, no doubt, included something like a German Apple Torte or its equivalent.
There might also have been a celery root salad or perhaps a beet salad with herring? Green salads were not a part of the picture at this point. Reminiscing about this I believe that the details are not as important as the surrounding feelings. We scoffed at the fare being offered; all the while stuffing ourselves. We were busy trying to become Americans and fit in. These meals, to us, no doubt, at the time were taking us back while we were trying to assimilate.
Actually, I do not recall sauerkraut being a part of those meals yet it is somehow symbolic. It would have been served at other times with corned beef . yellow and green split peas and boiled potatoes—heavy fare indeed.
As we grew older we, the cousins, changed, the adults changed and the menus changed as well. Adaptations were made which began to include more fresh salads and fruits. There was still a lot of meat but a gradual evolution to not exactly California cuisine, but nevertheless a noticeable change.
Life had gotten easier for the adults after the war ended. They, hopefully, had begun to come to terms with the losses and anguish of those early refugee years. We cousins had also changed a lot. All 3 boys had been in the armed services. Marianne, Lore and I chose our own but similar paths involving different aspects of becoming psychotherapists or social workers. We have all remained close to this day. Two of the three male cousins have passed away and the rest of us are in or approaching our 90s.
My son Mike has commented that he believed that even as he was growing up that we were still trying to resolve the holocaust and its effect on us and our lives. He is probably right on some level. However, life itself brings its own challenges to learn from and adapt to. In the meanwhile the sauerkraut sits in the refrigerator uneaten so far.