A History of Pork & Sauerkraut
Ask anyone who grew up in the heart of Lancaster County, PA or in a home influenced by a PA Dutch culture what smell was wafting through their homes on New Year’s Day each year. We can almost guarantee you they would say “pork and sauerkraut.”
The tradition of eating pork and sauerkraut every year to bring in the new year is a tradition that a lot of people aren’t even aware of if they didn’t grow up in Pennsylvania or come from German heritage. Even if you grew up eating the dish every year, maybe you never learned the reason behind it… so we’re here to share!
Consuming pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day is an age-old German tradition, carried into the PA Dutch community because of the large German influence on the culture. Centuries ago, when the majority of the population lived off of their own land, pork and sauerkraut were especially timely on New Year’s Day.
Because the cabbage harvest peeked around October each year, people had the perfect amount of time to make their homemade sauerkraut, which involves a fermentation process that can take at least 6 to 8 weeks. Families would often preserve and can most of their harvests so that they would have plenty of food going into the winter months. Pictured above is the founder of Stoltzfus Meats, Amos Stoltzfus, and his wife Mary, making homemade sauerkraut by the barrel.
Butchering of animals typically happened in late fall, early winter, which also would have been the perfect time to prepare meals using the fresh roasts from the pigs.
Outside of the agricultural community, most of society today no longer lives off of their own land, but the traditional pork and sauerkraut meal remained and has developed some light-hearted superstition over the years.
The idea that the pig is a positive symbol is a longstanding myth in many cultures. The Chinese year of the pig is said to bring wealth and overall prosperity, in early Egyptian cultures as well as Celtic groups the pig was seen as a sign of abundance, and German culture believes that consuming pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day is said to bring good luck and well-being in the year to come.
While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how myths start, one belief is that the pig is considered to be good luck because it roots forward for food and isn’t able to turn its head to the side or look behind itself, symbolizing the attitude of looking ahead into the new year and the things to come, rather than focusing on what has already happened.
Other theories around this meal include that the long shreds of sauerkraut symbolize a long life and the fact that cabbage is green, like money, symbolizes wealth. According to the German Food Guide, it is tradition for families to wish each other as much goodness and money as the number of shreds of cabbage in the pot of sauerkraut before consuming the meal.
Whatever the superstition or the reason behind the meal, it has certainly been carried down through the generations and is still a very popular meal in Lancaster County households. With the perfect balance of the richness of the pork and the tartness that comes from the sauerkraut, it can be a family favorite!
If you would like to try your hand at this traditional PA Dutch meal, here is a simple recipe that we use in our homes:
We’re curious – do you participate in the pork and sauerkraut tradition on New Year’s Day or do you have other traditional foods that you eat in celebration of the year ahead?