There’s nothing quite like New Year’s Day in a Pennsylvania household as the smell of fermented cabbage emanates through the kitchen as you try to nurse your gnarly hangover.
And if you’re not from Pennsylvania Dutch land, you may have missed out — or lucked out, depending on your point of view — on this long-standing tradition of eating pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day to ensure good luck in the coming year.
I grew up in one of those smelly New Year’s Day households in central PA. And I was surprised to learn that people from elsewhere, including many from Philadelphia, had no idea that eating slow-cooked pork with a side of stinky cabbage was a New Year’s Day tradition.
The dish is a German custom that was brought over by the Pennsylvania Dutch who settled largely in the central and southcentral portions of the state. William Woys Weaver, a food historian and author based in Chester County, said winter butchering often took place in the months just before Christmas or New Year’s, so celebratory meals happened around those times with a feast of roasted fresh pork.
Sauerkraut was often added to the meal as a side dish because fall is the height of cabbage harvesting. To make sauerkraut, at-home cooks would pickle the cabbage to turn it into the soft side dish and, largely, to preserve it before refrigeration had become a commonality.
Unless you’ve brined your own cabbage before (kudos if you have!) you probably aren’t aware: It actually takes between six and eight weeks of soaking the stuff before the cabbage turns to full-on kraut. From the peak fall harvesting of cabbage time in October, the sauerkraut was done right around the holidays. The slightly-sour, tart dish was found to be a perfect pairing with the fatty pork.
But the custom of having a pig in the backyard started to disappear by the latter part of the 1900’s, Weaver said, so people continued the holiday custom through the butcher shop. That’s when the pork and sauerkraut combo more or less shifted to Christmas Day dinner or to New Year’s Day.
And it continued on Jan. 1 not because of convenience, but because superstition kicked in.
“The folk saying was that pork brought good luck,” Weaver said, “since the pig roots forward.” This “rooting forward” by the pig and its snout symbolizes progress, as compared to the chicken and the turkey which scratch backward.
He added that the idea that pork brings good luck along with it is actually pre-Christian and “deeply embedded” in Old World ideas about pigs and their animal form as a symbol of Lugh, an Irish deity who was believed to have controlled good luck, money and wealth.
Somewhere along the lines, sauerkraut picked up its own superstitions. The Pennsylvania Dutch are known to tell children that if they eat sauerkraut on New Year’s Day, they’re in for “a sweet year.” It’s also said in Dutch folklore that long strands of sauerkraut represent a long life to be lived, and the green color that sauerkraut starts as can symbolize money: The more kraut, the more cash.
The tradition grew and was picked up by many non-Pennsylvania Dutch. Today, grocery stores around the region carry pork and sauerkraut this time of year as it’s in high demand.
“In Pennsylvania, the custom of pork and sauerkraut dinners was continued by local church groups and civic organizations like fire halls,” Weaver said. “Nostalgia for the good old days on the farm was turned into fundraisers, and so the demand continued.”