(by Natasha Sajé)
“I starved during World War II.” I heard my mother say this whenever I didn’t eat what was on my plate. She also said, “I’d rather be hungry than cold,” because during and after the war, she lived in an unheated barn and later in barracks where the water in the wash basin froze solid overnight.
Because of the impending Russian invasion at the end of the war, the German government ordered her family to flee from Breslau (now Wroclaw) in Silesia. My grandfather stayed behind in a vain attempt to keep the house, and my aunt at 17 was already working for the German army in Austria. My 15-year-old mother, her stepmother, and half-brother took a train to the village of Uffing am Staffelsee in Bavaria, where they found shelter in a barn, and ate mostly turnips.
From scraps of cloth, my mother created dolls that she bartered for food. She learned to make or mend everything. After the war, she met my father, a Slovenian exile who was also working for the Americans. They married and had me in 1955. Because German law at the time recognized only the nationality of the father, both my father and I were stateless. With $200 in cash, we emigrated to New York City when I was a toddler, leaving behind all family and friends.
My father took one job in a car dealership and another as an apartment building superintendent while my mother did the cleaning—and so much else. She refinished and upholstered furniture, tailored lined draperies, designed dresses without a pattern, needlepointed, crocheted, even made men’s ties. She continued to make all kinds of dolls, including a velvet Felix the Cat for five-year-old me.
In retrospect, I know that she was depressed; even many years later, she recalled consoling herself by overeating Baby Ruth candy bars. My mother’s English was excellent because she had spent two years in Sussex, England, as a governess, but she pined for Europe and the family she had been forced to leave in order to satisfy my father’s wish for U.S. citizenship. Despite her shyness, she turned neighbors into friends everywhere we lived—Americans with whom she shared garage sales, Scrabble, and mystery novels.
When I entered kindergarten, the teacher told my parents to speak English with me. They refused, but my English soon became better than my German anyway. I wanted to fit in, to wear the Villager and Laura Ashley dresses my friends wore, to eat peanut butter and jelly, not rye bread and salami sandwiches.
Despite her gift for making and mending, my mother was a basic and mostly uninterested cook, albeit one who appreciated good ingredients and good food. From her one cookbook, she made butter cookies at Christmas and sometimes a yeast-raised streusel apple cake. Our daily meals were simple: salads, always, and fried breaded pork or chicken cutlets, roast meat, or boiled sausages, accompanied by boiled vegetables and often her beloved potatoes in myriad forms. Fresh fish was a rare treat, and I didn’t taste a turnip until I was in my 30s because of her hatred for them. When my father was travelling, we ate meatless meals like dampfnudeln (steamed yeast-raised dumplings with fruit sauce), packaged pudding, or omelets. My mother’s sauerkraut, however, was extraordinary, and before Alzheimer’s commandeered her mind, I learned her secret: adding a peeled potato.
This past May, my mother died of Covid-19 and dementia, in a memory care facility. The hardest aspect of last spring was the fact that I could not visit her. Previously, twice a week, I’d pick her up and bring her to my house for a meal or a snack: smoked salmon on homemade sourdough bauernbrot, lump crabcakes Baltimore style, cheesecake with blackcurrant sauce, lebkuchen. She loved my cooking and baking, and she even approved of my sauerkraut, from her recipe.
Natasha Sajé, Ph.D., is Professor of English and Director of the Weeks Poetry Series at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah. She can be found at www.natashasaje.com.
25 – 32 oz. high-quality finely shredded jarred sauerkraut (not chunky cut)
1 lb. yellow onions, finely chopped
4 T. olive oil or bacon fat
1 medium white potato, peeled and grated
salt and pepper to taste
optional: 1 t. sugar
optional: caraway seeds
Thoroughly rinse the sauerkraut in running water in a sieve.
Heat olive oil or bacon fat in a frying pan, and sauté onions until translucent.
Add drained sauerkraut, and cook over low heat for approximately 15 minutes, adding a cup of water just before the mixture starts to brown.
Stir in grated potato.
Cook another 20 minutes or so, adding more water if necessary, until the sauerkraut is mellow and soft. It should be the consistency of pudding.
Season with salt and pepper and optional sugar.
(You could use a grated and peeled, starchy, not-too-sweet apple, like a Rome Beauty, instead of the potato. And you could add caraway seeds, although my mother never did.)