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Just when you thought it was safe to put the party clothes and dancing shoes away for another year, Gertrude’s restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art dims the house lights, tunes up the polka band, and rolls out an extravagant buffet for a post-New Year’s celebration.
The object of all this folderol? Shredded cabbage that has been moldering in a basement crock as swarms of bacteria render it limp and tart.
That’s right: sauerkraut.
John Shields, chef, cookbook author, and grandson of the Gertrude for whom his restaurant is named, started Krautfest in 2004 to honor all things cabbage—so long as it has been overcome by lactobacillus. Grandma Gertie was German, Shields says, “and I grew up with sauerkraut.”
The dish, he points out, has roots in the home countries of many of Baltimore’s immigrant groups: Germans, Poles, other Eastern Europeans, and even the Irish (although their fondness for cabbage involves the unfermented kind). The dish has become as ubiquitous on Charm City Thanksgiving tables as cranberry sauce.
At the time of his inaugural Krautfest, Shields employed a Croatian sous chef, Tomislav Niksic, whose own grandmother was her hometown’s sauerkraut maven.
“We traded sauerkraut stories,” Shields says. Niksic’s grandmother would make 2,000 pounds for the village each year. “They would store it in barrels in earth cellars to ferment,” Shields explains.
When the kraut, one of the few vegetables that would last throughout the winter, was brought out in early January, “There was cause for celebration,” says Shields.
Initially, Gertrude’s Krautfest was limited to a handful of chafing dishes of such complementary noshes as stuffed cabbage and bratwurst with kraut set up in the bar area. A few German beers were offered, and the restaurant remained open for regular business.
The idea, says Shields was to “get people in to drink beer.” But each year, more people would come for the kraut, and soon, he says, “It was getting so rowdy, the regular guests were getting mad.”
By 2008, the entire restaurant was devoted to Krautfest. Even so, Shields says, “We turned away 200 people.” Last year, the party was held over two nights (and will be again this year). The buffet features German-themed food—including all manner of sausages, dumplings, and kielbasa—and the dining tables are pushed aside for dancing to the polka band Joy of Maryland. The cash bar has a nice selection of German beer, as well as Krautinis (don’t ask) and specialty vodka.
And if your vision of sauerkraut is stringy glop sending sour steam into the air around Manhattan hotdog stands, prepare to be pleasantly surprised. The buffet at the Gertrude’s affair features such delicacies as roasted-beet borscht with kraut, kraut-braised red potatoes and carrots, and kraut stroganoff. There are even vegetarian options: Last year’s spread included veggie wursts and kraut seitan with garlic spinach and penne.
And sauerkraut, as it turns out, can be crafted into clever desserts, such as Grandma Wissman’s chocolate and sauerkraut cake and kraut whoopee pies. But that sauerkraut ice cream? Shields admits it may need tweaking.
“I don’t mind it being silly,” he says, “but I want to like it.”
DON'T MISS 2012's 9th ANNUAL KRAUTFEST!
Friday and Saturday nights, January 13 and 14, 2012.
$40 ticket price includes a reserved table, live polka music with Joy of Maryland and a full buffet of sauerkraut goodies, including krautie desserts.
The two nights sell out in advance, so don't delay.
For more information, call 410-889-3399 or visit w ww.gertrudesbaltimore.com .