Editor's note: This story was originally published in 2018.
On New Year’s Day in Lancaster County, is there really any reason to even ask the question: What’s for dinner?
Pork and sauerkraut is tradition. It’s delicious. It’s comfort food perfect for a wintry day. And it brings good luck.
A Pennsylvania Dutch cold-weather mainstay from the 1800s, pork and sauerkraut is a combination of two staples.
It starts with sauerkraut, a thrifty and healthy dish that preserves well and is easy for farmers to make. Add roast pork, something Pennsylvania Germans love, and you have a holiday dish that can be served on Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s Day.
Lancaster County residents might travel during the holidays. Many make it a point to be home on New Year’s Day so they can make a batch of pork and sauerkraut or buy meals from one of the local fire companies and churches that host Jan. 1 meals.
“We’re going to be out of town ... but we’ll be back for the pork and sauerkraut,” says Dean Evans, of Lancaster. On New Year’s Day, Evans likes to go to St. Joseph Catholic Church for its pork and sauerkraut meal.
Ring in the new year
Tuesday, New Year’s Day, is peak pork and sauerkraut. More than half of the people who took an LNP/LancasterOnline poll say they eat pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day. About 30 percent say they like it any time of the year. The rest like pork and sauerkraut when it’s cold outside or at the Thanksgiving or Christmas table.
So why is Jan. 1 the day to fire up the slow cooker and break out the jars or cans of sauerkraut?
Many are following family traditions.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll hear two common reasons: good luck and pigs.
“A pig, when it roots for food, it roots forward,” says Jeff Hershey, president of the Denver Lions Club. “That’s supposed to be good luck because you’re moving forward into the new year.”
Most like to cook a pork loin or roast. Others prefer a shoulder. For Lori McCarty, of Marietta, a pork shoulder is the perfect size for her family, and it’s affordable.
The Boston butt also is a popular cut because it has a good amount of fat.
“It really must be a German gene in me,” says William Schmidt, of Manheim Township. “It has to be something fatty.”
And a few people like to use pork chops, crispy tails or hot dogs.
While some cooks turn to Silver Floss-brand sauerkraut, making your own is the only option for others. However, it takes a few months.
Denver Lions Club starts in October by shredding 250 heads of cabbage, salting them and waiting patiently for eight weeks. Hershey, the club’s president, will check on the sauerkraut as it ferments, adding brine when it’s needed and watching for spills.
When it’s ready, the volunteers package the sauerkraut and sell it in early December, just in time for pork and sauerkraut season.
“We tell new people you want to cook it slowly in your oven or a Crock- Pot,” Hershey says. “Leave it in there six to eight hours. Homemade sauerkraut won’t cook as quickly as the processed kind.”
Making your own sauerkraut can backfire. Many home cooks have stories of fermentation fails. Schmidt recalls an attempt at making it 20 years ago.
“I had one batch that was positively awful,” he says. “It didn’t ferment. It rotted.”
He tried again, and the second batch was better.
Some people like to add a touch of brown sugar or apples to their sauerkraut to take the edge off, as Schmidt puts it. Some add a can of beer to keep the dish moist.
After Evans inherited his grandmother’s cookbooks, he tried one version with juniper berries.
“It imparts an evergreen essence to the sauerkraut,” he says.
If the homemade sauerkraut fails, there are plenty of local churches and fire companies that host pork and sauerkraut meals on New Year’s Day to raise money.
Lititz Church of the Brethren has been serving pork and sauerkraut for two decades to raise funds for the church’s youth conference.
Last year, about 1,800 people showed up for a meal at the church or took some home with them, says Marty Hershey, chairperson of the dinner (no relation to Jeff Hershey).
The work starts in October, when volunteers prep and freeze homemade applesauce. They have a break, and then a few days before the new year, a few volunteers gather around 2 a.m. to start cooking 950 pounds of pork butts. Another group cuts up the pork. The day before the big dinner, they set up the rolls and baked goods.
And New Year’s Day starts with cooking potatoes to make mashed potatoes on the side.
By the time it’s over, 140 people helped prep, cook, serve the meal, continue the tradition and maybe even bring some luck.