Friday, October 08, 1999

Sauerkraut festival gets bigger and tastier




BY RICHELLE THOMPSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        WAYNESVILLE — Don't ask Bernard Benner how he gets rid of the sauerkraut smell.

        The first winner of Waynesville's sauerkraut-making contest — back when the festival began in 1970 — will look at you quizzically, then with bemusement.

        Because a man who has made sauerkraut by hand for most of his 90 years doesn't even think about pinching his nose in a room saturated with the pungency of pickled cab bage.

        “It has a nice odor,” Mr. Benner says simply, then waits for the next question.

BY THE NUMBERS
  • Number of years: 30. Before sauerkraut, there was simply the Waynesville Fall Festival.
How much: Organizers ordered 6 tons — 12,000 pounds — of sauerkraut.
  • Number of visitors expected: 200,000 to 250,000.
  • Number of volunteers: Hundreds. Most of the village of 2,500 is involved.
  • Craft booths: About 425 vendors from 22 states.
  • Food booths: 30, all sponsored by local, nonprofit organizations.
        Sauerkraut is the unlikely star this weekend at one of the Tristate's biggest fall craft fairs.

        About 250,000 people are expected to head to northern Warren County on Saturday and Sunday for the Sauerkraut Festival. They will find more than 400 craft booths and food fare of all kinds, including sauerkraut pies and fudge, cabbage rolls and reubens.

        Sauerkraut's leading role was a fluke. When a group of village businessmen met in 1970 to brainstorm for a way to set apart its fall festival from the hordes of others nearby, Albert “Cap” Stubbs remembered his meal from the evening and suggested sauerkraut.

        The group members looked bewildered for a minute, then shrugged their shoulders, and said, “Why not?” according to Dennis Dalton, who was there.

        The first few years featured hog calling and spitting contests. There was the sauerkraut queen and princess, checker games, flea markets and even a car show.

        About 1,000 people threw back 500 pounds of sauerkraut back then. This year, organizers ordered 6 tons.

        “We never thought it would grow like this,” Mr. Dalton said.

        Over the years, he developed a cookbook, One Nation Under Sauerkraut, with recipes and pickled cabbage history. Newspapers and magazines throughout the country have run articles on the unusual festival, and Mr. Dalton gets cookbook requests from across the country.

        Just as the festival has had a storied history, so too has sauerkraut, Mr. Dalton explained.

        It all started with the Great Wall of China more than 2,000 years ago, he said.

        The emperor wanted something cheap, easy and nutritious to feed workers, and sauerkraut was born.

        The recipe for “soured cabbage” traveled to Europe, via Ghenghis Kahn. By the Middle Ages, it was considered an aphrodisiac. During World War I and the anti-German fervor, sauerkraut was briefly renamed “Liberty Cabbage.” Some people swear sauerkraut can predict the weather, Mr. Dalton said.

        History plays a role in Mr. Benner's fondness for sauerkraut. The grandson of German immigrants, he grew up speaking fluent German.

        He still supervises the sauerkraut-making — with strict rules.

        Slice cabbage on a wooden cutter. Weigh out 5 pounds to within an ounce. Add four level tablespoons of salt. Mix by hand. Pack it into a quart jar. Screw on the lid. Cover it up. And don't touch it for six weeks.

        Then eat it. On pork. With mashed potatoes. Raw. Or baked.

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