A Milwaukee Childhood Memory: Pork Ribs & Sauerkraut
Linda Grus remembers her mother, Hilde Jach, as a strong woman who didn’t take guff from anyone. Born in Parchim, Germany in 1925, Jach was shaped by the tragedy of World War II.
“Her brothers, her mother, her father, her grandparents were all killed during the war,” says Grus. In the wake of such profound loss, Jach created a new life for herself.
“She worked for the American hospital in Heidelberg, got her bachelors in chemistry and was a medical technologist, worked for the army hospital and that’s how she met my dad. He was in the army and had malaria from Korea and they shipped him to Heidelberg to recuperate,” says Grus.
Jach was soon a newlywed and living in a new country — one that viewed her with suspicion.
“You have to remember, my mom came to the U.S. in 1957 and the war was still very fresh in people’s minds, and here’s a German … so she actually had to go through some of those prejudices,” Grus explains.
Jach was able to overcome some of those prejudices by fully embracing her new life as a military wife. She befriended other military wives who came from all over the world and the U.S. Although they were from different backgrounds, these women bonded over the things that made their lives similar — things like family and food.
Sharing family recipes helped Hilde connect with those around her, and those big meals are the foundation of many of Grus' childhood memories.
“She would cook a big meal and she would invite over neighbors … she would pack up a dish and send them home with it 'so you don’t have to cook dinner tomorrow.’ That was her way of showing kindness and compassion to people,” says Grus.
The dish her mother often made for these gatherings was pork ribs and sauerkraut. It was a savory mixture of tender pork nestled in soft strands of sauerkraut seasoned with bay leaves, juniper berries and caraway seeds. Rounding out the seasonings are onions, garlic, tomatoes and a granny smith apple.
A European-style sauerkraut should be used in this recipe. It’s sweeter and mellower than the kind that many people are familiar with. “It’s not quite as sour. It’s more of a salty brine … it doesn’t have that really harsh, overpowering vinegar taste,” notes Grus.
All of the ingredients are layered in a pot and cooked for several hours. “Once you get the browning of the ribs done, this is actually a pretty simple recipe. It’s just some chopping,” says Grus.
Potatoes are the final component of the dish. Whether boiled or mashed, they are the perfect base to be served with the pork and vegetables.
“Remember to do meat and sauerkraut and potato all together, like, in one bite,” says Grus. “It’s a variety of textures that kind of all work together.”
Mom's Sauerkraut Recipe
- 2 ½ pounds of country pork ribs
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 medium onion, halved and thinly sliced
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- ½ of a large tomato, chopped
- 1 medium Granny Smith apple, peeled & chopped
- 3+ pound jar of sauerkraut, rinsed well
- 2 tablespoon juniper berries
- 1 tablespoon caraway seeds
- 5 medium bay leaves
- 1 quart beef broth
- 2 cups water
Step 1: Pre-heat a large frying pan and add the vegetable oil. Salt and pepper the ribs. Once the oil is hot, add the ribs and brown both sides of them.
Step 2: Place the ribs in a large 8-quart stock pot. Then add the rest of the prepared ingredients (in the order listed above).
Step 3: Bring to a boil. Then cover and simmer for 2 ½ to 3 hours, until all of the ingredients are tender and flavorful.
Serve with boiled or mashed potatoes. Serves 6-8 people and freezes well.