Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Harvest of Survival Food

Digging potatoes
picture by dreamstime.com
Gathered cabbage
picture by Burpee.com

With September over, the autumn work on the farms in Kreis Saarburg in the 1800s was about to start. The successful harvest of two very important crops made the difference between a winter of sufficient food or of on-going hunger or even starvation.

The late summer months brought to an end the farmers' work in hay and grain fields. Many of those fields already were harvested and then planted for the next year. Now it is time for the autumn crops to join the hay and grains which are already stored in the barn.  All ages of family members are cutting, digging, picking and gathering. The grapes hang heavy on their vines (I have been told that almost every farm in the Saar River Valley grew grapes for their own wine making), and they will be harvested. The chestnut tree catkins of the spring now have turned a strong rust red inside their spiny covers and can be gathered up for cooking or roasted as a winter treat. The nut also could be ground into a baking flour.  The youngest children gathered the nuts and any fruits like plums and pears that could be dried for use in the cold months.

Some of the hardest work of the autumn is bringing in the potato crop, a labor that calls for rugged days of digging and bending to get that year’s yield into storage in a cool dark place so that the potatoes will last for the entire winter.  All the peasant farmers depended on the potatoes as a major winter food source.

In a good year sacks would stand full and thick throughout the whole field. Parents and the older children worked together in the potato field. Each worker dug the potato stock with a hoe or fork which loosened the plant from the ground.  Next the potato stock was grabbed with the free hand and pulled from the earth, the potatoes mostly hanging tight to it.

 Usually three baskets were used for sorting the newly dug potatoes that were pulled from the stock or picked up from the ground where they had fallen from the stock. The big, thick potatoes went into the first basket, the little ones or those that had been damaged by hoe or fork were thrown in the second basket and used as food for the pigs. The third basket held the medium sized potatoes which would be used as seed potatoes for planting in the spring. The half dry stocks of the potato plants were thrown aside to dry. Landless day workers helped with the harvest for a share of the crop of the larger farms. At noon the housewife or the grandmother prepared a noon meal. Most fields were far from their farmhouse and their meal was carried to the field for them. There was laughter and gossip to make the work more pleasant.  At the end of the day, the sacks were loaded into a wagon and unloaded, usually into the cool dark cellar.

It took about three days to finish the potato harvest. When the potato stocks had dried completely some days later, the young would make a high pile ready to be burned. The roasting of potatoes once the potato stocks were burning was one of the highlights of the year for the the young.  It seems to have been the equivalent of a giant marshmallow roast.  They scraped the potatoes and held them on the fire with pointed sticks. The potatoes roasted to a very white delicate texture inside. They were also very hot. There were many shouts because of slightly burned mouths and fingers during the night of the big potato fires.

Bonfire of potato stocks
In 19th century Germany and for centuries before that, cabbage played a major part in the winter food supply of peasant farmers and craftsmen. Cabbage was their only winter vegetable.  The German word for cabbage is Kohl but in the Saarburg Kreis dialect it was and still is known as Kappes.

Kohl/Kappes is a vegetable that, like the potato, could help keep families from starvation during a long winter. This plant did not require a lot of ground space relative to the size of the head of cabbage that could be harvested from it. Like potatoes, cabbage could be kept all through the winter. Unlike potatoes though, the cabbage had to be sliced into a large barrel and made into Sauerkraut, a fermented cabbage.

The entire family was involved in the process of making sauerkraut. Two of the most important people in preparing sauerkraut were the cabbage cutter and the stomper. The father of the family or, at times, a migrant worker who went from house to house during cabbage season, was usually the cutter. The cutter placed a long board with a cabbage shredder embedded in the center over two stools. He sat on the board and ran the cleaned head of cabbage over the shredder. The finely cut cabbage fell into the tub placed on the floor between the stools.

Krauthobel (cabbage shredder)
When the tub was filled, it was emptied into a well-cleaned barrel, and other ingredients like salt, sugar, herbs, sour apples, and herbs like dill were added. In wine producing areas like Kreis Saarburg, wine was also an important sauerkraut ingredient and made what was called Weinkraut. Each layer of cabbage added to the barrel was stomped, usually by young sons (or daughters) of the family whose feet and legs were washed thoroughly and then covered with stockings called Krauttretensocke (kraut stomping socks). When the last layer of cabbage was in the barrel and stomped, it was covered with a round piece of wood that fit tightly and it was held down by a stone. According to the recipe book, Das Leibgericht, (The Favorite Meal) by Hans Fischer, sauerkraut making began about November 1 and the kraut was ready to eat after about 4 weeks of fermentation.

One interesting side note. I read that in the Hunsruck area, the bridal meal had to include sauerkraut as one of the dishes served because it was considered to be lucky. It is my suspicion that the origin of this story came from necessity since most weddings were celebrated between Christmas and Lent, a time when the workload was light for all the families and when sauerkraut was the only vegetable available on the bride and groom's special day.

Christiane Becker, Die Hunsrücker Küche
Joseph Ollinger, Geschichten und Sagen von Saar und Mosel.
Hans Fischer, Das Leibgericht.
Der Blumenbaum, April, May, June 2002


  1. Kathy

    Your blog helps paint a picture of area and time where I recently found my greatgrand parents were from which I have shared with my family. My great grand parents Michal Schuster from Wiltingen and Catharina Meier from Frommersbach. Catharina parents were Jacob Meire (born 1838 Trier-Heligkreuz) and Catharina Herres of Kasel

    I look forward to future blogs

    MIke Schuster

  2. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for commenting. Our ancestors were certainly from the same area and I love getting comments from people who descend from the places that are so familiar to me. I'm so glad you enjoyed what I've written about. Thank you.