Pumpkin pie birthday "cake"

At our house, the holiday season begins with Christmas and ends on January 11.

Why January 11? That’s my husband Stuart’s birthday. We don’t clear out the wrapping paper and bows until Jan. 12. Our serious efforts to go back to low-carb eating only starts after that date also.

This year, Stuart discovered a tradition in his men’s group that meets daily for coffee during the week: The birthday boy treats everyone else on his special day.

“Why don’t you invite them to come here for lunch?” I asked.

Stuart looked surprised. I have not been a complete hermit the last year but perhaps half-hermit might be accurate. I’ve needed concentrated time for my book and have not entertained very often in our home.

Also, both of us are just now recovering from a particularly nasty cold/flu that attacked us in late December.

Due to our illnesses, we had had to decline a party with friends and missed our traditional New Year’s Day feast of pork and sauerkraut. We had the pork chops and pureed pumpkin in the freezer begging to be consumed.

Stuart got into the spirit of his party right away, emailing his eleven friends. Nine of them came; so, adding the two of us, our table stretched out to its full capacity.

I offered Stuart a Sweet and Sour Pennsylvania Dutch (actually Swiss/German in ethnic origins) meal. I had intended to make this meal while our children were with us, but we never got to it.

My memoir writing also stimulated my interest. I included a chapter in my memoir called “Seven Sweets and Seven Sours,” and I have found it interesting to do research — both the kind you read about and the kind you eat! Stuart and I grew up on this kind of food.

While writing the chapter on food, I consulted Sauerkraut Yankees by Pennsylvania German Foods and Foodways expert, William Woys Weaver. I wanted to know how and why the cuisine of my childhood and that of most of the descendents of the Germans and German-speaking Swiss in Pennsylvania developed its special emphasis on meats, sweets, and sours.

I am quite sure that ten generations of Mennonite/Pennsylvania Dutch cooking has created a permanent taste for certain piquant combinations. Weaver explains it as a “taste culture” that was pork and flour based with emphasis on dough, noodles, dumplings, “as accompaniments to fatty meat.” Since there was so much fat to absorb, vinegar and/or fruit juices became a way to “cut” the fat.

A perfect meal in this tradition includes soft meats and mounds of mashed potatoes, crunch in some form, even in the limp crunch of sauerkraut, but usually also celery, pickles, or other fresh or pickled vegetables.

Originally, says Weaver, “The basic interplay of tastes in Pennsylvania-German cookery was the tart flavor of fruits contrasted against the salty or smoke flavor of meats, not the sweet-sour taste of refined sugar and vinegar” (152). After about 1910, however, refined sugar and vinegar increased and the proportion of pork and smoked meats declined somewhat in the diet.

On New Year’s Day, however, the “good luck” charm is to eat the kind of cabbage for which the German-speaking world is famous — Kraut! Today we can feel good about the fact that sauerkraut is a pro-biotic food. Good for us!

grilled chops on top of kraut in the crock pot

We started our meal in the morning with grilling of thick pork chops. Even though the meat would become extremely soft, I wanted to see those grill marks.

All morning long, the meat and sauerkraut bubbled together in the crock pot.

When our guests arrived, Stuart invited them to a punch bowl and offered cheese and crackers for appetizers.

Then I went into high gear in the kitchen, drawing on my mother’s example of beating peeled and well-cooked potatoes into high mounds made light and smooth by hot milk added at the very end and blended at high speed. Add browned butter and a little parsley, and it’s time to call everyone to the table. Plate up the meat and sauerkraut, bread and honey, and sit down.

Take a deep breath!

It was easy to find the words for a grace that thanked God for Stuart’s life and love, these friends, and this food.

I didn’t do much writing last Friday, January 11, but I did a lot of living.  And that’s what memoir is: cremated living.

Do you agree?

What is your New Year meal tradition? Tell me about your “taste culture.” I’m eager to hear from you.

Shirley Showalter


  1. Arlene Steffen on January 14, 2013 at 10:11 am

    We had pretty specific holiday traditions around food. New Year’s was a pork roast with onion potatoes, Easter was ham, Thanksgiving and Christmas were both turkey and any time we had company on a regular day, we had beef roast.

    Pork and sauerkraut was a comfort food in our home, but I think my mother used country ribs or a pork shoulder.

    We also shared the holidays with extended family. New Year’s was separate, but Easter was in our home, Thanksgiving was at my aunt’s house and Christmas was at MomMom’s.

  2. shirleyhs on January 14, 2013 at 10:16 am

    Thanks, Arlene, for getting us started. Sounds like you didn’t have to work hard to decide on the menu or locations for holiday meals!

    Were the accompanying dishes tart or sour in your family (to get the balance for the soft comfort foods)? Or was tartness in the form of vinegar-based or fermented foods not considered necessary?

  3. Joan on January 14, 2013 at 10:46 am

    My taste culture (Polish) also includes pork and sauerkraut especially on the holidays. Before I had to go gluten free Christmas was always roast pork and sauerkraut perogis. But plain kraut will still do.

    One of my favorite meals these days is pork chops, with sauerkraut, applesauce, latkes made from sweet potatoes and a touch of sour cream.

    It isn’t anywhere near lunch at the moment and I’m starving!!

    • shirleyhs on January 14, 2013 at 1:37 pm

      Your Polish variation of similar dishes sounds good to me, Joan! It’s interesting to see how foods evolve even within the same larger region.

      Thanks for sawing the post made you hungry. I know the feeling when I read food blogs or watch the food channel.

  4. Ray Evans on January 14, 2013 at 10:48 am

    I’ve long held that the styles of our ancestors cooking had most to do with their kitchen appliances. I grew up on boiled dishes. My mother cooked on a wood stove so we were most apt to have mashed potatoes. My Geezer Pleaser’s folks had a gas range so she grew up with baked potatoes. Can you imagine what the house would be like if you baked potatoes in the oven on a hot summer day using a wood stove?

    It’s fun to track styles of cooking backwards in your family line to see what their cooking appliances were like!


    • shirleyhs on January 14, 2013 at 1:45 pm

      Ray, you will be pleased to know that our food expert William Weaver would agree with you completely. He was most interested in the mid nineteenth century, as the open hearth ovens were gradually being replaced by indoor cook stoves. The first cooks to taste foods named their objection this way: they thought the food tasted “stovey.”

      Thanks for your visit.

  5. Belinda Nicoll on January 14, 2013 at 10:58 am

    I was born and raised in South Africa, with parents who are from French (father) and German (mother) stock. I don’t recall a traditional New Year’s meal, but our Christmas dinner comprised of roast beef and potatoes, rice with onion gravy, cinnamon-sugar pumpkin, and green salad, topped off with steamed pudding and custard, as well as homebrewed ginger beer.

  6. shirleyhs on January 14, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    What a cosmopolitan background you have, Belinda. Your family was/is in a great position to blend “flavor cultures.” Thanks for sharing your Christmas dinner tradition.

    I wonder why some countries focus on food and luck in the New Year and others apparently don’t.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Tina Barbour on January 14, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    You fixed a wonderful lunch for your husband and his friends–sounded delicious!

    I grew up in rural Virginia, and my mother was a true Southern cook (she doesn’t cook anymore). For Thanksgiving we had turkey, for Christmas we had ham, and for New Year’s, we’d have black-eyed peas for good luck (don’t remember any particular meat for the New Year). My husband grew up having greens on New Year’s (signified money in the New Year). In my family, if greens were served, then you’d also have cornbread, mashed potatoes and hard boiled eggs.

  8. shirleyhs on January 14, 2013 at 3:32 pm

    Oh yes, black-eyed peas for Southerners. And greens for greenbacks. Sounds great to me.Probably with ham? Or barbeque. I’ll be right over.

  9. ShirleyK on January 14, 2013 at 8:40 pm

    Cremated? What?

    • shirleyhs on January 14, 2013 at 8:47 pm

      I was borrowing and editing Willa Cather’s quote that “art is cremated youth.”

      If that can be true, then memoir is cremated life.

      Do you buy it?

  10. Luke Drescher on January 16, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    Thank you again Shirley and Stuart!! What a wonderful time and food Yumm . If this is how cremation works I have no problem , in fact , I need more practice.

  11. shirleyhs on January 16, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    Luke, thanks for dropping by with your comment. You made me smile. And thanks for making Stuart’s birthday a very happy one.

  12. ShirleyK on January 19, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    I don’t. Ashes, no.

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