It's late fall and the chestnut trees out front are already bare. The garden has been put to bed and the geraniums potted and resting on the pantry windowsill. It's early on a cold Saturday morning, when the frost is thick and white on the grass, that Mr. Burek pulls his truck to a stop in front of our house on his way to sell at the outdoor market. He is all smiles beneath his trim black mustache when we join him at the curb to stare into the open bed of his truck. Thrust together are baskets of thick purple grapes and yellow squashes. There are open sacks of potatoes with clumps of brown earth still clinging to their sides. There are apples and pumpkins, the very last of the tomatoes for the year and bushels of great, big, beautiful heads of green cabbage.
With a very proprietary and confident air, Mr. Burek reaches in and pulls a cabbage off a bushel and thrusts it into my mother's hand and says, "Well, Pani, what do you think?" She holds it and weighs it carefully in her hand, but remains silent as she moves to carefully inspect the remaining heads and bushels. Mr. Burek is a patient man. He's familiar with the scenario from previous years, so he lights himself a Lucky, props his booted foot on the fender of his truck, and rests his elbow casually against his knee. He takes a drag on his cigarette and the smoke drifts out of his nose into the crisp morning air.
"Ile?"(How much?) my mother asks.
He names a number.
"Too much," she says.
Burek might be third generation Polish American already but he's still a member of the same tribe and knows the ways of the people so he isn't offended. Haggling price is part of the cost of doing business with my mother. I've never met anyone - ever- who comes even close to how good my mother was with holding on to a dime, let alone a dollar.
He looks at her thoughtfully, slowly takes another drag of his Lucky, names another price.
My mother's hand is in her apron pocket, squeezing her change purse. She gives his number some thought, counters with another number, close to his but not too close. There is, after all, a protocol to follow.
"Dobrże," (good) Burek finally says, nodding his head in agreement, still in good humor. He knows we'll buy from him again and that counts for something.
He leaves six bushels of cabbage at the curb. We watch him leave a trail of exhaust fumes in his wake until he brakes for the red light down the street and then we call the boys to help carry the bushels inside.
In the kitchen we kids all sit on stools surrounded by the bushels and remove any dirty outer leaves on the cabbage. Unless completely deteriorated, they are carefully washed, chopped by hand and used to make the kraut. Mama and I have tied kerchiefs over our hair and Tata and the boys wear baseball caps. We pass the cleaned heads to Tata who uses a very large curved machete to split the heads in half. His left hand, already missing the tips of his thumb and forefinger, holds the cabbage head steady against the wooden board while his right slowly raises the knife shoulder high, synchronizing arm and eye, and comes down hard. Whack! Whack! The knife slashes cleanly through again and again and Tata's stubby fingers remain unharmed. "I once knew a very hungry horse," my father says laughingly when asked about his missing fingertips. He doesn't know that, once, when he had been drinking with the guys from work, I overheard him cursing the Nazis and the bombs that he had been forced to make and the infection that cost him his fingertips. I can't figure out why he doesn't want us to know.
When all the heads are cleaned and split and cored, the table is pushed out of the way. Our thirty gallon oak barrel, brought from the small shed out back, is scoured and scrubbed clean, waiting for its portly belly to be filled. Mama is mixing a bowl of salt, peppercorns and bay leaves that will be mixed into the shredded cabbage. In the center of the kitchen, Michael, being the oldest, and Tata each straddle a chair facing other and place the large oak shredder between them on the front edges of their chairs. The shredder, fitted with sharp blades in the middle, is made of sturdy oak and has been handed down to us from our neighbor. Her children are grown and gone from home and she no longer needs to make kraut to help her get through the winter months.
The cabbage is piled high into the small square frame that fits in the grooves of the shredder and in unison, Michael and Tata push and pull in long, rhythmic motions back and forth across the carbon steel blades. I sit on the floor at Tata's foot and watch the shredded cabbage fall into our old zinc wash tub like huge flakes of clean white snow. I catch a handful and feel the cold from out of doors, the juice released from its fibers, and eat it raw.
It's an all day project this kraut making what with haggling, cleaning, shredding and then pounding it into the barrel. That's the hardest part because you've got to get the kraut to release all of its juices and pack it down tight to prevent air pockets and have a good amount of kraut juice on top to keep it all submerged in liquid until it ferments. We will all take a turn at it but it's a dull, hard job and Tata will do the bulk of it. For now, I watch the drifts of cabbage-snow grow higher and higher and listen to the lulling sound of crisp cabbage running through carbon steel blades. The chairs beneath Michael and Tata creak noisily as they work. The wood stove is crackling. The birds on the cuckoo clock knock their heads together, marking the passing of time.
In my head and in my heart, I am still there, in that kitchen, making sauerkraut with my family, whenever the frost is thick and white on the grass.
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.