Thanksgiving is day for gardeners to show off bounty

November 18, 2006|By ROB KASPER

Thursday, most of the glory will go to the cooks of Thanksgiving dinner. But it is also a day that we gardeners can strut our stuff.

If we can claim that any Thanksgiving fare -- squash, greens, even the hated Brussels sprouts -- has come from our garden, then we can brag about this accomplishment for months.

The opportunity, for example, to boast that you had garden tomatoes on Thanksgiving is part of what motivates us to start rolling in the dirt in April. Having Thanksgiving tomatoes ranks right up there with having ripe tomatoes on the Fourth of July as a milestone of gardening prowess, even if the tomatoes that appear on both those occasions taste like cardboard.

The notion of self-sufficiency probably traces its roots to Squanto, perhaps one of the nation's first organic gardeners. Moreover, growing your own vegetables can, I think, have a significant impact on local culture.

It is, I have come to believe, one of the reasons Baltimoreans serve sauerkraut on Thanksgiving.

As many newcomers to Baltimore have been shocked to discover, the natives of this city believe that on Thanksgiving Day fermented cabbage should nestle next to roasted turkey. It is a unique culinary practice. When you ask residents, as I have for the past 30-odd years, why they serve kraut with turkey, they reply, "Because we always have."

The most cogent historical explanation I have been able to unearth is that the practice goes back to the population's strong German heritage. Baltimore was once a very German town. Until World War I, the City Council proceedings were recorded in both German and English. In the old country, a German's festive holiday meal featured roast goose with sauerkraut. But in the new country, German immigrants found that it was hard to get a good goose. (You have to be careful how you say that.) So they substituted turkey but kept the kraut.

This does not explain, however, why other cooks in other cities with large German populations -- Milwaukee or Pittsburgh to name a couple -- don't serve sauerkraut with their turkey. To my knowledge, the only other locale in the United States where this pairing of turkey and kraut continues is the area around Vienna, Mo. There, a letter-writing correspondent has assured me, they grow a lot of cabbage.

Cabbage also grows well in Maryland. There is not a lot you can do with it, other than making coleslaw or sauerkraut. My theory is that many Novembers ago, the Germans of Baltimore began serving sauerkraut with turkey both because it fit with their tradition and because it got rid of a lot of cabbage grown in their gardens.

I claim some German heritage. My family name, Kasper, often spelled Kaspar, has been traced both to a clownish character appearing in German puppet theater and to one of the three kings of the Magi. Given a choice between claiming you are related to a clown or a king, members of my clan usually pick royalty.

I have a garden, a rented plot in Druid Hill Park. This fall, it has produced Thanksgiving Day tomatoes. While these orbs ripened in the basement and are of questionable quality, they nonetheless have given me a big dose of bragging rights.

The autumn garden also has yielded a variety of what I call "storm-door salad greens."

Some weeks ago, I covered the then-fledgling crops with the glass insert that once fit inside our back door. When we got a new door, I hauled the old insert to the garden and put bricks and pieces of wood around its edges, constructing a makeshift cold frame. This structure has protected the crops from cold, frosty nights. In addition, when the sun has shone, the glass has heated the ground, spurring growth.

I may claim German heritage, but I am still a "come-here." Thursday, rather than having kraut on the table, I plan to have some storm-door salad greens.

This probably wouldn't happen if I had been born here or if I had planted cabbage.

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