New Year’ Eve first appears in my memory as the sounds of cops in the kitchen.
I wake up on the couch, TV going and the ball already dropped. The kitchen light is on and there are men's voices, barely muted for sleeping children and sleepy wife. I get up and wander out to the clatter of cuffs and creak of thick belts. Four or five policemen are standing there, my father one of them, loading plates with pork and sauerkraut from the oval aluminum crock from the oven.
They take great bites, bits of kraut hanging in mustaches trimmed sharply above the lip. Conversation is small, centered on discussion of the events of the night. Smells of cigarettes, black leather, and Old Spice foul the sweet roasting softness. Bright yellow walls, color chosen to compliment Sears oak veneer cabinets and just-lighter-than-Army-green appliances, serves only to increase their presence. The color can barely get around the negative space the consume. They all have guns, billy-clubs and saps, hanging by my face. I wonder at them, whether they get used, and why and how.
They eat quickly, in good humor, pile their plates in the sink. They thank my mother, the more familiar of them hug her, and they all head back out on duty. I can’t remember if any of them noticed me. They have been in the house maybe five minutes. In the stillness after they leave Mom shuts off the TV and ushers us to bed.
Pork and sauerkraut is my tradition for the first food to be eaten in the new year. It is eaten to bring luck in the coming year. Both my Father’s side (Polish, Stanislaw Okinski became Stanley Fuller on Ellis Island) and Mother’s side (Maiden name Zemak, Pennsylvania Dutch which means German) follow the tradition and until long after I left home did I believe that every person did the same thing. Pork roast, cook long and low, with kraut and sometimes potatoes added later in the process. In some families, sausage would be added, or even take the place of the roast. I had no Italian friends (they lived in different neighborhoods than we), missing the delicious love of the Seven Fishes until I moved to Pittsburgh at age 27.
My father was a police officer in DuBois when I was a child. He invited all the local police, City as well as from outlying Sandy Township, and the few Staties with which he was friendly, to stop by our house for pork and kraut. Police cars would fill little dead-end Burt Street, and everyone would hope for a better new year in that tiny kitchen. We kids would have some too, a little bit before bed then full steaming plates for lunch the next day, added insurance I suppose. Seemed to work for me.
I still keep the faith. And, like Steeler fandom, I am devoutly indoctrinating my kids. Attached is a good approximation of my recipe (family cooking lost to us already). Start it at 6, you’ll be sure it will be ready by midnight. And if you are working, as I and many of my friends will be, share it with your co-workers. They need the luck too.
Pork and Sauerkraut
I make pork and sauerkraut every New Years Eve make sure that there is a batch in the corner of an oven at the restaurant as well as in my house. Everyone needs the good luck it brings to eat pork and sauerkraut for the first meal in the new year.
1 ea. 5-7# piece bone-in pork butt
½ C. Brown sugar
½ C. Salt
½ C. Black pepper
2-3 Tbs Dried thyme
1 ea. 12 oz dark beer, Porter or Stout
3-4 C. Cider
At least 2 # sauerkraut
2-3 # All-pork sausage, hopefully Serbian Kielbassa, cut into 1” chunks.
1. Mix sugar, salt, and pepper in a mixing bowl.
2. Place pork butt in a deep baking dish with room around. Rub cure mix into meat on all sides. Place in baking dish with fat side up. Let pork butt cure in refrigerator overnight.
3. Scrape excess seasoning from pork butt. Remove pork butt from dish. Rinse dish.
4. Return pork to baking dish fat side up. Season top well with dried thyme.
5. Pour beer and cider around pork. Cover and place in a 325° oven for 4-6 hours. The pork butt is ready when the bone pulls out of the meat easily.
6. Add kraut and kielbasa. Allow to cook for another 30 minutes.
7. Eat at 12:01 January 1 for good luck all year.