Sour tradition binds sweet Nashville family

Brackmans have come together for more than a century to make Kraut

Friday, December 21, 2018, Vol. 42, No. 51
By Jim Myers

Thoosh. Thoosh. Thoosh. Thoosh.Thoosh. Rhythmically, methodically, the green cabbage heads slide across the rotating blade of the deli slicer, releasing thin shreds on the other side that fall into a white enameled wash basin that looks to be at least 100 years old.

The Brackman family has once again convened its annual sauerkraut convention, a family tradition that has endured since their first member arrived in Nashville before the Civil War and settled into the old Ninth Ward. That’s where most of the German immigrants ended up in those days and why the neighborhood eventually became known as Germantown.

On this chilly and damp November afternoon, they find themselves in the open East Nashville basement of cousin Joe Barry. Krauts making kraut, someone quips. Almost two dozen members of the Brackman clan are there re-enacting a culinary play that for generations spells the start of the Christmas season.

“I’ve lost my job,” says Marion Brackman Barry, the matriarch of the family who on this day sits just shy of her 97th birthday. She says she’s been participating in this particular family ritual since she was 4 years old and can remember the house at 510 Monroe Street where she was born and raised. Today she is content to watch and supervise, surrounded by love.

“They used to bathe me in that enamel wash basin over there,” she points below the shredder. Her bright blue eyes still sparkle with points that could light up Berry Field.

While making sauerkraut might seem gloriously anachronistic today, it points to a greater era of thrift and self-sufficiency, when everybody in Germantown made their own sauerkraut and cured spiced rounds of beef for the holidays and hung their wash out to dry.

It harkens back to the days when fermenting a field’s bounty was the best way to preserve what a family couldn’t eat, just as Scotch-Irish settlers brought the knowledge how to preserve corn in liquid form in Mason jars.

Much of Germantown was Catholic and worshipped at the Assumption Church, just as the Brackmans did before families took leave of the area, making way for factories, as they spread across town, mostly to points east and south.

Samuel Brackman, 15, watches as Thomas Brackman, left, and Joe Barry slice cabbage.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

The families self-identified by their churches. Belmont was Christ the King, Flatrock was St. Edwards and St. Henry’s was The Valley – Vatican Valley, that is.

The Brackmans, by their own accounting, are the only ones who continued the sauerkraut tradition after the turn of the century.

“We moved to Natchez Trace and would make it there and host big sauerkraut suppers in the basement,” recalls Marion Barry. “We would have 50 people down there, eating kraut with mashed potatoes and pig knuckles,” she says, wrinkling her nose.

Marion’s brother, William, known to all as “Brother Clark,” was the one who carried the fermented mantel forward. Today, it’s Marion and Brother Clark’s children, and their kids, and now grandkids who show up to crank the kraut.

David Brackman, Marion’s nephew, is there coring cabbages, while his son Joseph shoots hoops outside. “Back when we did this at Brother Clark’s, they didn’t let the kids down there,” he laughs, referring to a certain amount of libation that might have been consumed by the men.

The crew used to make upwards of 800 pounds of the sour stuff, either in ceramic crocks or old wood barrels where it would bubble in effervescent waves until it was ready to eat.

Clearly that was more than even the most Teutonic family could consume in a year, the excess production was for the annual Knights of Columbus fundraiser Brother Clark and family would host.

Rick Barry helps his mom, Marion Brackman Barry, put on gloves so she can help with the cabbage.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

There on Bosley Springs behind the new St. Thomas Hospital and next to the Dominican campus stood Post 544, and there, for more than 20 years, the Brackmans would serve their signature sauerkraut along with pig knuckles and spareribs.

Today, Joe Barry mans the slicer and supervises others who take their turn until their arms get fatigued from the rhythmic pushing and pulling.

This crew knows what to do. When you arrive, you grab a pair of gloves and a head of cabbage. Peel off the outer leaves and save the good ones. Take a sharp, thin knife and carve out the hard core. Cut the head in half and slide it along.

The slicer – the person, not the machine – then takes that cabbage half and shreds it down to one small layer, and puts that aside. When the basin is full, it gets dumped into a large plastic bucket or trash barrel. The days of crocks and wood barrels are sadly gone.

The Brackmans prefer their kraut sweetened a little, so next the Red Delicious apples are sliced. Once they have enough of both, they start layering the buckets. First the shredded cabbage, then a sprinkling of salt.

If you’re want exact measurements, you won’t find them. Guided by the hand of God, Joe Barry sprinkles the kosher salt over the cabbage with the Catholic incantation, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost,” then stops with a grin. “That’s how much salt.”

Next come sprinklings of caraway seeds and red pepper flakes, followed by a layer of apples. Then you start the pattern over again until your vessel is full.

Minda Brackman and Rick Barry help Eleanor Brackman, 9, as she layers the cabbage with apples to help ferment the cabbage and add flavor.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

Throughout the process, there’s an abundance of standing around, drinking beer and ribbing each other. This year, the Brackmans are only making 300 pounds, down a hundred from last year. Once those heads are cored and cut, that only leaves slicing and layering. They take turns filling their own buckets to take home at the end of the day.

Suddenly, there’s a clanging in the driveway as an orange five-gallon bucket is flung from the basement garage. The elder cousins chuckle. “Someone tried to skip in line.”

This enduring reunion gives the tight-knit family a chance to catch up with those far-flung members who make the trip just for an afternoon of sauerkraut production, like Marion’s grandson Mark Ryder who grew up in Chicago but now finds himself studying with rocket scientists at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. There’s no word yet if he plans to make this an interplanetary tradition.

It’s cozy in Joe Barry’s old stone-foundation basement, where cedar posts still hold up the two stories above. Full of parts and tools, it could just as well be 1948 as 2018. He moves to the side and picks up one of the original slicers, a handmade mandoline with a wood frame and sheet-metal blade. You can imagine that must have been a chore and it explains why the previous generation would take a whole weekend to make their batch.

While Marion Barry sits in the chill, covered by a plaid blanket, it’s clear she enjoys being there, supported by three generations. While German was widely spoken in her childhood, she says “gesundheit, bless you” is all that she remembers.

Other stories are clearer to her, like meeting Eleanor Roosevelt, entertaining troops through the USO and one night getting too boisterous and being thrown out of the Grand Ole Opry, though those details remain a bit fuzzy.

As the buckets accumulate, other tips are shared. You tamp the layers to compress them, but gently so you don’t bruise the cabbage. The final layer is the cabbage leaves reserved earlier, then a small weighted lid to keep pressure as the cabbage releases moisture and begins to ferment in the salty brine.

Then comes the waiting. And the smell. And the hope that it remains cold to keep the kraut from spoiling while it waits in a basement or a shed. If all goes well, it will reach its sour glory in time for Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

The sky begins to darken as the members of the extended family tote their buckets to the cars and trucks filling the driveway, Minda Brackman, who’s married to Dutch, Brother Clark’s oldest son, loads up the scraps to feed the Gloucester Old Spot pigs and rabbits on their farm in Kingston Springs, with the odd caveat, “Goats don’t like cabbage.”

In a day of shrink-wrapped pre-packaged food, the Brackman family tradition of spending time to make something that brings them together and links them to the past is something to which it’s important to hold fast.

They say their goodbyes as Marion is carried in her wheelchair up the driveway incline. Before she leaves, she says she looks forward to this next year. That’s spoken with the confidence that she will be here, and the exhortation that others should, as well.