PG NewsPG delivery
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Home Page
PG News: Nation and World, Region and State, Neighborhoods, Business, Sports, Health and Science, Magazine, Forum
Sports: Headlines, Steelers, Pirates, Penguins, Collegiate, Scholastic
Lifestyle: Columnists, Food, Homes, Restaurants, Gardening, Travel, SEEN, Consumer, Pets
Arts and Entertainment: Movies, TV, Music, Books, Crossword, Lottery
Photo Journal: Post-Gazette photos
AP Wire: News and sports from the Associated Press
Business: Business: Business and Technology News, Personal Business, Consumer, Interact, Stock Quotes, PG Benchmarks, PG on Wheels
Classifieds: Jobs, Real Estate, Automotive, Celebrations and other Post-Gazette Classifieds
Web Extras: Marketplace, Bridal, Headlines by Email, Postcards
Weather: AccuWeather Forecast, Conditions, National Weather, Almanac
Health & Science: Health, Science and Environment
Search: Search by keyword or date
PG Store: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette merchandise
PG Delivery: Home Delivery, Back Copies, Mail Subscriptions

Headlines by E-mail

Headlines Region & State Neighborhoods Business
Sports Health & Science Magazine Forum

Kraut power

The family that makes sauerkraut together stays together, the Jencos say

Sunday, November 01, 1998

By Karen Novak

When the Jenco family rolls out the barrel, it's not to dance the polka. The Elizabeth Township family has been making homemade sauerkraut every fall since emigrating from Poland in 1903. "Our grandparents made sauerkraut in Poland as children," said Helen Kochan, an Elizabeth Township commissioner. "They were apprentices then and passed the skill on down to us."

Kochan's 14 siblings include nine girls and five boys. "Dorothy and John are gone, but we're still a mighty force. Mother never got our names mixed and kept us fed with her wonderful home-cooked meals, but her sauerkraut was to die for."

"You just can't compare the canned stuff with the real thing," said family historian Ruth Samulski, retired from U.S. Steel. "Grandpap Matthew Jenco and Grandma Catherine Urbanovich arrived here via the Kroonland in 1903. He was from Groda and she from Velba, both Polish towns. They brought along their hard work ethic, love of family and sauerkraut savvy. It was only natural they would meet, fall in love, and raise a family of sauerkraut lovers."

And what a family. "We love and support each other," said Kochan. "Our annual sauerkraut-making is a testimony to our family unit, our parents, our heritage."

Tom Jenco was greeted enthusiastically as he deposited his 200-pound load of cabbage on one of the picnic tables that occupy the spacious yard.

"I'm the cabbage buyer," he said. "Many years ago we grew our own, but now we go to Di Carlo's. It's local and fresh."

Jenco is a steelworker at the Irvin Works.

"Our Dad, Michael Jenco, started the steel tradition," said Kochan, as she removed the core from the cabbages. "He worked at the Clairton mill. Almost every one of us works in the steel industry in various capacities."

"The first thing we do is clean the cabbage," chimed in 5-year-old Jason Wavle, who attends the Gill Hall Elementary School.

"Jason has been making sauerkraut with us since he was 2," said his mother, Jean Wavle, a Pampered Chef consultant. "He learned everything from my brother Ray, who is the heart and organizer of this event."

"Uncle Ray is Jason's best buddy," said John Wavle, a software salesman and the only in-law involved in the production.

"We're Jencos by marriage," added Jason, "and Dad doesn't like sauerkraut."

"Ray couldn't help this year," said Kochan, as she cleaned the first cabbage. "He works at the Clairton mill. Ray knows everything about sauerkraut making. He taught us well."

The discarded leaves are used for compost. Nothing is wasted.

Tom Jenco hauled out the stone crock that soon would house the sauerkraut. The brown vessel is 21/2 feet tall and about a foot in diameter. No matter that all the siblings couldn't help out this year - Jason had enough enthusiasm for everyone.

His small hand caressed the crock. "This crock is very old," he mused. "Maybe almost a hundred."

"We will be passing the sauerkraut torch to Jason," said Jean Wavle. "He loves doing this, and he will make sure our tradition continues."

The production began with cleaned whole cabbage leaves resting on the crock's bottom. "Here comes the shredder," announced 10-year-old Daniel Lindy, son of Jenco sibling Virginia. Daniel attends St. Michael's School and is interested in this part of the process. "We get to shred for a while. It's cool."

The shredder is a washboard construction with a sharp cutting blade in the center. "Two people have to hold tight while one shreds the cabbage back and forth," said Wavle. "It's very time-consuming, but it does shred the cabbage fine. We often get asked, 'Why not use a food processor?' People who ask that don't understand tradition."

The boys got to shred a small amount under close supervision, and Jason was eager to explain what would happen if you weren't careful. He held up his hand with a finger folded down. Everyone got the message.

"After the shredded cabbage is layered into the crock, we salt it," said Kochan. "We don't measure - just a handful or two over each layer."

Jason sprinkled in some salt, and in less than 10 minutes tiny bubbles began to float on the newly formed juice.

Tom Jenco returned with a large club. "It's the stomper," said Jason.

"It's awesome," added Daniel.

The stomper was formed from a tree on the original Jenco homestead. Four feet long with a flat, round bottom and tapered top, it was awesome. "Almost looks like a caveman's club," someone said as Wavle began to "stomp" the crock. "This involves a lot of pressure," he said. "You have to really squeeze the cabbage down to make 200 pounds fit in this crock."

"We usually designate stomping and shredding to the menfolk," said Kochan. "The women clean the cabbage and reminisce. I like to remember Mom."

The daughters remember Madilyn Jenco fondly as a fine mother, fabulous baker and a person who never forgot anyone's birthday. "She even remembered nieces, nephews, the mailman, everybody," said Wavle. "I don't know how she did it."

"This house isn't our original homestead," said Kochan, as she salted the final layer of cabbage. "That house was down the road a bit. A fire destroyed it, and we all moved here. This is where we gather like homing pigeons for all the birthdays and holidays. This is home."

Most of the Jencos live within a 25-mile radius of this location.

The completion of the shredding, salting and stomping signaled that the process was almost over. "Now we add the aerator," said Kochan.

"I just call it a stick," joked Wavle. The "stick" is a long, sharp device much like a small spear.

"We place it in the crock, all the way to the bottom," said John Wavle. "This allows the juice to move freely through the crock."

"Like I said," winked Kochan, "it aerates. I think I made up that word."

Kochan brought out the sauerkraut cloths. "These are remnants of an old tablecloth," she said. "They are especially important because they act as a reminder of the love that covers us from generation to generation. I can still see us all sitting at the dining room table eating on that cloth. These cloths will now cover the sauerkraut as it ferments."

"We're ready to cover the lucky stone," said Jason. This stone is from the original homestead and is covered with a cloth, placed over the crock and firmly pressed on top of the cabbage. Another cloth is draped over the entire crock as it is carried underground to a fruit cellar where it will rest for about four weeks.

"People ask us why we bother with all this work," said Jean Wavle. "How can your heritage be a bother?"

Kochan's job will continue every day during the fermentation. "I have to come each day, move the stick to different positions, skim the surface and wash the cloths so no mold forms. Everything must be as clean as possible," she said. "Sometimes Ray lets the kids move the stick. We try to keep everyone involved."

"In about four weeks our pilgrimage begins," said Wavle. "We all bring our gourmet Tupperware, which are really Cool Whip containers, and scoop out our share of sauerkraut. We don't do canning, there are too many of us."

The remaining sauerkraut is for sister Millie Laskowski, who works at U.S. Steel on the South Side. "Millie is a great cook, just like Mom," said Jenco. "She makes a great feast for New Year's Eve, sauerkraut, pork, potatoes, you name it."

Then the remaining siblings, Shirley Balog, Pearl Toth, Joe and Mike Jenco, Dolly Graziano, and their families will gather to feast together and share fellowship.

"It's good luck to eat sauerkraut on New Year's," said Jason.

Karen Novak, an East McKeesport free-lance food writer, kitchen-tested the accompanying recipes.

bottom navigation bar Terms of Use  Privacy Policy