Freelance writer Isabel Bearman Bucher has collected her family’s stories and created a book for her daughters. Here is one example of a recipe with a story attached.
I don’t remember your German great-grandmother very well because she died when I was 5. But I do remember smells. Her small house in New Haven, Connecticut, was always pungent with vinegar. She cleaned windows and floors with it; she put it in her large crock of homemade sauerkraut laced with caraway seeds; she made me drink a teaspoon, saying it was good for the health. She boiled it and made me breathe the vapors because it warded off TB.
Born in Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1858, Antonia Marquis Miller was a tall, willowy woman with an acerbic persona and crackling voice. She was out working by the time she was 12 in the town baths, where rich Americans came to soak. She was noticed by a wealthy woman from New Haven because of her cooking skills. That family sponsored her and brought her to America in 1872, where she became the family cook. She later brought her three sisters over, single-handedly.
Grammy Miller’s German Sauerbraten has always been a family favorite of Poppert, you girls and a houseful of Christmas Day guests. Your Grandpa George always followed his mother’s recipes exactly. I’ve always thought that in doing this, we honor that memory. There was always red cabbage, with just the right amount of bacon and nutmeg, and satiny mashed potatoes laced with the rich gravy from that good brisket that had been pickling in spices in the garage for a week. Those recipes are included in other sections.
With the business of Christmas Day, it’s an easy thing to just put Grammy’s sauerbraten on the stove and forget it.
Grammy Miller’s German Sauerbraten
1 large rump roast
8 bay leaves, hand crushed
1 cup red wine vinegar
8 whole allspice
2 cups red wine
Dash ground cloves
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 cup strong coffee (you can use instant)
1 cup prunes, raisins and dried apricots
3-4 beef bullion cubes
1 tablespoon peppercorns
2 baskets pearl onions
Rump roast has the best meaty taste. Cover the large iron kettle holding the rump with all the ingredients and make sure the meat is totally immersed. Put in the cool garage or the bottom of the fridge for one week. Christmas Day, simply put it on the stove on warm about 11:30 a.m. if you’re having dinner at around 5. Let it go slowly until about 4:30. Do not overcook, as you want it to slice in firm, but tender, slabs. Remove meat from the pot and set aside.
Put two baskets of pearl onions with skins into boiling water for five minutes. You can do this at any time. Cut the bottoms off and squirt them out in a glass bowl for later. Strain all the juices from the sauerbraten into another pan. Coat with ice to skim off all the fat. Remove 1 cup of the thin gravy and mix this with 3 tablespoons of arrowroot thickening. Arrowroot is a health-food herb and is similar to corn starch, except for its benefits, which I’ve forgotten. But the family always used it in gravies.
Heat the gravy, and slowly stir in the arrowroot thickening using a whisk. Add beef bullion cubes. Whisk. Cut the meat in thin slices. Add to the gravy, cover and keep warm until ready to serve the dinner. About 10 minutes before serving, add the pearl onions. Serve with loads of mashed potatoes and red cabbage.