Hundreds more turn out for Wishek’s sauerkrautBusiness people, retired folks, neighbors, friends and strangers stood in line more than 100 deep Wednesday, all for a free meal of fermented cabbage, salted pork, mashed potatoes and processed meat. Lines five- and six-people thick wrapped through the gymnasium, around the cafeteria tables, up a flight of stairs and into Wishek Civic Center’s parking lot.
By: Katie Ryan, The Jamestown Sun
WISHEK, N.D. — Business people, retired folks, neighbors, friends and strangers stood in line more than 100 deep Wednesday, all for a free meal of fermented cabbage, salted pork, mashed potatoes and processed meat.
Lines five- and six-people thick wrapped through the gymnasium, around the cafeteria tables, up a flight of stairs and into Wishek Civic Center’s parking lot.
Sauerkraut Day, Wishek’s 83rd annual, fed more than 1,600 people in the town of about 1,000.
Some of the diners were locals like Herman Kauk, who lives just outside of town but has attended Sauerkraut Day each year since 1969.
Kauk, like many Wishek residents, spoke both English and German to fellow diners which included his neighbors, family and friends. Throughout the years, more people have attended and that’s different, Kauk said, but as for the sauerkraut — that’s stayed the same.
“It’s sehr gut — it means very good (in German),” he said.
Sauerkraut Day is like a family reunion, Kauk said.
“It’s like the Fourth of July for Germans,” said Kauk’s daughter, Alisha Ankers who lives in Moorhead, Minn.
Other diners, like the 70 or so members of the Dakota Community Bank Good Neighbor Club in Bismarck, tasted Wishek sauerkraut for the first time. The members, most of whom live in Bismarck and Mandan, rode the 100 miles to the town in two charter buses.
“I don’t eat a lot of it, but I love it,” said Bev Schaner, Mandan, of the sauerkraut.
Sauerkraut Day began as a way for merchants in the area to thank the residents for their patronage throughout the year. That’s still the day’s goal, said Sonya Schumacher, president of the Association of Commerce, but Wishek benefits too. People from surrounding towns visit for the first time and former residents return year after year, she said. Each year attracts new visitors and new business, she said.
The day is such an event, the town’s two full-time police officers lend a hand too, but not in the department’s typical sense of security and law enforcement. Instead, Tom Welder, Wishek’s police chief of 39 years, picked up a potato fork of his own and, in uniform, stirred just like he has for the past five years. Before helping behind the scenes, Welder spent the 10 previous Sauerkraut Days serving and ladling in the lunch line.
“It’s not that I had to do it,” Welder said. “I just wanted to do it,” saying he’d use his vacation time to help if he needed to.
But Sauerkraut Day’s beginnings commence hours before anyone takes their first bite.
They fire up around 7 a.m. in a town garage a block and a half away from the center.
There, LeRoy Wanner and his team of about six chefs, including the police chief, prepare the 120 gallons of sauerkraut, 225 pounds of speck (a type of bacon) and 500 pounds of wieners. The team stirs the mixture in two 60-gallon kettles with potato forks, moistens it with a garden hose and drains it with a strainer the size of a fishing net.
Wanner, a former restaurant owner and current caterer for the town, has been Sauerkraut Day’s head cook for 30 years.
“Most of them call me the sauerkraut king,” he said.
He’s changed the recipe over time, now it’s not as sour. And the way the kettle heated is different too, with bottle gas instead of wood. But after this year, Wanner said, he’ll hang up his apron.
It’s not his last Sauerkraut Day, Wanner said, but because of health problems, he’ll get out of the kitchen next year and enjoy the view from the table.
Never in his 30 years has Wanner gotten to eat the meal he’s prepared with his fellow neighbors and friends, he said.
“By the time we’re done here, it’s all over with,” Wanner said, watching as three grown men struggle to strain a potato fork full of sopping cabbage and fleshy hot dogs.
Wanner said the cooks usually chow together in the garage after cooking and before cleaning up.
The sauerkraut recipe will remain a family tradition though; Wanner’s son Pat Wanner will take over next year. Pat may feel the heat though, in the past 30 years, and even with 400 people more this year than last, his father’s food never ran out.
Sun reporter Katie Ryan can be reached at 701-952-8454 or by e-mail at email@example.com