I’m not sure why I reserve this delectable side dish for just one day a year—it’s easy enough to make any time and good enough to grace any menu, especially during the cold months when canned and preserved foods play an outsized role. Flecked with cooked-down, diced tomatoes, punctuated with the tang of pickled cabbage perfectly balanced with the sweetness of dark brown sugar, all of it simmered on a back burner with a sautéed onion in a little hot fat, this dish defies its simplicity—like most cooking, it is greater than the sum of its parts.

Perhaps some taste memories carve out a special niche in our psyche—like stuffing with cranberry sauce—making it hard to imagine some dishes sitting on a plate beside roast beef instead of turkey and gravy. 

Food is evocative, and although we certainly cook for purposes of nutrition and flavor (this dish has plenty of both), there are reasons for including an item on the menu that supersede practical considerations. Those are the dishes you associate with a particular person, place or time. Just the smell of allspice or the sound of potatoes sizzling in hot oil can conjure an avalanche of images and memories, reminding you that a recipe is much more than just a list of ingredients.

This sweet-and-sour side dish is a Thank-Goodness-You’re-Not-A-Turkey-Day ritual in my home—we don’t eat the turkey, we just give thanks and eat all the trimmings. It started as an homage to the peculiar Maryland tradition of sauerkraut on Thanksgiving, but now I make it to honor Aunt Edith, the one person at the table who continues to demand the dish year after year. I think it must remind her of her childhood—one that actually contained sauerkraut—which is certainly more than I can say for mine.

I adapted this recipe from page 278 of the 1953 (9th) edition of The Joy of Cooking, which I consult regularly along with my mother-in-law’s well-worn copy of The Settlement Cook Book whenever I need old-fashioned cooking advice. I originally stumbled across it on an early Thanksgiving recipe hunt, and since Aunt Edith has instructed me not to “cut corners,” I’ve never felt the need to look any further for the ritual Thanksgiving sauerkraut recipe.


  • Look for sauerkraut that is unadulterated with chemical preservatives, since it is naturally preserved with salt in the fermentation process. 
  • Consider using a heat disperser to prevent burning.

1 small onion, diced

2 T. extra virgin olive oil

2 T. whole wheat pastry flour

1 can diced tomatoes, 28 ounces

¼ c. dark brown sugar

1 quart sauerkraut, lightly drained (reserve liquid)

Cracked black pepper, to taste


  1. Heat 2 T. oil in deep, cast iron skillet or small Dutch oven over medium-high heat and sauté onion until it begins to color and soften, about 5 minutes. 
  2. Add flour and cook for a few minutes until flour begins to color to the “blonde” stage, the beginning of a roux.
  3. Add tomatoes and brown sugar, turn down heat and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes until tomatoes begin to break down. 
  4. Add drained sauerkraut and continue to simmer for about half an hour to an hour, stirring frequently. Add reserved sauerkraut liquid if mixture seems too dry.
  5. Season with pepper.