CONTRACOSTATIMES.COM March 27, 2009
IN A LIST OF THE world’s gourmet foods, sauerkraut never seems to make the cut. But don’t tell that to the folks who make their home in what’s known as North Dakota’s “Great Sauerkraut Triangle.”
The south-central part of the state dishes out some of the best German food, architecture and culture this side of Munich. In the words of North Dakota’s most famous German Russian, 1950s band leader Lawrence Welk, the region is “wunnerful, wunnerful!”
My own heritage traces back to this area, which was settled by German immigrants who fled from a tyrannical Russian regime in the late 1800s. I was born in Eureka, S.D., which, before cartographers drew state lines, was part of the German-Russian territory.
Visiting the region, I recall a high school cheer my uncle once taught me. “Wieners und wieners und sauerkraut,” he’d begin with his thick German accent, “we are from Hosmer, five miles out!” It still makes me laugh, today.
Standing on a knoll above Welk’s childhood home in Strasburg, I watch the prairie grass sway as if orchestrated by the late conductor’s baton. A tiny lake sparkles in the distance behind a cluster of old barns, a granary and the simple sod house where Welk lived until his 21st birthday.
I realize that the charm of these towns lies in how they’ve held dearly to their customs and traditions. They draw visitors from near and far to reconnect with their roots — or just get a good bowl of borscht (hearty cabbage soup) or some cheese buttons (noodle dough filled with seasoned cheese and onions).In some places, like the Edgeley Coffee Shop in Edgeley where kuchen (fruit and custard pastry) and a German burger (crowned with white cheese and sauerkraut) is served, you can still hear a friendly guten tag (good day) as some of the older customers discuss the day’s news in German.
Food from the Old Country is just part of the sauerkraut triangle.
Museums are another.
The McIntosh County Heritage Center in Ashley has an early rural Lutheran Church, a sod house, a one-room school and other historical buildings on site. You can still hear the accents of the people in many of these places, and can even find old buildings built with mud bricks (a fancy name for dirt and manure).
Historian Michael Miller with the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection says North Dakota’s treeless terrain, much like the steppes of Russia from which the immigrants came, forced the settlers to use building materials other than wood. A well-preserved, original sod home still stands eight miles east of Strasburg.
More than any other buildings, churches received remarkable attention to detail. They were elaborate, using brick, stone and stained glass as evidenced by the St. Peter & Paul Catholic Church in Strasburg — proof of the importance of religion to these pioneers.
Just outside Hague, a Catholic cemetery contains as many as 70 ornate, black eizenkreuzen (iron crosses). Each cross tells its own story, forged by immigrant blacksmiths between 1877 and 1941. Walking down the rows, I can almost imagine the sweat and sadness that went into each one of these crosses, timeless reminders of the hardships these pioneer families endured. The crosses and other tangible history add to the beauty of this region. They’re a part of North Dakota’s heritage that should be treasured and shared for generations to come. Even if you don’t like sauerkraut.