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Cabbage Craze: Lisbon Sauerkraut Days

A humble dish takes center stage for August 10-12 festival

by Meredith Siemsen

cabbages
The humble cabbage becomes a tasty, gut-restoring food when it's fermented into sauerkraut. (Photo by Meredith Siemsen)

Although Lisbon, Iowa, shares its name with the capital of Portugal, the vast majority of its European settlers were Pennsylvania Dutch. In the early 1900s, small towns like Lisbon along the Central Iowa railroad began hosting harvest-time festivals, where farmers from around the area offered their bounty. What, you ask, was Lisbon’s main festival offering? Nope, not corn. It was sauerkraut. The town had been nicknamed “Dutchtown,” after all.

Thus, in 1909, the annual Lisbon Sauerkraut Days festival was born. The fest, later dubbed “Eastern Iowa’s Holiday,” drew as many as 15,000 people in its 1930s heyday. Folks traveled from far and wide for free wieners and kraut; ball games; foot races; grain, vegetable, and horse exhibitions; and even nationally touring vaudeville acts. The following proclamation was printed on the 1934 festival program:

“Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Hear Ye! All Ye Emperors, Czars, Kings, Dictators, Presidents, Sultans, High Mucky Mucks, Officials and Officers of all States whatsoever and all Ye Private Citizens: You are hereby commanded by the Lord Mayor of Lisbon, acting under powers conferred upon him by the all powerful King Sauerkraut and his consort Queen Wienerwurst, to announce through all your respective sub-realms the approaching celebration of the most glorious of all festivals—Sauerkraut Day.”

“Where we set up Sauerkraut days right now, it’s on top of the old railroad tracks,” says Margaret Strecker, vice president of the festival’s planning committee. “In fact, some of our tent stakes don’t go in all the way because they hit the railroad tracks underneath.” Lisbon’s event takes place this year on August 10-12, right on the main drag along the Old Lincoln Highway.

It’s still traditional to bring prize cabbages in all shapes and sizes to Lisbon Sauerkraut Days (you just might win the Biggest Cabbage Weigh-Off!), but the modern-day version of the festival has adopted a few new traditions. The crowning of the Sauerkraut King and Queen (sorry folks—to qualify, you must be exactly four years old), the Lora Light Memorial community parade, a free ice cream social for the kiddos, the Kraut Route 5K, a silent auction of handmade art and craft items and award-worthy veggies, and the Cabbage Head antique car show are now among the main attractions.

Some folks come just for the music. Sauerkraut Days hosts live music on Friday and Saturday nights, with Lonesome Road providing the musical backdrop for a street dance on Saturday at 9 p.m.

bathtub races
Sauerkraut and bathtub races—what could be more fun?

There is another festival tradition that, for me, might be its most enticing feature. Ever watched a bathtub race? You heard me. If you want to see a team of guys (or gals) pushing a bathtub on wheels down a racecourse the length of a city block while being pelted by water balloons from the onlooking crowd, look no further. “There are three pushers and one guy inside, steering the tub,” says Margaret. Don’t worry, the racers wear helmets—what could possibly go wrong? All I want to know is why don’t they have this in my town? It sounds amazing!

If you join the merry mayhem this year, be sure to spend some quality time in the Kraut Tent. Your hot dog or brat comes with a free helping of Frank’s Kraut, an enthusiastic and loyal sponsor of the event. And new this year to the Kraut Tent is the Reuben sandwich. Yes! This is the best way to consume sauerkraut, as far as I’m concerned. Corned beef, Swiss cheese, and marble rye, baby.

When I asked Margaret her favorite way to eat the stuff, she replied, “With a fork.” Cheeky.

Why Kraut?

I don’t think Lisbon founded their festival to promote healthy gut bacteria, but it’s one of the main reasons sauerkraut is making a comeback in grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and kitchens across the country.

One of Southeast Iowa’s newest sauerkraut makers definitely had your health in mind when they started their operation in 2014. Bubbling Brine Brothers, founded in Fairfield, is the official sauerkraut and kimchi provider for the University of Iowa starting this fall semester. Look for Bubbling Brine Brothers in the refrigerated section of your local health foods grocery, at various Hy-Vee stores, and beginning next year, at the Des Moines Downtown Farmers Market.

To learn more about why fermented cabbage is so rockin’ for your health, check out their website, BubblingBrineBrothers.com. It’s a fascinating read with great documentation of the science behind sauerkraut.

I learned, for instance, that sauerkraut is one of the few synbiotic foods available. What the heck does synbiotic mean? As gastroenterologist Dr. Robynne Chutkan explains it, “Synbiotics are the powerhouse combo of pre- and probiotics. In addition to being good food for gut bacteria, they also provide significant amounts of live bacteria themselves.” So sauerkraut is a double whammy of gut happiness.

Das ist Gut!

Beneficial bacteria in the gut is a very good thing. It’s becoming more and more widely understood that microbes (we’re talking bacteria, fungi, and protozoa) contribute to nearly every metabolic function in the body, affecting the immune system, the inflammatory system, and the nervous system.

According to a 2012 article by Dr. Siri Carpenter in Monitor on Psychology, microbes even affect the enteric nervous system, which is responsible for regulating mood and overall mental health.

“If aliens were to swoop in from outer space and squeeze a human down to see what we’re made of, they would come to the conclusion that cell for cell, we’re mostly bacteria,” says Dr. Carpenter. “In fact, single-celled organisms—mostly bacteria—outnumber our own cells 10 to one, and most of them make their home in the gut. The gut, in turn, has evolved a stunningly complex neural network capable of leveraging this bacterial ecosystem for the sake of both physical and psychological well-being.”

So. Wanna boost your immune function? Have better digestion? Decrease inflammation? Increase nutrient absorption? Even kick your depression out the door? Eating sauerkraut is an awesome place to start.

While just about any sauerkraut on your Reuben sandwich would be delicious, it’s important to note that for optimal health benefits, the kind of sauerkraut you’re looking for is the type that’s been traditionally fermented: it’s raw, unpasteurized, and smiling at you from the refrigerated isle of your grocery store—or from the crock or mason jar in your larder. You want those cultures in your kraut to be “live and active,” so your gut, your body, and your brain can be too.

For more information about Lisbon Sauerkraut Days, August 10-12, 2017, visit SauerkrautDays.com.

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