Searching for Schweinshaxe: From Heidelberg to Michigan
My search for started back in 2012 when Frank Buesing of Stevensville, after returning from a trip to Bavaria, wrote asking if I knew where he could find pork knuckles (schweinshaxe in German) in Southwest Michigan. On his trip, his guide had recommended he try some and, liking the dish so much, he’d ordered it again at another restaurant in another city. Buesing sent me several photos of schweinshaxe showing what looked like a weapon size piece of meat on a bone. Buesing had already visited several grocery stores and a butcher shop in our area looking for pork knuckles but to no avail. One butcher even consulted a chart of pork cuts and couldn’t find it. I also made some phone calls and got the same response, no pork knuckles around here as I wrote in my July 25, 2012 column in the Herald Palladium titled “Searching for the Elusive Pork Knuckle.”.
Fast forward to a month or so ago when my friend Victoria Larson took me to Vetter’s Alt Heidelberger Brauhaus. Alt Heidelberg is the term for this southwestern German city’s historic district. Vetter’s is on Steingasse, Europe’s longest carless street, which leads down to the Karl-Theodor-Brücke (bridge) spanning the Neckar River. To give you an idea of the how old this city is, the bridge is considered relatively new, having been built in 1788. The building housing Vetter’s dates back even further and is one of those baronial style Germanic places with high ceilings, large wood beams, long tables and a lot of dark highly polished wood. Famed for their Vetter’s 33, at one time the strongest beer in the world with an alcohol content of—you guessed it—33%– it is also known for its traditional German food including a variety of pork knuckles dishes. Though it was hot outside and I wasn’t that hungry, I felt compelled to order the pork knuckle which came with sauerkraut and dumpling and gravy. After all, it was my job to research pork knuckles, wasn’t it? Afraid I wouldn’t like it (after all—pork knuckles?) Victoria wisely said give it a try and if you don’t like it, don’t eat it.
Unfortunately, as far as calories are concerned, I liked it and what I didn’t share with everyone else sitting with us, I ate. And like Buesing, in the next city I visited, I ordered it again. I wanted to tell Buesing, only I couldn’t remember how to spell his name and being far from home didn’t have access to my files. Luckily, Valerie Kowerduck of Stevensville saw my Facebook photo of the schweinshaxe at Vetter’s s and posted a link to my column. Six years after we first talked about pork knuckles, Buesing still hadn’t found any around here. So I called around again getting a more positive response. Bob’s Meat in South Haven told me they carried them while Roger’s Foodland and Zick’s Specialty Meats said they could be ordered if people called ahead. Voila! Pork knuckles.
Buying schweinshaxe in Southwestern Michigan, which has a large percentage of Germans and German-Americans, wasn’t always so difficult.
Robin Christopher, a Journeyman Meat Cutter at United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, who worked as a butcher for decades at such area stores as Family Foods and Eagles, says back then he sold many pig knuckles—later called pork knuckles (“to soften the image to customers”).
“We sold pig knuckles to a variety of people,” he says, noting they’re often used in Mexican dishes such as tacos, Asian dishes served with rice and, of course German foods. “They came in two ways—fresh, meaning raw or uncooked and smoked which are generally called smoked pork ham hocks and are used for seasoning and meat in beans or greens and are great for flavor. The fresh ones are a little more versatile. They can be baked in the oven or they can be par boiled and then finished by braising, pan frying, grilling, deep frying or grilling. They can be eaten whole or they can be cut up or de-boned and the meat used in other recipes.”
At Vetter’s they came with a variety of sides—sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, spätzle (tiny little dumplings cooked by dropping batter into boiling water), big dumplings, noodles, gravy, mustard and bread, depending on what your ordered.
I like to research and when Christopher told me that pig knuckles were big sellers in Southwestern Michigan years ago, I decided to look them up on newspapers.com, an online archive of old newspapers. Sure enough, going back to the late 1800s up to 1960, there were a lot of groceries, butchers and even restaurants advertising them. In the December 17, 1920 issue of the News Palladium, you could buy pig knuckles as well as something called nut-oleo at during Banyon’s Saturday Cash Specials. Kelm’s Market at 222 State Street sold two pounds of pig knuckles and two pounds of sauerkraut all for 19 centers according the January 12, 1934 Herald Press. Kelm’s also sold something called leaf lard (lard must have been big back then because there’s all sorts of types for sale). For15 cents, according to an ad in the February 2, 1937 edition of the News Palladium, you could get pork knuckles and sauerkraut and listen to the music of the 6-piece Old Heidelberg Band at the Higman Park Villa, a beach place in Benton Harbor.
Deutschamerikaner or people of German heritage (including me as my maternal grandfather was from Germany) constitute the largest ancestry group according to the US Census Bureau in its American Community Survey with an estimated number of 44 million German Americans living this country as of 2016 which is one third of the total ethnic German population in the world.
I talked to Sheila Schultz and Betty Timmreck, both members of Napier Parkview Baptist Church on Napier Avenue in Fairplain. More than a century ago it was the First German Baptist Church.
Timmreck and her husband, Dave, are both of German descent and their last name
“My mom was going to the church when it was all German preaching,” she says. “Preaching in German ended a little after 1947 when William Hoover became the pastor.”
But that wasn’t quite the end of the German language at Napier Parkview. Schultz says that up until a few years ago there was a German Sunday School class as well.
Timmreck shared recipes from “The Ladies Missionary Society Cookbook” which was published by her church. The missionary society is now called the more modern sounding W2W (Women to Women).
“I learned to make German food from growing up German,” says Schultz who is German-American and married Armin Schultz, who immigrated as a child from Germany.
“That makes me ever more ‘Germany’,” she says with a laugh.
Schultz likes to take the old recipes, many of them she originally learned to make from her aunts, Maria Schultz and Getrud (there’s no e at the end of her name) Schultz, such as the family’s pork and sauerkraut and tweak them, creating her own signature dishes. She typically makes roulade, a type of meat roll for the holidays and three-to-five days before Christmas begins marinating the ingredients for rotkohl—a seasoned red cabbage dish with apples, red wine and brown sugar. Also on the list of German dishes she occasionally makes our tortes and kuchens or cakes.
“A lot of these dishes my aunts would make when we came over,” she recalls.
Hanns Heil (now there is a serious German name) of Coloma says the beauty of a good recipe is you can add other things to it. And for her and his wife, Sara, an adaptation of brats and sauerkraut, a German dish if there ever was one, can be made in a crockpot with such additions as using jalapeno brats instead of regular ones or even substituting Polish sausage. They add a light beer to the meat and kraut mixture such as a lemon shandy.
“We also use a package of French onion soup like the kind you use to make dip,” he says. “It takes the punch out of the sauerkraut.”
Sheila Schultz’s Rotkohl
½ pound bacon, I prefer thick sliced
I large onion, peeled and thinly sliced
About 3 pounds red cabbage thinly sliced, not shredded
2 or 3 tart apples, peeled and thinly sliced
¼ cup packed brown sugar
1 or 1 ½ cups chicken broth or stock
¼ cup red wine
¼ cup white vinegar
1 to 1 ½ teaspoon kosher salt
pepper to taste
In a large pot/Dutch oven sauté bacon, add onion, cabbage, and apples. Simmer until cabbage starts to collapse, stir gently and add broth, wine, vinegar, brown sugar, salt, and pepper.
*To do ahead I like to let the cabbage mix cool and refrigerate overnight, then complete the final cooking step.
Cook over medium/low heat for about 1 hour, till cabbage is tender. Serve warm.
Hanns and Sara Heil’s Crockpot Sauerkraut and Sausage
1 bag sauerkraut
3 to 4 sausage links such as bratwurst, Polish or jalapeno brats
1 package French onion soup
1 bottle of light beer
Place all ingredients into a crockpot and cook on low for 4 to 6 hours.
The following recipes are from “The Ladies Missionary Society Cookbook.”
6 large potatoes, shredded
1medium onion, grated
¼ cup flour
Salt and pepper
Blend all ingredients together and fry in a hot frying pan with vegetable oil until nice and brown and crispy.
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
Mix all together. Bring 2 quarts of water and one half teaspoon salt to a boil. Suck a large colander with large holes over pot. With a spoon, Press Tell a few tablespoons at a time to cut the colander directly into the boiling water. Stir gently to keep dumplings from sticking. Boil briskly for five days minutes or until tender.
Kraut and Ribs
2 pounds or two glass jars kraut
2 cups fresh shredded cabbage
One medium onion, cut
One or two fresh garlic cloves
1 tart apple
1 bay leaf
2 to 3 pounds country ribs, browned
One package bratwurst cut and browned
½ cup brown sugar
8 to 9 peppercorns
Rinse canned kraut and drain; add fresh cabbage, what in heavy pan or slow cooker. Fried onions, apples and garlic. Brown ribs and add to kraut. Add bay leaves, peppercorns and brown sugar to taste. Let’s cook for 2 ½ hours. Drain if there’s too much liquid. Put in large casserole; add brown bratwurst and bake for about one hour at 350° in covered casserole.
Schweinshaxe or Pork Knuckle
2 to 3 pounds schweinshaxe or pork knuckle
1 bottle Beer, preferably a dark beer
1 garlic clove, finely minced
Preheat oven to 350° F.
Because crispy skin is one of the hallmarks of a good pork knuckle, place the schweinshaxe, unwrapped, in the refrigerator overnight so that the skin dries out.
The next day, place in a roasting pan with just a little of the beer. Sprinkle skin with salt and pepper and rub the minced garlic into the skin. If you’d rather not use beer, rub with a light oil. This keeps it from sticking to the pan and also produces good pan drippings if making gravy.
Roast in an oven for about 4 hours, adding a little more about an hour into the roasting to keep te bottom of the knuckle moist. After the skin has started to crisp, baste with beer about every 45 minutes or so. When the pork reaches an internal temperature of approximately 200 degrees, turn the oven up to 450 degrees, pour beer over the knuckle and cook for about 10 -15 minutes. Serve with potato pancakes, spätzle and/or rotkohl.