The Sauerkraut Cure

Published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: All in the Family. Book publication date October 2009

A recent genealogical expedition into my dad’s childhood yielded a folk remedy brought by his grandmother to Brooklyn from her native Alsace. I’d asked my dad to spend a day sharing memories of growing up in New York in the 1930s and ‘40s, and he had tales to tell, the most colorful of which involved Grandma Fink, the tender-tough matriarch of the extended family that shared her six-unit Brooklyn apartment building.

The close quarters of the Lincoln Avenue tenement were, thought Grandma Fink, a breeding ground for germs, critters and other unpleasantness, so she maintained vigilant guard over her clan’s health, administering poultices, plasters, salves and syrups and occasionally calling Dr. Hantmann in for a 25-cent kitchen table consult (the patient laid on the table for examination). And, she did seasonal cleaning, not just of the house, but of her grandsons’ insides as well.

Grandma Fink counted tapeworms among the potential threats to her family’s well-being, and twice yearly she waged war on any that might have found their way into my father and his two older brothers. Her weapon? Sauerkraut.

“One day each spring and fall, Grandma Fink would call me, Henny and Eddie into the kitchen," recalled my dad. "On the stove was a huge pot of water in which cabbage had been cooking for hours, made into sauerkraut. We knew from the towels and blankets covering the pot that it wasn’t for consumption. It was to attract tapeworms.”

The boys took turns standing on a stool that Grandma Fink had pulled to the stove. She’d lift the heavy towels that covered the steaming pot and push the boys’ little heads into the stinky steam. "We," said my dad, "were told to inhale the sauerkraut aroma, which Grandma said would ward off colds but most importantly, lure out any tapeworms growing inside us.”

Grandma Fink knew that tapeworms loved sauerkraut, especially kraut as delicious as hers, made from an old family recipe, and that to get some, the parasites would swim up through the intestines to the mouth and try to jump into the sauerkraut pot.

As the boys sniffed the pungent mash, Grandma stood close by, waiting to pull out any tapeworms that might emerge. “Grandma was ready to capture them,” said my dad, “and we thought she was quite brave, because she told us they could be thirty, even up to eighty feet long.”

As far as my dad knows, Grandma never did catch a tapeworm. “I cannot recall a single one ever coming out of us,” he chuckled. But Grandma never let her guard down, pulling out the pot and firing up the semi-annual sauerkraut boil year after year after year, releasing each grandson from the ritual only when he became a young man and moved, for work, marriage or the military, out of her Brooklyn tenement and into the wide world.