The first time he told me this story, I listened. The second time, I pretended to listen. The third time, I shot a frantic look to my cousins. They understood. Having grown up with the story of curing ham, they understood my dilemma and devised ways to spring me away from my uncle, mid-cure. Uncle George noticed and stopped talking about ham.
When the Fourth of July arrived, the Melinkovich family did a barbecue after the parade. It was an All-American affair of hot dogs and burgers, sides of cole slaw and potato salad. People milled around the grill, eating, drinking lemonade and beer, preparing to look out over the sky at fireworks. No one thought about football or football games or star football players on that day.
I was an honored guest, and Uncle George seated me next to his chair. I was a shy person and waited until everyone else had been served before thinking of food. Uncle George noticed and fixed a plate for me. He sat next to me, offering me slaws and salads and a hot dog in a bun.
"Mustard?" he asked. I nodded.
"Sauerkraut?" I nodded again.
Then the dread moment happened. Uncle George looked at me and said, "You never tasted food like my family made." Trapped in the chair next to him, I knew I would have to hear about yet another ham being cured. I braced myself, but Uncle George fooled me. "No, nothing like the sauerkraut my family made."
Sauerkraut? This was new, and I almost didn't mind listening. He began, "You can't imagine what a chore that was. Heads and heads and heads of cabbage. They would chop and slice all day long. No food processors then, they would chop and slice, chop and slice. All day."
"All day?" I said, "But where would you put it all?"
I had asked; he was ready to answer. "They would layer the cabbage in large barrels, mixing salt between the layers. It would pile up , almost to spilling out. When it sank down a bit, they added more and that had to sink down. They would keep adding until it was as packed as possible."
"Oh. When are the fireworks?"
"Later," he said, taking a deep breath. This story was not over. "You know how they got it to sink? Someone stomped on it. Kind of like grapes turning into wine."
"Oh." I bit into my hot dog thinking that sauerkraut was better eaten than talked about.
"You know who did that? Me. I was the stomper since I was tall and strong. Now, some families, they just jumped in with bare feet. My father had made a disk small enough to get through the top and just large enough for two feet."
I looked down at my uncle's large feet and wondered.
"You had to be very precise when you stepped on that disk, but you also had to step down really hard. And after a while a salty brine would ooze over the top and burn your feet." He laughed. "That really got you moving. I swear I got my football legs from those barrels."
Then I saw him. I saw him on top of a barrel, stomping with that firm step of his, saw him spring up, up, up to escape the sting of salty cabbage. I saw him changed into shoes with cleats, a football tucked under his arm, springing away from mere earth, just as he had sprung away from cabbage. Cleats? They were only to stay the course.
I returned to my hot dog, but stared at the sauerkraut before I took another bite.
Sauerkraut would never be the same again. Whether it's a hot dog on the Fourth of July, or a hot dog from a cart in the streets of New York, sauerkraut evokes a memory of my extended family - my beautiful, brilliant aunt, my four cousins, each memorable in their own way. And while most people associate hot dogs with baseball games, I see my Uncle George on the football field.
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