Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Providence Sauerkraut

The first chapter of the forthcoming book focuses heavily on this thing that happens each October in Providence, Utah. Every year for more than a hundred years, the folks who live in Providence get together for a community dinner. They call it the Sauerkraut Dinner. Originally the settlers of the town were predominantly from Switzerland. When they started the tradition, there was still a strong sense of Swiss heritage in the town. Quite a few people still spoke German-Swiss, and naturally, the dinner had a distinct Swiss flavor. The dinner was originally sponsored by the LDS congregations in town. They charged money for the dinner, and the church made a lot of money. Further, there was a bazaar associated with the dinner, and people sold homemade crafts and foods. For example, they made egg noodles, and sold the egg noodles in bags to take home. They canned sauerkraut, and sold cans of sauerkraut. The whole affair had a festive atmosphere, like a party or carnival. Maybe like a Mormon Oktoberfest.

Over the years, the Swiss heritage has been diluted as new subdivisions spring up, and as demographics change. Further, in the 1980s the Church prohibited local fundraising like that, and the tradition ended momentarily. The municipal government stepped in and revamped the dinner, and continues the tradition (sort of). Also, local congregations scaled the dinner down and now they hold it local with no outsiders invited and potluck only, no charge to eat.

Last Saturday was the municipal version of the Sauerkraut Dinner. I went and paid $9.50 to experience it. The dinner part of the experience was catered by Iron Gate Grill. There was no potluck about it. In talking to one of the chefs, I discovered that for the past three years the city required them to use sauerkraut from a professional supplier, whereas before that, it was locally made by folks in town. He told me about seeing a local farmer bring a 55 gallon drum of sauerkraut in the back of his truck, and lifting it off with a fork lift. That kind of thing doesn't happen anymore.

At the head of the line for dinner was a sign reading, "Only one time through please." The dinner was tasty. There was a tossed green salad, cooked carrots, roast turkey (and cranberry sauce), sauerkraut, real mashed potatoes and turkey gravy. The people there were mostly over 60. There were no children whatsoever. There was no entertainment during dinner. I sat with an older couple who had moved to Cache Valley five years ago, from Salt Lake City. They had experienced the Sauerkraut Dinner in their youth, and they said the food was good, but not as good as their long ago memories. The whole dinner experience was rather quiet and somber.

After dinner there was a craft show, with lots of people selling bracelets and necklaces they had made at home. There was no sauerkraut nor noodles for sale.

It seems that if children are not involved in the traditions, then the tradition will soon end. Traditions die when they fail to hold meaning for the participants. This experience brought me to think about how I help to perpetuate the traditions of my local community. It was a little sad to see it declining. Maybe a municipal event can never be as dynamic as a grass root event. I wonder how the city event was different from the ward dinner.