‘Sauerkraut Soup’ by Stuart Dybek

Sauerkraut Soup by Stuart Dybek, 1980

The magic trick:

Swagger

It might be blasphemy – or possibly just ignorance – but I consider Stuart Dybek to be the ultimate chronicler of Chicago, at least in the short story form. So there’s no way I can let Illinois Week come and go without featuring something from the ultimate.

“Sauerkraut Soup” has a magic that is simple to identify, if far more difficult to execute. It’s the swagger. That really is it. The story has a swagger to it that betrays the confidence of youth, the defiance of the impoverished, and the overcompensation of the insecurity that comes with being young and impoverished.

And that’s quite a trick on Dybek’s part.

The selection:

The cleanup shift was in the lunchroom taking one of several breaks. The men worked after the bosses had gone and were pretty much on their own so long as the machines were clean in the morning. Unlike for the production crew, a break for cleanup didn’t mean a ten-cent machine coffee. It meant feasting. Most of them were Slavs, missing parts of hands and arms that had been chewed off while trying to clean machines that hadn’t been properly disconnected. I could never exactly identify where in Eastern Europe any of them were from.

“Russian?” I’d ask.

No, no – vigorous denial.

“Polish?”

No. They’d smile, shaking their hands in amusement.

“Lithuanian?”

Ho, ho, ho. Much laughter and poking one another.

“Bohemian?”

Stunned amazement that I could suggest such a thing.

The lunch table was spread as for a buffet. Swollen gray sausages steaming garlic, raw onions, dark bread, horseradish, fish roe.

Still, despite the banquet, a sullen, suspicious air pervaded the room. Next to the cleanup crew, the Greeks from the freezer were cheerful. Not that they weren’t always friendly toward me, though they were distressed that I was sweeping floors, as that had previously been “a colored’s job.”

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