Schnitzel and Sauerkraut
In rural North Waldoboro, Morse’s European Deli and Kraut Haus celebrates German food.
- By: Hilary Nangle
- Photography by: Jennifer Smith-Mayo
Amid the rolling hills, woodlands, and fields of rural North Waldoboro, David Swetnam and his wife, Jacqueline Sawyer, have turned a popular local fresh sauerkraut operation into a culinary destination for German food aficionados. Morse’s Kraut Haus Restaurant and European Deli draws fans from far beyond Maine who hunger not only for hard-to-find European specialty foods and authentic German fare, but also for the fresh sauerkraut that first earned German-immigrant farmer Virgil Morse fame back in 1918.
Morse’s, an unassuming red barn on Route 220, isn’t filled with livestock or farm equipment, but with a mind-boggling assortment of imported candy, confections, condiments, cheeses, and charcuterie. Complementing that are pretzels, croissants, even pretzel-croissants, as well as cookies, rugelach, and pretzel-dogs, all prepared in Morse’s bakery, and other signature products including Aunt Lydia’s beet relish and Morse’s famed pickles, both mustard and sour garlic.
Every nook and cranny, every shelf and counter, is jam-packed with enticing edibles. Samples make it easy to nibble and nosh while browsing and buying. Or waiting. Given the astonishing bonanza, it would be easy to overlook the small restaurant, with its five high-backed booths and festive white lights, if it weren’t for the small crowd at its door.
When Swetnam, a descendent of Waldoboro’s original German settlers, and Sawyer, a direct descendent of Harriet Beecher Stowe, purchased Morse’s in 2000, it was a simple, seasonal farm store carrying fresh sauerkraut, dried beans, and limited fresh produce. They were living in Washington State, when a visit to elderly relatives inspired them to move east. “Both of us fell madly back in love with Maine,” Swetnam recalls. “We saw that Morse’s Sauerkraut was being quietly marketed, but we didn’t know what it was.”
They asked Swetnam’s ninety-five-year-old great-aunt Hazel, who lived in neighboring Warren, about Morse’s. She replied, “Why that’s famous. It’s for sale? You must buy it. Besides, your grandfather practically haunted the place.” So they did. They closed the sale in September, and began churning out fresh sauerkraut the next day. “We truly felt as if we were taking possession of a museum, that we were just the new curators,” Swetnam says.
They had the perfect Maine business, open in winter and closed in summer, but customers came during the off-season and begged them to open. To warrant year-round operation, they had to give people other reasons to come. “We decided to build on the German heritage of Waldoboro and bring in foods that paired well with sauerkraut, such as sausages,” Swetnam says. “Much to our amazement, we tapped into a niche. There was this unsatisfied demand for German products.”
Not only did people come, but they also brought lists of products they wanted. “In a very real sense, the store was built by our customers. Fully 85 percent of the items found in the store came off somebody’s shopping list,” Swetnam says. “Before we knew it, we had the best-equipped German deli on the eastern seaboard.”
Even that wasn’t enough. Customers came to the tiny store expecting to eat sauerkraut and sausages on the spot, so they squeezed in three tables and began serving Reubens. “New Englanders are passionate about them,” Swetnam says. “We thought if we made really good Reubens, people would come.” And they did. The one-room store couldn’t accommodate the crowds, so in 2004, they renovated a sauerkraut production room into the Kraut Haus restaurant and began adding other traditional German foods to the menu.
“German food had not experienced a renaissance when we opened, and it still hasn’t, nor will it probably ever,” Swetnam quips, “but those who are familiar with it are familiar with the whole repertoire.” Customers began sharing family recipes. The result is like a co-op, he says. The menu reflects what customers want.
While breakfast is rave worthy — especially the Swedish lingonberry pancakes and the French toast made with cinnamon babka bread — lunch is the big draw. Every table is topped with serve-yourself crocks of Morse’s pickles and four types of mustard, from hot to sweet.
The menu almost sags from the weight of the traditional fare: house-made perogies, filled with either minced sausage or cheese; beet borscht, available either hot or cold; Reuben and liverwurst sandwiches; kraut dogs; smoked pork chop; schnitzel; sausage plates made from a choice of bauernwurst, knackwurst, smoked Polish kielbasa, bratwurst, Irish bangers, or bockwurst/weisswurst; and blackboard specials, such as rouladen, goulash, and sauerbraten. Then there’s dessert: German chocolate cake, Black Forest cake, and an apple strudel that’s a meal in itself.
“We’re well aware that it’s sheer sacrilege not to serve beer with German food,” Swetnam says, but space restrictions prevent that. The only other thing missing: a live oom-pah-pah band. Hilary Nangle
Morse’s Kraut Haus Restaurant and European Deli is located at 3856 Washington Rd./Rte. 220 in North Waldoboro. It is open for breakfast Thursday to Sunday from 8 to 10:30 a.m. and for lunch daily, 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. (closed Wednesday). Appetizers such as kraut balls, perogies, and beet borscht are $4-$8; sandwiches are $7; entrees, including pork schnitzel, perogies, and sausage plates are $8-$14; sides, including Morse’s raw kraut, are $2-$3; desserts are $5-$6. 207-832-5569 or 866-832-5569. morsessauerkraut.com
- By: Hilary Nangle
- Photography by: Jennifer Smith-Mayo