Sauerkraut and Scurvy, the Plague of the Seas
Sauerkraut, or ‘sour cabbage’ in English, was possibly one of the most important sources of nourishment in early American days. Without the estimated 8,000 pounds of sauerkraut brought to the New World on ships, we may not have ever won the battle against the scourge of the seas, scurvy, in coming to America (modern farmer.com).
Scurvy killed an estimated 2,000,000 people on sailing ships between 1500-1800 (ibid). Scurvy is caused by an extreme vitamin C deficiency. Vitamin C, also called ascorbic acid, helps the body to produce vital proteins and acts as an antioxidant.
James Cook was one of the first seamen to experiment with perishable foods on his ship the HM Bark Endeavor in 1768. He took thinly sliced cabbage that was allowed to ferment in its own juices to replace fresh fruits as a source of vitamin C. By then it was widely known that fermented cabbage was a source of excellent nutrition. Even in ancient times, the Chinese fed the workers who built the Great Wall with sauerkraut, and they stayed remarkably healthy.
The earliest sauerkraut recipes found in Eastern Europe are thought to have come by way of Genghis Khan and his marauding troops.
The Germans and Sauerkraut
No-one knows exactly when sauerkraut made its debut in Germany, but it is assumed that it was sometime in the 1600’s (kitchen project.com). It was brought to Germany by the Mongols and its main ingredient, cabbage, proved to grow well in the cool northern climate. Other references suggest that the Romans originally brought sauerkraut to Germany. Hildegard von Bingen, the famous 12th Century nun and herbalist, used sauerkraut in her folk recipes (ibid). During World War I, the German soldiers consumed sauerkraut as a regular staple. Hence the label ‘Krauts’ emerged as a nickname for Germans.
Sauerkraut Comes to the American Colonies
Sauerkraut is first mentioned in American English in 1776. The dish was associated for a long time with German communities, specifically the Pennsylvania Dutch (what’scookingamerica.com). Pennsylvania Dutch cooking is indigenous to the areas of southeastern Pennsylvania settled by the Amish and Mennonites.
William Penn had brought these groups to America in a ‘holy experiment of religious tolerance’. The first sizable population arrived in the 1730’s, settling in the Lancaster, PA area. A typical recipe for homemade sauerkraut from this era included cabbage layered with salt and kept in an air-tight container for several months in a cool and dark cellar. If you would like to see a description of an original 18th century American recipe for sauerkraut, here is a 9 minute presentation on You Tube that you might enjoy:
Health Benefits of Sauerkraut
Sauerkraut is even more nutritious than cabbage, due to the high concentration of vitamin C created through fermentation. It is low in calories and high in calcium and magnesium. It is a good source of dietary fiber, folate, iron, potassium, copper and manganese (Wikipedia).
Sauerkraut is also a time-honored folk remedy for canker sores, and some sources claim that it is effective in inhibiting the growth of cancer cells in test tube studies (ibid).
The Bottom Line
Sauerkraut is admittedly one of those dishes that people either love or hate. But what would a hotdog be without sauerkraut? Or a pork roast? For German families, and for many families with a German heritage, this is not conceivable! And today there are so many recipes that utilize sauerkraut in new and innovative ways. Here are a couple of links to get you started on rediscovering this healthy food: