A "SHORT" HISTORY OF FERMENTATION
Let's follow historical, linguistic, and genetic evidence to find out the human connection with fermentation, with a focus on the Brassica genus, specifically cabbage, as it traveled from the Mediterranean where the Greeks and Romans glorified it, to Europe and Asia where it was(and is) a critical form of sustenance for many populations, to its sea-faring adventures with Captain Cook where it was used to fight scurvy, to its arrival in North America with European immigrants, to its decline in popularity during the World Wars due to anti-German sentiment, to its resurgence in the real food movement as a healthy, probiotic-rich food. Oh, sweet cabbage. You've always been "a head" of the game.
Fermentation by Humans: When Did It All Begin?
We don't know, and likely will never know, when human ancestors began knowingly and systematically fermenting foods. (Farnworth at 2). Finding any ancient archaeological site is a rare occurrence. Finding evidence of fermentation at these sites would be extremely rare since organic matter like plants and milk quickly decompose, leaving little to no trace behind. It is safe to say that systematic, controlled fermentation almost certainly happened at least soon after the agricultural revolution began 12,000 years ago when humans began settling down, becoming more reliant on the food they garnered from plant and animal husbandry. It likely all started when there was a surplus of something (e.g., barley, grapes, milk, vegetables, etc.). People put the surplus in a crock, cask, or hole in the ground--maybe with salt or herbs--where the food was left, or forgotten about, for a while. Upon their opening or rediscovery of these stashes of surplus, people found fermented food (e.g., beer, wine, yogurt, pickled vegetables), created naturally by wild yeasts, molds, and/or bacteria. (No one knew microorganisms existed until their discovery in 1665).
Vegetable fermentation is a good example of our lack of knowledge regarding fermentation origins. One source says that fermentation of vegetables is thought to have begun as early as 8000 B.C., in Asia. Most sources, however, such as this one, claim that vegetable fermentation (at least with vinegar) began in China, around 300 B.C. (The 300 B.C. claim, however, appears to be part of an oft-repeated myth. More on that later.) The fermentation of milk started around 8000 B.C., in the Middle East. By 4,000 B.C. the Egyptians were fermenting grapes into wine, and using yeast to make leavened bread. The earliest-known fish fermentation was occurring in Sweden, around 7,000 B.C.
Fermented Foods: Every Culture's Got Some
All of us drink or consume fermented products. Wine, beer, and other alcohols and all leavened (rising) breads use yeast or bacteria to turn the sugars in the grapes or grains into alcohol or, in the case of breads, carbon dioxide, which causes the bread to rise. Cocoa and coffee beans are fermented to make them edible, and to actually impart to them many of the flavors and smells that we associate with chocolate and coffee. Then there are the dairy-derived, bacterial-fermented foods that most of us are familiar with, such as yogurt, kefir, and cheese. But--taking milk-derived, fermented foods as an example--there are so many more in the world that we likely have never heard of. Here are just a few examples. Dahi is a coagulated sour milk from India. Zabady is a natural-type yogurt, with a cooked flavor, found in Egypt and Sudan. Langfil is a Swedish fermented milk created by slime-producing bacteria. Trahana, from Greece and the Balkans, is fermented ewe's milk. (Farnworth at 4-5).
There is a wide variety of fermented foods and drinks made from grains and legumes (e.g., soy sauce, miso, tempeh). There are countless other examples that, again, most of us have never heard of much less eaten. Here are some examples. Bagni is a fermented drink, from the Caucasus, made from millet. Fufu, from Africa, is a paste made from fermented cassava root. Kanjii, from India, is a liquid flavoring made from fermented rice and carrots. Puto is a Philippine snack food made from fermented rice. Merissa is a fermented drink, in Sudan, made from fermented sorghum wheat.
Then you have fermented vegetables. The most common examples are olives, sauerkraut, kimchi, and cucumbers. Yet the world contains so many more. Bongkrek, from central Java, is a cake made from fermented coconut. Boyang is a fermented food made by the Sherpas of Nepal from wild plant
Many cultures also ferment fish. The Romans and Europeans created mostly fish sauces (e.g., garum) whereas Asian countries created more food staples. Some cultures even ferment meat. (Farnworth, 3-22). If you are really interested in reading more about these fermented foods, and many, many more, check out these books:
1.) Handbook of Fermented Functional Foods, 2nd ed., 2008, edited by Edward R. Farnworth;
2.) Fermented Foods and Beverages of the World, 2010, edited by J.P. Tamang (available online here); and
3.) The Art of Fermentation, 2012, by Sandor Katz. (Available online here.)
One Too Many: Fermented Fruits and an Evolutionary Niche
Fermented foods and the human lineage have a much longer history than one might think. In fact, fermentation may have been a factor as to why our ancient hominid ancestors were able to flourish. Humans have an enzyme that gives us an enhanced ability to break down ethanol, which is an alcohol created by the fermentation of sugars, i.e., short-chain carbohydrates, by yeast. (Think wine, beer, etc.) Scientists studied the gene that creates this enzyme in humans, and were able to trace it back to a mutation that occurred about 10 million years ago. The theory is that our arboreal (tree-living) primate ancestors who acquired this gene mutation were able to venture to the ground and take advantage of fallen fruit more so than other animals. Fallen fruit quickly begins to ferment due to the work of wild yeast. This fermentation creates alcohol. The theory postulates that other primates, and other animals in general, could not easily or fully take advantage of this calorie source because of the side effects of alcohol. (If you want a good laugh, watch a video of intoxicated animals such elephants who are drunk, having eaten "one too many" fallen, fermented fruits!)
With an enhanced ability to break down the alcohol by-product of fallen fruits, our ancestors could take full advantage of these calories when other calorie sources were scarce. Because this mutation could have been an advantage to survival, natural selection may have kicked in--the individuals with this mutation were able to live longer, produce more offspring, and pass the mutation on. Some researches theorize that our current predilection as a species to abuse alcohol is a direct result of this ancient connection to fermenting fruit as a bountiful calorie source. Animals, including human ancestors, were always searching for calorie sources--the more concentrated the better. In other words, the theory is that humans instinctively and subconsciously link alcohol to a high source of calories. This evolutionary adaptation to seek out high-calorie food sources is also the reason for our incredible draw to sugar and fat, which is linked to peoples' difficulty in controlling their eating of high-calorie, processed and refined foods, which are packed with added sugars and fats.
Vegetable Gods: How the Greeks and Romans Idolized Brassicas
Cabbage is a member of the plant genus, Brassica, which includes, in part, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collards, turnips, mustard, kohlrabi, rape, and cauliflower. Current theories about the origin of brassicas, now trace them back to ancient varieties from the Mediterranean region. Then, via ancient trade routes, these early varieties were spread across the continents where, over thousands of years, further, localized breeding and seeds escaping into the wild, created more diversification.
Although what we think of cabbage today may not look exactly like the ones being cultivated thousands of years ago, the mighty cabbage and its brassica ancestors have always been revered. One could say cabbage was food for the gods! In fact, artifacts from Egypt depict cabbage being used as an offering to the gods. (Pederson, 1979 at 10). The Greeks and Romans, however, really exulted the all-powerful cabbage and the brassicas, generally. In fact, they thought that cabbage and other brassicas could cure just about any ailment! (For convenience sake, I will use the term cabbage, primarily, when discussing the Greeks and Romans, but, to be clear, translations sometimes vary as to what type of brassica plant, e.g., kale, cabbage, rape, etc., is being described in some of the ancient texts.)
The earliest mention of brassica plants in ancient literature occurred around 600 B.C., in Greek writings. One of the earliest mentions of the healing properties of these plants was by the famous Greek physician, Hippocrates (460 - 375 B.C.), who noted that cabbage was used in treatment of ulcers and a couple of female-related ailments. Next we have, the Greek philosopher, Theophrastus (371- 287 B.C.), who was a colleague of Aristotle. Theophrastus, who is sometimes referred to as the Father of Botany, provided some of earliest descriptions of cabbage in his work, Enquiry into Plants. Later references to cabbage and brassicas can be found in the works of Greek physicians Dioscorides (40-90 A.D.) and Galen (129-216 A.D.).
Athenaeus, a Greek author, who lived around 200 B.C., wrote a book, The Deipnosophists, which is a dinner party account during which literally every subject is discussed. Guess what came up? Cabbage! In Book IX, cabbage is discussed at length. Athenaeus cites numerous individuals here and here who referenced the healing qualities of cabbage. (Harvard's Center for Hellenic Studies sums up Athenaeus's cabbage references.) There are even references to the cabbage being revered, and those who made oaths by it. "Yes, by the cabbages" they swore (perhaps in jest)!
The Romans picked up, and apparently expounded on, the Greeks' love of cabbage and brassicas. To touch on each significant reference to a brassica by the ancient Greeks and Romans is far beyond the scope of my "short" history piece. Suffice it to say, that the references are, without exaggeration, numerous. This article goes into much more detail, highlighting almost every ancient Greek and Roman source--to include scholars, statesmen, philosophers, poets, and physicians--that praised brassicas. I'll end this part of the history by highlighting two of the main, Roman sources for cabbage/brassica lore: Cato and Pliny, both "The Elder."
Although most of the great works of Cato the Elder (234-149 B.C.) have been lost to history, one survived: On Agriculture. Cato dedicated a significant portion of his work to brassicas and the myriad of remedies the Romans believed they possessed. Brassicas were an important food item, but if you peruse Cato's or Pliny's works, you will realize that brassicas were also considered an all-encompassing, medicinal cure-all. Cabbage was used to cure, or alleviate symptoms from, a huge range of ailments such as joint pain, constipation, sleeplessness, digestion, ulcers, hangovers, cancer, and over-drinking. It might actually be easier to list the ailments that they thought cabbage could not cure or prevent! In fact, Cato says this about cabbage, which perhaps sums up how important the ancient Greeks and Romans believed cabbage to be: "Of the medicinal value of the cabbage: It is the cabbage which surpasses all other vegetables."
Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.), a Roman savant best remembered for his work, The Natural History--an extensive writing on various topics such as geography, agriculture, insects, medicine, food, etc.--described, in length, the many medicinal qualities that the ancient Greeks and Romans believed cabbage to posses. Pliny described many types of brassicas, including heading ones that might be precursors to the large, headed cabbages we know today as "white cabbage." (Eichholtz at 7). In The Natural History, Pliny included a book called, "Book XX: Remedies Derived from the Garden Plants." In this book are six(!) chapters--33-38--devoted solely to cures and remedies that called for cabbag/brassicas (both the leafy and headed types). Here are the titles of the four, larger chapters: "The Cabbage: Eighty-seven Remedies. Recipes Mentioned by Cato"; "[O]pinions of Greeks Relative Thereto"; "Cabbage Sprouts"; and "The Wild Cabbage: Thirty-seven Remedies." In Pliny's chapter on Cato's remedies, Pliny notes that two Greek physicians, Chrysippus, and Dieuches, and the Greek philosopher, Pythagoras, also wrote entire books about cabbage! These books, however, have apparently been lost to history.
Even with the limited ancient Greece and Rome writings that survive to this day, it is clear that cabbage and other brassicas were not only an essential and highly-regarded food, but also some of the most important medicinal products in ancient times.***(Eichholz at ???). It is safe to say that there is likely no other medicinal plant that can look back on a longer or more storied history. Id.
Conquering Cabbage: Out of the Mediterranean, Into the World
A genetic study done on the turnip rape--the brassica with the longest history of domestication--shows that it originated in and around the Mediterranean, providing strong evidence it and other brassicas made their way to Asia, Northern and Eastern Europe, and the New World via ancient and more recent trade routes. Another researcher has distilled historical and linguistic studies and analyses of the existing bibliography, in addition to field observations and molecular data, to also propose the hypothesis that all brassicas can be traced back to common ancestors originating in the Mediterranean region. This indicates that cabbage and its brassica relatives made their way out of their indigenous Mediterranean, and into Asia and Europe via ancient trade routes, the Celtic tribes, and Roman expansion. From these ancient, Mediterranean varieties, thousands of years of breeding and diversification resulted in regions, such as Asia, developing unique varieties like the Chinese varieties of cabbage, kale, and turnips.
An early European text, the Capitulare de Villis, from the end of the 700s, outlines the management of royal estates. This text, perhaps the work of King Charlemagne's Court, noted that cabbage (or, based on another translation, kohlrabi, which is another brassica) is a plant that one should have in royal estate gardens. In the first part of the 1100s, in Hildegard von Bingen's, Physica, we get the first mention of the white, headed cabbage used to make sauerkraut. (Eichholtz at 7). In the 1300s, Italian nobility commissioned manuscripts called the Tacuinum Sanitatis. These manuscripts described and illustrated horticultural aspects of feudal society. In these manuscripts are the earliest medieval illustrations of brassicas, such as turnips and kale. By the 1300s, Europeans were engaged in the commercial trade of cabbage within Europe, resulting in people creating cabbage-related surnames, such as "Coelman" ("cabbage man") to reflect their trade. Dutch paintings of the 15-1600s depict brassicas. By 1536, the first, unmistakable description of what we now know as white cabbage (from which sauerkraut is made) was provided by the botanist Ruellius, in De natura stirpium. In the 1700s, species of brassicas, including cabbage and other brassicas were described in Institutiones Rei Herbariae.
So the mighty cabbage and its brassica brethren have conquered the farms, stomachs, and medicinal cabinets of the world. But when did humans first ferment cabbage and other veggies, using salt, thereby creating fermented wonders such as sauerkraut?
All Roads Lead to Rome: The Origins of Sauerkraut
The packing of vegetables, such as cabbage, in salt and water, results in lacto-fermentation, i.e., natural pickling. One of the main by-products of this type of fermentation is lactic acid, which gives these fermented foods a sour taste. ("Sauer" means "sour," in German.) Almost all fermented milk and vegetable foods are a result of lacto-fermentation. (For more information on fermentation, generally, check out the Info section, Fermentation Overview.)
We are going to look at the history of the lacto-fermentation of vegetables, with a focus on sauerkraut. The origin of humans' use of lacto-fermentation, or any fermentation, is a murky history, at best. There are, however, some theories out there. The most popular one deals with sauerkraut, and seems to be merely an urban legend. The one theory, or rather legend, that you will read repeatedly is that sauerkraut production, or at least the basis for it, originated in China over 2,000 years ago. This story as it is told is almost certainly false. Let's delve into this mystery.
This legend of sauerkraut having Chinese origins almost always has a component that, around 300 B.C.E., workers building the Great Wall were supposedly fed preserved vegetables, including cabbage. Some versions of the legend claim the Chinese were using brine to preserve and ferment these vegetables. Other versions of the story claim that the Chinese preserved vegetables in vinegar (or rice wine), which is not fermentation; the vinegar itself preserves the food, void of any lacto-fermentation. (An obvious problem with the latter scenario is that sauerkraut is only made via lacto-fermentation, using salt.) All versions of the story note that the Mongols invaded China, discovered one of these food preservation technologies, and then brought one of them to Eastern Europe during their invasions in the 13th century (early 1200s). The variations of the story that claim that the Chinese were fermenting vegetables with salt have a simple scenario where the invading Mongols took this technique of lacto-fermentation from the Chinese and "introduced" it to Europe. The variations of the legend claiming the Chinese preserved vegetables in vinegar or rice wine come up with scenarios as to how salt began being used to ferment vegetables, specifically cabbage. Some scenarios state that, after the Mongols brought the pickling of vegetables in vinegar to Europe, it was the Europeans that switched from vinegar to salt. Other scenarios are more elaborate, claiming it was the Mongols (even Genghis Khan himself!) that began using salt to ferment cabbage. Apparently Genghis Khan was a warlord and chef! (Read with heavy sarcasm.) A more absurd variation is that the Tatars (a Western Mongol tribe) actually had packed cabbage in their saddle bags, which was fermented by the salty sweat of their horses as they rode to conquer Europe!
Versions of these sauerkraut genesis scenarios are repeated by newspapers, websites, blogs, Wikipedia, journal articles, and even academic books (see, e.g., Lee at 270). Almost none of these sources provide a citation. If there was a citation provided, I followed the citation to only find that the cited source itself had no citation. After hours of my own research and following citations to dead ends, I have never found a source that provides a citation or reference to an ancient source, such as an historical Chinese or Asian record or a Medieval European record from whence this Great Wall-Mongol sauerkraut story stems. Except once. Sort of. Well, not really.
In the book, Classic Russian Cooking: Elena Molokhovet's a Gift to Young Housewives, 1992 (translation and introduction by Joyce Toomre), the translator, Toomre, on page 16, states that, during their 1237 invasion, the Tatars brought, from China, the knowledge of sauerkraut to Europe. (Toomre's translation is available here.) For this claim, she cited an academic article, "A Literary Feast: Food in Early Chinese Literature," 1986, (available here), by David R. Knechtges, who is a professor of Chinese literature. I found Knechtges' article. Knechtges was citing a Chinese text called Zhou Li (a.k.a., Chou Li) (The Rites of Chou), written around 400-300 B.C.E., which detailed the Chou dynasty administrative system. Included in this ancient Chinese text is a description of foods, which included seven "pickled" vegetables, one of them being a rape turnip, which is a brassica and close relative to cabbage. Knechtges, however, never mentioned how sauerkraut came to Europe, much less anything about the Great Wall, the Mongols, or the Tatars. I actually emailed Knechtges, who is a Professor Emeritus of Chinese, at the University of Washington. He wrote me, and stated that he knows nothing of this legend. Toomre, therefore, falsely attributed to Knechtges the Tatar part of the legend. Another dead end.
Knechtges, in his cited article, also never elucidated whether the pickled vegetables were pickled using vinegar or salt. Sauerkraut, for example, is made by adding salt to cabbage via brining or, primarily, dry-salting, allowing naturally-found bacteria to ferment the carbohydrates in the cabbage, creating lactic acid as a by-product, which preserves, i.e., pickles, the vegetable. The use of vinegar preserves without fermentation.
There is tenuous historical evidence that the Chinese were pickling, or even fermenting, by 1100 B.C.E. (about 3,100 years ago).The reference to pickling is in an ancient poem found in the Shijing (or Shih Ching), which is a collection of poems written between 1100-700 B.C.E. Scholars disagree, however, as to proper translation and meaning of the term for "pickling" as used at that time due to the myriad of meanings the word has had. As used here, it most likely meant the mixing of fresh vegetables with vinegar and meat paste. (Needham at 402). Other scholars claim that the Chinese had not even discovered vinegar by the time these poems were written. (Id. at 416, note 1). Therefore, they claim that the "pickling" refers to a method of salting the vegetables, perhaps with brine, which likely involved fermentation.
Better evidence of the Chinese first using salt to generate lactic acid fermentation of vegetables comes from the text, Shih Ming (Explanation of Names), finished around 200 C.E. In here is described a type of fermented material where the base food was fermented with salt and rice, where the fermentation of the rice also helped created lactic acid, which, in turn, preserved the base food. (Needham at 404). The best evidence, however, of the Chinese using salt to generate lactic acid fermentation comes from the ancient Chinese text on agriculture called Qimin Yaoshu (or Chhi Min Yao Shu) (Essential Techniques for the Common People), from 544 C.E. (Needham at 408). This text provides various recipes calling for foods to be stored in brine. (Id. at 404-08).
So it seems very likely that the Chinese were fermenting with salt well before the Mongols first invaded China, in the early part of the 1200s. Nevertheless, we still have no reputable source showing that the Tatars or the Mongols appropriated fermenting technology (using salt) from the Chinese, and then brought this technology to Europe during their invasion in the early 1200s.
I next looked at the major works of a couple of giants in the field of fermentation and food microbiology: Keith Steinkraus and Carl S. Pederson. Steinkraus, in his book, Handbook of Indigenous Fermented Foods, 2nd ed., recites the story about Chinese laborers working on the Great Wall being fed fermented vegetables. (Steinkraus at 113). Guess what he cites. A book by Pederson. So I buy Pederson's book, Microbiology of Food Fermentations, 1979, cited by Steinkrauss. Pederson states that, "from the meager information available it seems the Chinese may have been the first to preserve vegetables by a fermentation process." He provides no citation, nor mentions his source for such belief. He went on to say that today the Chinese use a brine (salted water) to ferment almost everything, stating that "it is assumed that dry salting was a later development of the art." (Pederson at 155). (He seems to be suggesting that the Chinese originally fermented vegetables by brining. Sauerkraut is fermented by "dry salting," which means salt is added to dry and cut cabbage, which is then pressed together, usually by pounding layers of cabbage together. The salt pulls water out of the cabbage, creating a self-made brine of sorts, which--ideally--covers the vegetables.) Pederson goes on to mention the story about the workers on the Great Wall being fed with fermented, mixed vegetables in 300 B.C. He, however, provides no citation for this Great Wall part of the legend. Almost in passing, he mentions the Tatar and Genghis Kahn part of the legend, regarding how vegetable fermentation came to Europe. Important to note is that he dismisses this part of the legend by saying that methods of fermenting vegetables reached Europe much earlier. He then discusses how the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians all ate pickles and planted, ate, and used cabbage for medicine. Pederson seems to suggest that it was the Romans that brought cabbage and fermentation to Europe. (Pederson at 155-56; 163-64).
To conclude my somewhat exhaustive search for the fountainhead of this Tatar/Mongol myth, let me note that the earliest version of this myth that I found appeared in 1946, in a San Francisco, Swedish-run newspaper called Vestkusten ("West Coast"). This article, of course, provides no reference or citation for this information. (Because this article came out in 1946, I'm thinking it may have been fabricated by the staff as an insult to Germans who had started, and just lost, WWII. I have no proof of this, obviously!) Maybe then this China-origin sauerkraut legend began with this Vestkusten article, and people, looking for a quick (and interesting) answer to the origin of sauerkraut, have just repeated it over and over, without question.
So if not from China via the Tatars or Mongols, where did Europe get the process for making sauerkraut? Answer: the Romans. It is safe to say that salt fermentation of cabbage and other brassicas more than likely originated in the Mediterranean (or at least was made common), and then spread to Europe and perhaps even Asia via ancient trade routes, Roman conquests, and Celtic tribes. As mentioned earlier, evidence indicates that brassicas originated in the Mediterranean, and the spread throughout the world. We know brassicas were adored and idolized for at least a thousand years by ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. We know, based on ancient texts, that Romans preserved numerous things in salt. In fact, in Chapter 41, Cabbages; Several Varieties of Them, of Book XIX, in The Natural History, Pliny the Elder describes three ways used to preserve cabbage (likely a type of kale) for long voyages: cut and pack cabbage into emptied and dry oil vessels, and then seal them tight. Added measures include adding niter (potassium nitrate) or seaweed to the cabbage. It is, of course, quite plausible that salt fermentation was independently discovered and practiced by the Chinese, Romans, and other ancient civilizations. But, in regards to where Europeans got the idea for sauerkraut, we must go with the Romans over the Tatars or Mongols.
The theory of a Roman origin for sauerkraut is much more believable because, for this theory, we actually have historical evidence to support it, unlike the Genghis Khan/Tatar yarn. One proponent of the Roman origin theory was the famous German pharmacologist, Fritz Eichholtz, in his book, Sauerkraut und aehnliche Gaererzeugnisse (Sauerkraut and Similar Fermented Products). (Eichholtz at 8-9). He mentions Roman authors, such as Pliny the Elder, and their copious references to cabbage. Eichholtz also notes that, according to an earlier German author, the word "Compositus" was used by the Romans to describe the storage of olives in brine and, most likely, also herbs. Eichholtz notes that Pliny described the use of this brine method for storing a type of legume (ononis), and Pliny's contemporaries, Dioscurides and Columella, described the same method for leaves of kale or other brassicas. (Eichholtz at 9). In fact, Pliny, in his The Natural History, describes the pickling of various food items in brine: grape vine shoots; olives; gourds and cucumbers, fennel, and others food items. Columella, in his work, De Re Rustica (On Agriculture), at 12.1.1-2, actually mentioned, the pickling of not only cabbage, but of capers and parsley.
We can also use linguistics to follow sauerkraut from Rome, northward to Europe. The word "compositus" means "compound," which can be simplified to "mixture." The Romans used the word "compositus" to describe a preparation (medical remedy, food preparation, etc.) where the number of important ingredients is too great to list in the name by which you describe the preparation. Anyway, according to Eichholtz, "compositus" evolved into "kumpost," which, by the 11th century, is the term by which sauerkraut became known in Germany. In fact, the word for sauerkraut, in almost all Eastern European languages, is still a form of "kumpost." Here are some examples: Croatian and Serbian: kiseli kupus; Hungarian: savanyú káposzta; Latvian: skābēti kāposti; Lithuanian: rauginti kopūstai; Polish: kapusta kiszona; Slovak: kyslá kapusta; and the following, translated from Cyrillic: Russian: kvašenaja kapusta; Belarussian: kіslaja kapusta Ukrainian: kvašena kapusta.
By the 13th century, every German household had a wooden cask of sauerkraut in the cellar, most often mixed with (in addition to salt) herbs such as dill, juniper berries, caraway seeds, and wine leaves. *** Deutsch Nahrungswese, Heyne. In Saxony and Franconia (two German states) cabbage heads would first be blanched, and then placed in a similar mixture of salt and herbs. This was called "Kumpskraut" or "Kompes." (It wasn't until much later that we see the word "surkrut"--the precursor to "sauerkraut."). (Eichholtz at 9). Apparently, the first written description of "dry-salting" can be found in the French text, Le Tresor de sante, from 1607. The text notes that sauerkraut is a German food before providing a written description of how we now think of traditional sauerkraut being made: shredded cabbage packed in layers in a crock, with salt and spices. (Davidson at 696).
In sum, genetics, linguistics, and ancient Greek and Roman writings indicate that cabbage and other brassicas originated in the Mediterranean, that the process for preserving these and other plants in salt was something commonly undertaken by the Romans, and that brassicas and the fermentation process were adopted in almost all parts of Europe well before the Mongols or Tatars invaded in the 13th century. Therefore, the Chinese Wall-Tatar-Genghis Khan origin of sauerkraut stops here!
Scurvy, Kraut, and a Captain Named Cook
The first English description sauerkraut manufacturing similar to modern methods was in 1757 by Scottish physician, James Lind, on page 169, in his book, A Treatise on Scurvy. (Pederson, 51). Lind, however, was not writing about sauerkraut manufacturing methods; he was writing about a cure for scurvy. Lind noted that the Dutch sailors suffered much less scurvy than the English, and he attributed this to a possible connection with the large amounts of pickled/fermented cabbage and vegetables that Dutch ships carried as provisions. (Lind at 170). Thus began sauerkraut's anti-climactic adventure on the high seas, with Captain Cook, as he and the British Navy tried to find a cure for scurvy.
For thousands of years, scurvy, a horrific disease caused by the lack of Vitamin C (i.e., ascorbic acid) had decimated ships' crews. This awful scourge of sailors, nicknamed "the plague of the seas," afflicted and killed millions of sailors on long voyages since time immemorial. The Mayflower, for example, lost 50 of its 102-person passengers to scurvy. In desperate attempts to find a definitive cure, various food items, many based on the studies of physician, James Lind, were taken aboard the ship, H.M.S. Endeavor, captained by the English explorer, James Cook, during his first Pacific voyage of 1768-71. (Check out this archive of Cook's log, page 38, to read about the many foods brought on board, in an attempt to treat scurvy.)
Ship logs indicate that Cook loaded 7,860 lbs of sauerkraut for this first Pacific voyage. Sauerkraut was one of the main items that was served by Captain Cook to his crew; they were to eat two pounds per week. Although records indicate that Cook had difficulty in getting his crew to consume the sauerkraut, here is what he reported, upon his return, to the Victualling Board (British navy board responsible for supplying ships with food and drink, i.e., victuals):
"I am to acquaint you that Sour Kroutt [sic] together with the many other Antiscorbutics [scurvy remedies] my Lords Commrs [Commanders] of the Admiralty were pleased to order to be put on board did so effectually preserve the People from a Scorbutic Taint [scurvy] that no one dangerous case hapned [sic] in that disorder during the whole voyage, and it is the Surgeons, Officers and my opinion that Sour Kroutt had a great Share in it and that it will always be found extreamly [sic] beneficial to seamen when they are obliged to live long upon a Salt diet; it has the good quality not to loose any part of its Efficacy by Keeping, we used the last of it in September last after having been above two years on board & it was then as good as at the first."
Cook made a second voyage to the Pacific, from 1772 to 1775, on the H.M.S. Resolution and H.M.S. Adventure. In regards to provisions, Cook wrote this:
"Sour Krout, is Cabbage cut small, and cured by going through a state of fermentation (I am not acquainted with the proper method) it is afterward close pack'd in Casks with its own liquor, in which state it will keep any length of time, it is a very wholsome [sic] food and a very great antiscorbutick, a pound of it is served to each man each Beef day, it is much use(d) in several parts of Germony [sic] from whence it has its name which signifies Sour Cabbage, it having that taste to a high degree and may be eat [sic] either raw or boild [sic]."
In 1774, Cook writes the following in his log:
"After such a long continuance [4 months] at Sea in a high Southern Latitude it is but reasonable to think that many of my people would be ill of the Scurvy, the contrary however happened; . . . we had only one man on board that could be call'd very ill of this disease, occasion'd chiefly by a bad habit of body, and a complication of other disorders: we are not to attribute the general good state of health of the crew, wholy [sic] to the sweet wort & Marmalade, this last was only given to one Man, we must allow Portable Broth and Sour Krout to have had some share in it, this last article [Sour Krout] can never be enough recommended."
With all that said, however, "Sour Krout" never received the final recognition for vanquishing scurvy. The fact is that no one knew exactly what caused scurvy, or why certain foods seemed to prevent or cure it. In addition to the complete lack of knowledge of what caused scurvy, there were numerous variables. Many food items were used on the ship to combat scurvy, and foods were brought on board during stops. Furthermore, plants--the primary source of Vitamin C, including sauerkraut, of course, lose Vitamin C content over time, and completely lose it if cooked. Even Cook, despite his praise of sauerkraut, thought that "sweet wort"-- was the best anti-scurvy treatment. Cook was not alone in his praise of wort. (Sweet wort, or just "wort" is a precursor to beer. It is a sugary water strained from "mash." Mash is simply "malt" (germinated and dried barley) that is boiled in water, which then releases sugars. This resulting sugary liquid is wort. To produce beer hops are added to the wort to infuse aroma and bitterness, and then the wort is inoculated with yeast, which then eat the sugars to produce ethanol and residual flavors, creating beer. Prost!)
Eventually, however, in 1795, the English navy, based on further observational studies and suggestions by English doctors, such as Gilbert Blane, made it compulsory to carry lemon juice on ships, to combat scurvy. It was deemed the most effective remedy, although no one knew why. (Even the Dutch had been carrying lemon juice, in addition to sauerkraut, since the beginning of the 1600s.) It would not be until 1928 when the actual "anti-scurvy" ingredient, i.e., ascorbic acid, would be discovered. An interesting piece of history is the genesis of the derogatory term for the English: "limeys." In the mid-1800s, the English navy switched, from using lemons and lemon juice, to using limes because of large lime plantations, at that time, in the British "West Indies," now called the Caribbean. (Scurvy soon returned because of the lower ascorbic acid content of limes.) Because of their use of limes at the time, the British ships and their sailors, were called "limey-ships" and "limeys."
Sauerkraut Comes to the Americas
As colonists and explorers traveled the world, they brought native plants and seeds with them. Jacques Cartier, a French explorer, may have been the first to bring cabbage to North America, planting it in Canada, around 1541, during his last voyage. He writes: "We sowed seeds here of our country, as cabbages, turnips, lettuces, and others, which grew and sprung up out of the ground in eight days." By 1630, colonists in Massachusetts were already growing cabbage, turnips, and other vegetables in their gardens. (Juma at 53). Sauerkraut was one of the "anti-scurvy" foods shipped over by the British to feed English soldiers during the American Revolution.
As immigrants flooded into America, they brought their seeds and food cultures with them. The Dutch, for example, who settled heavily on the East coast of America, in a region they called New Netherland, were very fond of cabbage. In addition to making sauerkraut, they enjoyed shredding it to make a salad, which they called "kool sla," which became, "coleslaw." (Smith at 121). Significant, at least with respect to sauerkraut, were...wait for it...the German immigrants. There is a reason why fermented cabbage is known by the German term, "sauerkraut."
German immigrants make up the largest ethnic block in America, if measured by country. More than 43 million Americans claim German heritage, with Ireland coming in second at 33 million. Of course you have the Dutch, the Poles, and other, mainly Eastern European immigrants who also relied heavily on sauerkraut for sustenance, especially through the winter months. But it was mainly the Germans who wove sauerkraut into the the cultural fabric of the United States, just like they did the Easter bunny, Christmas tree, kindergarten, lager beer, bratwurst, pretzels, recreational activities and sports clubs, and so many other things.
And later, from the West Coast of America, came sauerkraut's spicy, Asian cousin, kimchi, made with napa cabbage (Chinese cabbage). Kimchi was brought by the Korean immigrants who traditionally eat it for almost every meal. But, let's focus on sauerkraut, otherwise this informational page is going to get more out of hand than it already has!
Sauerkraut's 20th-Century, U.S. Roller Coaster Ride
By the end of the 1890s, the majority of German immigration to the United States had taken place. Germans had integrated well into American life (with the exception of the Amish and Mennonites who kept to themselves). Germans were now the largest ethnic group in number. The Germans were also probably the most esteemed and respected ethnic group. A 1908 survey of professionals in the United States showed that German immigrants were held in the highest regard; higher than the English and even natural-born Americans. (Kazal, Introduction at 2). Sauerkraut was at its culinary peak in the United States.
Then, in 1914, World War I happened. Everything changed. The German navy sunk the passenger ship Lusitania, bringing the United States to declare war with Germany. Suddenly being German was a liability. German-Americans were harassed and abused across the county, with one German immigrant, in Illinois, being marched through the streets in his underwear, forced to sing the Star Spangled Banner, and then lynched. The German language was not used in public. German businesses were vandalized. Germans anglicized their surnames, the names of their U.S. towns, the names of their U.S. newspapers, and the names of the social and sport clubs they had founded. The U.S. government interned 11,000 German citizens. It was not a good time to be German. Sauerkraut was re-named "liberty cabbage." Sauerkraut was at its culinary nadir.
The war ended, and things were looking up. But then World War II began, and the Holocaust happened. Anti-German sentiment began again, but was not as bad this time around. Hundreds of thousands of Germans flooded into America, to escape the Nazis. General Eisenhower, Allied Commander, was descendant of the Germans known as Pennsylvania Dutch. Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, was a German American. Things weren't as bad for the German-Americans and sauerkraut this time.
In the coming decades, sauerkraut's role was relegated primarily to condiment status where it was placed on sausages, hot dogs, and Reuben sandwiches. Sometimes it made its way onto the dinner table as a holiday side dish, especially in households with German or Eastern European roots. The reason for sauerkraut being relegated to the shadows of American cuisine is many-fold.
First, because it had a German name and German roots, its reputation took an incredible hit because of the world wars and the Holocaust. Second, the art of home fermentation, and the necessity to ferment and store food for the winter, was lost as the younger generations moved to the cities and grew up with industrialized agriculture, fast food, manufactured food, and grocery stores. Third, industrialized manufacturing methods could produce mass quantities of sauerkraut, which was then pasteurized and canned, or bagged in plastic.
Sauerkraut, however--real, unpasteurized sauerkraut--was patiently waiting, fermenting, if you will. Cabbage and its brassica relatives were once glorified by ancient scholars, physicians, philosophers, thespians, and emperors. Casks of sauerkraut once inhabited almost every basement German and Northern and Eastern European households. It would once again reclaim its status as a food exemplifying sustenance and health! And it has. It's time has come again. Cabbage diem! Sales of raw, fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and pickles (pickled with salt, NOT vinegar!) are increasing. Books about fermentation, the most famous by Sandor Katz, are becoming bestsellers, and "avant guarde" chefs are embracing the flavors and textures of fermented foods.
The impetus for this revival of fermented food is, I think, two-fold. First, there is a growing movement in the United States for "real" food. Consumers are beginning to take an interest in what they consume, which means being concerned with what is in their food, where it comes from, who makes it, and how it is made. Consumers no longer want highly-processed foods containing a litany of chemical ingredients, flavorings, and preservatives, which, after decades of consumption, lead to a litany of health-related issues and diseases.
Second, there has been a recent explosion of discoveries and an increased understanding of our gut microbiota, i.e., the bacteria and microorganisms in our gut. They have critical importance to our health. (See my Info piece, Our Microbiota: Critical to Our Health, for detailed info.) Some strains of the good bacteria in our gut are sold as supplements called probiotics. Raw, fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, nautrally contain some of these good bacteria. In addition, fermented foods naturally contain many vitamins, minerals, and lots of indigestible carbs, such as fiber, that our gut microbiota ferment into hormones, fatty acids, and other critical chemicals and nutrients that we need to keep us healthy. Read about the health benefits of fermented foods in the next Info piece, Fermented Foods: Good for the Gut.
In conclusion, it is time to put sauerkraut and other fermented foods back on the main menu!
1. Farnworth, Edward R. Handbook of Fermented Functional Foods. Taylor and Francis Group, 2008.
2. Eichholtz, Fritz. Sauerkraut und aehnliche Gaererzeugnisse. Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH, 1941.
3. Pederson, Carl S., Albury, Margaret N. The Sauerkraut Fermentation. New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, Geneva, Cornell University, 1969. (Available online here.)
4. Pederson, Carl S. Microbiology of Food Fermentation, 2nd ed. AVI Publishing Co., Inc., 1979.
5. Lee, C. H. Fundamentals of Food Biotechnology, 2nd ed. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
6. Smith, Andrew. Food and Drink in American History: A "Full Course" Encyclopedia, vol. 1, A-L. ABC-Clio, 2013.
7. Kazal, Russell A. Becoming Old Stock: The Paradox of German-American Identity. Princeton University Press, 2004.
8. Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press, 1999. (Available online here.)
9. Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilization in China. Vol. 6, Science and Technology. Part V: Fermentations and Food Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. (Available online here.)
● Fermentation by Humans: When Did It All Begin?
● Fermented Foods: Every Culture's Got Some
● One Too Many: Fermented Fruits and an Evolutionary Niche
● Vegetable Gods: How the Greeks and Romans Idolized Brassicas
● Conquering Cabbage: Out of the Mediterranean, Into the World
● All Roads Lead to Rome: The Origins of Sauerkraut
● Scurvy, Kraut, and a Captain Named Cook
● Sauerkraut Comes to the Americas
● Sauerkraut's 20th-Century, U.S. Roller Coaster Ride