Posted by Kim McNeil on 2021 Jan 2nd
“Where there is beet soup and sauerkraut, there is plenty." - Old Polish proverb
Sauerkraut is a staple in the both the German and Ukrainian New Year traditions, an offering to promote good luck for the coming year. But that is not where it all began.
If you guessed that Sauerkraut originated in Germany, you would have failed the Trivia Pursuit test. On the other hand, if you chose China, you’d be worthy of a pie piece.
Sauerkraut got its origins over 2,000 years ago at the time of the building of the Great Wall of China. Wall builders, who worked tirelessly all year round, went from eating inexpensive cabbage and rice in the summer months to eating inexpensive cabbage and rice in the colder months. The main difference was that in order to preserve the cabbage over winter labourers got fancy by adding rice wine. Enter sauerkraut.
It would take another 1,000 years for sauerkraut to move west. Eastern Europeans embraced the fermented goodness. In the 16th century, in what's now considered Germany, people began fermenting cabbage with salt instead of rice wine. The improved salt formula acted as a preservative and extracted juices from the cabbage to give it its now-famous sour flavour.
During sauerkraut season, from July to November, Europeans would ready themselves for the long winter months by preparing copious amounts of the healthy dish. Depending on what was available and, we’d guess, their mood, Europeans would go pure with their ferment or add spices, other vegetables, apples, dry white wine, and even beer to the recipe. Fancy flavour profiles aside, the availability of fermented cabbage meant the difference between life and death for those living in cold climates. Sauerkraut was, without exaggeration, a life saver.
When sauerkraut was linked to the prevention of scurvy, a disease caused by a deficiency in vitamin C, everyone from the ancient Romans to James Cook to the Dutch to the French to other Europeans adopted sauerkraut. The hype went trans-Atlantic when Dutch seamen -- who ate the food religiously -- brought the dish to America. Or, was it German Jews who brought over the dish? No need to fight over it. We’ll give both groups credit!
Not only did the Dutch bring their enthusiasm for fermented cabbage but they brought their recipes as well. German and Eastern European settlers went one step further by introducing their sauerkraut New Year’s Day traditions. They believed eating pork with sauerkraut would bring good luck. Who could blame them? Anything as healthy and as tasty as sauerkraut must be a good omen. The mythology is tied less to the cabbage and more to the pig. Germans believed that because pigs nose in the ground they look forward whereas turkeys, as demonstrated by their backwards foot scratching, cling to the past. So, pork earned the right to join sauerkraut for their traditional New Year’s Day meal. Jewish people, who didn’t share the German’s affinity for pork, opted for goose or duck meat. Waterfowl wade forward so the symbolism of looking ahead still stands.
Of course, when you start the year with a happy gut, that’s got to count for something. Sauerkraut’s digestive and immune-boosting perks must have played a role in keeping it a priority for the New Year’s Day menu and, we recommend, in your menu all year round.