The Beachcomber Holiday Guide

Humble Sauerkraut Will Lead to a Longer, Healthier Life

It Is a New Year’s Good Luck Tradition in Germany and Eastern Europe
By RICK MELLERUP | Nov 14, 2018

I’m  here to sing the praises of sauerkraut. Say what! No, I’m telling you, don’t be sour on sauerkraut.

There are all sorts of Christmas and holiday meal favorites across the world.

Most Americans love their turkey or ham dinners with all the fixin’s; many Italian-Americans wouldn’t dream of letting Christmas Eve slip by without partaking in the Feast of the Seven Fishes.

Lithuanians, not to be outdone by Italians, also hold their traditional Christmas meal on Christmas Eve. It is called Kucios, and it has a full dozen dishes, one for each apostle. The meal, which is served cold, includes no meat or dairy, but instead features fish, breads and vegetables.

Israelis and many Jews around the world celebrate Hanukkah by making latkes, fried potato pancakes cooked in oil.

Germans, it seems, are partial to a Christmas goose; Filipinos – who, by the way, celebrate Christmas far longer than any other peoples on the globe, usually starting in September and not ending until Jan. 9 with the feast of the Black Nazarene – are fond of a roasted pig.

Traditional Christmas treats in some countries reflect their histories. Between 1857 and 1950 Argentina had more immigrants than any other country in the world except the U.S., with most of the newcomers, who helped double the country’s population every 20 years, coming from Italy and Spain. So not surprisingly, the favorite Christmas desserts in the land of Evita are panettone, an Italian type of sweet bread loaf, and turron, a nougat confection made of honey, sugar, egg white, toasted almonds or other nuts, which came from Spain. The third most popular Christmas dessert in Argentina is mantecol, a semi-soft nougat made from peanut butter. It was created by a Greek immigrant, his take on a Greek dessert, the halva.

The list of Christmas favorites around the world is almost endless, and some are nothing short of bizarre. For example, KFC rules the roost in Japan on Christmas Eve! Once again, say what!

In the 1970s KFC developed a holiday party bucket and a marketing plan to go with it. Christmas wasn’t a big holiday in the Land of the Rising Sun, which make sense considering less than 3 percent of Japanese are Christian. But the gift-giving part of the holiday apparently knows no national or religious boundaries and the Japanese became acquainted with Christmas during the American occupation after World War II. KFC cashed in, so much so that many Japanese have to make reservations two months in advance to make sure they can munch on fried chicken on Dec. 24.

On to New Year’s. Many New Year foods around the world are supposed to give eaters good luck for the coming year. Eating fish on New Years is a common good luck charm throughout the world, the reasoning being that fish are abundant in the sea, so eating them will give you abundance throughout the year.

Black-eyed peas are a staple of the New Year’s table in the American South. Supposedly the tradition comes from the Civil War when Sherman’s army swept through Georgia and the Carolinas, raiding the Confederate army’s food supplies, leaving them with the lowly – but tasty – black-eyed pea.

Pork is a popular New Year’s food. Here’s a weird theory to explain why: Chickens and turkeys scratch backward, but a pig rooting for food pushes his snout into the ground and plows forward. Which way would you rather go in a coming year – backward or forward?

Other foods that are supposed to instill good luck for the diner are lentils, greens (green for money), cakes (a coin baked in the cake is supposed to bless the person finding it in their slice), and fruits (Mexicans try to eat a dozen grapes at midnight on New Year’s Eve, one for every strike of the clock). Finally, there is cabbage, or its fermented derivative, sauerkraut.

An Original

Super-Food

Many a New Year’s dinner table in Germany and Eastern Europe feature a main course of pork with a side of sauerkraut. We’ve already discussed pork, but sauerkraut doubles the eater’s good luck for the coming year because the long strands of cabbage in sauerkraut of coleslaw symbolize a long life.

Food science can back up that claim because it turns out sauerkraut is a healthful choice. Indeed, long before today’s super-foods such as chia seeds, flaxseeds, quinoa, turmeric, gogi berries, Greek yogurt and, of course, kale became popular with American hipsters, the benefits of sauerkraut were already being touted by, of all people, Capt. James Cook, the British sea captain, explorer and cartographer who made the first European contact with Australia and the Hawaiian islands (where he met his death at the hands of the islanders).

British sailors ruled the seas from the time they defeated the Spanish Armada – with the help of a brutal storm – in 1588 until the end of WWII, when the U.S. built a fleet that is still much larger than any other country’s. And they sailed the world because the British Empire encompassed much of it.

But the Limeys had a problem, one symbolized by the nickname of British sailors: scurvy.

Scurvy, produced by a lack of vitamin C, which was in short supply during cruises that lasted months and even years, often reduced ships’s crews to skeletons in more ways than one. Sometimes so many sailors were stricken that a skeleton crew operated a vessel; meanwhile the guys below decks became living skeletons, losing their teeth, feeling lethargic and weak, literally going crazy and sometimes dying.

Now, people didn’t know what vitamin C was in the 18th century, but they did realize that citrus fruits helped prevent scurvy. Ship captains would load up with citrus fruits at ports of call, but they would soon run out during long cross-ocean voyages. The Brits decided to squeeze limes for their juice, hoping to extend the citrus available for a long trip of exploration or domination, a.k.a. conquest. Thus the Limey sobriquet. What they didn’t know is that the vitamin C of limes deteriorates over time when squeezed into juice.

Cook went a different direction, loading up his ships with barrels of sauerkraut instead of citrus before setting sail. He didn’t understand why, but kraut kept his men from contracting scurvy, it had a longer shelf life than citrus fruits, and – little did he know – it actually gained in vitamin C content over time instead of losing it like lime juice.

The fact is that sauerkraut is a literal vitamin C factory. Raw cabbage, which, after all, is a green leafy vegetable, is already a healthful food, with about 30 mg of vitamin C per cup. The fermenting process, though, raises the amount of vitamin C greatly – in some cases, incredibly. Researchers at Cornell University discovered the vitamin C in cups of sauerkraut ranged from 57 to almost 700 mg per cup, with sauerkraut made from raw fermented red cabbage reaching an amazing 695 mg per cup.

Oranges and limes pale in comparison to sauerkraut when it comes to vitamin C. The average orange contains approximately 53 mg of vitamin C in its fruit and about 136 in its peel. Meanwhile, the average lime – much smaller than an orange – contains only about 19.5 mg of vitamin C.

That’s just the beginning of the nutritional benefits of sauerkraut. Fermented foods, including sauerkraut, strengthen the health and balance of the digestive system – think yogurt. Studies have shown that sauerkraut contains more probiotics than supplements that can be found on health food store shelves. Eating sauerkraut can compensate for decreased production of hydrochloric acid as we age, and hydrochloric acid prevents harmful bacteria and parasites from invading your digestive system. Sauerkraut also contains large amounts of vitamins E and K. Researchers have found a link – tentative as it is – to sauerkraut and reduced incidence of breast cancer. Unpasteurized sauerkraut, the kind you make yourself, is very high in enzymes that break down starches, proteins and fats, just like the ones your pancreas produces.

Wow! Move over, kale!

Cabbage was first fermented in China, some 6,000 years ago. Sauerkraut got its name when fermented cabbage made its way to eastern Europe and the German states via the Tartars or, some say, Genghis Kahn. Whoever introduced fermented cabbage to eastern and central Europe improved it over the Chinese style by fermenting it with salt instead of rice wine.

The German name for the dish, which the English borrowed, means sour herb or sour cabbage. I’ve never found sauerkraut sour – when I think sour, I think spoiled milk – but rather tart, a subset of sour hinting of acidic fruitiness.

Sauerkraut became a traditional New Year’s meal in Germany and Eastern Europe for a very practical reason. Cabbages are usually harvested in northern, western and eastern Europe in the fall, giving it just the right time to ferment by the winter holidays.

Now, why isn’t sauerkraut, which is usually eaten only on hot dogs or in Reubens (an international sandwich if ever there was one, considering it is made of corned beef, associated with the Irish, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, Russian dressing and rye bread, associated with Jewish delis) in the United States, more popular? Well, remember in 2003 when the French refused to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq? That’s when Congressman Bob New, the Republican chairman of the Committee of House Administration, ordered French fries to be called Freedom fries on the menu in three Congressional cafeterias. Well, the same thing happened in this country in World War I. Sauerkraut was called liberty cabbage in this country once the U.S. entered the war against Germany. (Frankfurters were renamed hot dogs at the same time, and Germans, of course, became Krauts.)

So check out some sauerkraut, maybe with a pork roast and cooked with another healthful food item, apples, for New Year’s. Here’s to sauerkraut and a long life for you!

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