James Cook entered the seafaring life late at age 17. In comparison, George Vancouver was assigned to the British Royal Navy at the age of 13 and William Bligh at 7. Cook began a 3-year apprenticeship in 1746 on a 340-ton collier vessel sailing to London and Baltic Sea ports from Whitby, a port on the east coast of England near Newcastle. He continued working on the merchant vessels until 1755 at which time he joined the British Royal Navy at age 27. In 1758 the Pembroke and its fleet left Plymouth for Nova Scotia to conquer Louisbourg and to defeat the French at Québec. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean, Cook’s ever-inquisitive eye noted 26 men died from scurvy and many more were very ill with the disease. In the 18th century more men died of scurvy than from enemy warfare.
By age 39 Cook’s remarkable map charting and navigational skills earned him a post as lieutenant on the Endeavour, a Whitby-built ship destined for Tahiti and New Zealand. On long voyages scurvy commonly killed half the crew, as no one knew what caused it or how to prevent it. They suspected nutrition had something to do with it. Initially James Cook thought the answer was malt vinegar, fresh food and good hygiene. His introduction to sauerkraut is not clear but on his first epic voyage 1968-71 three tons of it came on board. To stimulate the crew’s interest in the dish it was served primarily to the officers. The ploy worked. The few who stubbornly refused to eat it were flogged. If all’s well that ends well, there were no deaths from scurvy on this journey. On Cook’s second world voyage as Commander, 1772-75, 20,000 lb. of sauerkraut were settled in the haul of the Resolution. Without sauerkraut Captain James Cook may not have achieved heroic fame and eminence. It wasn’t until 1932, when Vitamin C was isolated, that it was conclusively established that lack of it was the cause of scurvy.
Two thousand years ago during the construction of the Great Wall in China it is recorded that the Chinese fermented shredded cabbage in rice wine. Genghis Khan and his Mongol marauders broke through the wall and while pilfering and plundering took a liking to the preserved cabbage. The recipe spread to eastern Europe where the Germans in the 16th century began fermenting cabbage in its own juice with salt. It didn’t go unnoticed that a diet of sauerkraut boosted the immune system and reduced the rate of death from smallpox.
During fermentation enzymes are produced which decompose the cabbage, creating isothiocyanates. Today it is known as a superfood balancing the digestive system and acting as a cancer inhibitor. Fermented cabbage has more Vitamin C than raw cabbage and keeps for long periods of time without refrigeration. Breast cancer rates are much lower in women whose diet includes sauerkraut. Cooked sauerkraut is nutritious but a far greater health benefit is eating raw sauerkraut, especially homemade.
Shredded white cabbage is rubbed with a little coarse salt to extract the juice. A heavy utensil may be used to pound the cabbage as more molecules are released when the cabbage is broken down. When the juice covers the cabbage a plate and weight are put on top of the cabbage to keep it submerged in brine. Depending on the warmth of the room it usually takes a week or two for the fermentation process to complete.
Captain James Cook and sauerkraut (1)