Why were pickled fruits and vegetables not part of sailors' rations during the Age of Sail? This question is an extension of Cooking.SE:How is sauerkraut rich in vitamin C?

You do not need know or understand Vitamin C and scurvy to want to bring along fruits or vegetables with you. And, as established in the link above, it is possible to pickle produce without destroying the Vitamin C within. Yet, reading around about what sailors' rations consisted of, pickled produce is never among them. So it is moot whether or not the pickling methods employed at the time destroyed Vitamin C.

What was it about pickled produce that prevented it from being taken along?

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    English sailors, at any rate, had a strong preference for meat and fish rations - and at sea you keep the crew happy. Jan 28, 2021 at 19:52
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    @KillingTime The answer in that thread does seem to imply that a causal link between health and produce was not realized at the time...which seems a bit weird since the navy knew that there was a causal link between health and diet Were fruits and vegetables just considered to be something that you only ate to fill your stomach because meat and grain was too expensive?
    – DKNguyen
    Jan 28, 2021 at 20:58
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    Nothing is cheaper than grains, and they are tough to beat for storage volume too. If I'm stocking provisions, and trying to turn a profit, anything non-grain would have to be justified for some reason to be worth the extra expense and storage.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 28, 2021 at 21:03
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    Do note that they did bring fresh fruits and vegetables along, but ate those first since those went bad first. However, I've never found any listings of pickled produce.
    – DKNguyen
    Jan 28, 2021 at 21:34
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    Were picked fruits and vegetables a regular part of the normal diet of any of the ocean going nations during the Age of Sail? Was anyone producing these pickled products on the industrial scale that would be required to supply the naval and merchant fleets of the time? If they weren't available in the dockside markets then they wouldn't be going on board the ships.
    – Steve Bird
    Jan 28, 2021 at 21:36

4 Answers 4


You do not need know or understand Vitamin C and scurvy to want to bring along fruits or vegetables with you.

Why would you want to bring them? Vegetables were what you ate when you couldn't get meat. Fruit was a snack. Neither were part of the ideal diet for a working man, back then. What people ideally wanted to eat was meat, as much as you could get. And conveniently, salted meat lasts better than anything else for long voyages at sea. Flour lasts fairly well, so you had a ship's baker to keep you supplied with bread for filling. Apples (if you select the right type) also store well, so they were stocked too. Dried beans would also be a possibility. You wouldn't have a great deal of variation in diet on long journeys though.

You also need to consider the nations involved in long ocean voyages. The major nations in this were the British, French, Spanish and Portugese. Whilst all of them knew about how to pickle vegetables, it's probably fair to say that they don't form a major traditional part of the diet of any of the countries. Pickled vegetables certainly aren't well-loved staples in the way that sauerkraut or kimchi are in their respective countries.

Wanting to eat pickled vegetables on a voyage would have been an extreme dietary oddity, which could only be exercised by a captain. Since most British captains shared the appetites of the day, that meant meat and more meat. Cook was considered an oddball for his experiment with sauerkraut - and of course a genius afterwards.

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    Regarding the minor hole you still see: gout may have been the top chronic condition of the English gentry and upper classes. See pretty much all of Austen's and similar period writings - all gentlemen of a certain age seem to suffer from it. And gout does have a strong dietary component, associated with high consumption of meat (and alcohol). Jan 29, 2021 at 17:03
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    @Graham As an unhealthy bachelor living largely on sugar, salt, and fat, I do actually sometimes get inexplicable cravings for fresh fruit. I like to think it's my body telling me that if I don't eat that apple, I will pretty soon die.
    – pipe
    Jan 30, 2021 at 3:04
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    If people roughly stuck to meat heavy diets without fruits or vegetables wouldn't they be getting scurvy too on land whether sailor or not? Jan 30, 2021 at 12:04
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    @mega_creamery Yes, scurvy is caused by the prolonged lack of vitamin C in the diet, it's doesn't require being at sea. Even today cases occur in the malnourished and homeless. It was simply more common at sea because lack of access to fresh fruit and vegetables was common on long oceanic voyages.
    – Steve Bird
    Jan 30, 2021 at 14:47
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    @mega_creamery Meat contains some vitamin C. (Preserved meat, probably less so.) People who ate a meat-heavy diet on land would probably have also eaten a few vegetables or snacked on fresh fruit from time to time, enough to prevent malnutrition. But soldiers sometimes suffered from scurvy for similar reasons to sailors. Jan 30, 2021 at 17:59

This is mostly a frame challenge.

When James Cook returned to England after his second trip around the world (1772-1775), he published a paper titled "The Method Taken for Preserving the Health of the Crew of His Majesty's Ship the Resolution during Her Late Voyage Round the World". This short essay aims to explain how Cook's crew was able to sail for three years, often on the open ocean, without a single person dying of scurvy. At the time this was a remarkable feat.

Cook's idea was that diet, particularly the consumption of fresh foods, could promote the health of his sailors. This idea was so novel at the time that the Royal Society awarded Cook the Copley Medal,

For his Paper, giving an account of the method he had taken to preserve the health of the crew of H.M. Ship the Resolution, during her late voyage round the world. Whose communication to the Society was of such importance to the public RoyalSociety

The healthful rations described by Cook include "fresh vegetables" to be boiled with the sailors' pease, "lemons and oranges," and...

Sour Krout, of which we had also a large provision, is not only a wholesome vegetable food, but, in my judgment, highly antiscorbutic, and spoils not by keeping. A pound of it was served to each man, when at sea, twice a week, or oftener when it was thought necessary.

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    What were the pre-dominant ideas about food and health at the time?
    – DKNguyen
    Jan 28, 2021 at 22:50
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    @DKNguyen eat enough, of anything, in order to not die of starvation? Jan 29, 2021 at 8:33

One of the reasons why preserved food was not supplied on ships during the age of sail is that preserved food was more expensive than fresh food.

Economic as well as nutritional factors motivated the navy to find supplies of fresh food for its ships. It is anachronistic to consider preserved food in the eighteenth century cheap compared with a fresh alternative, as it is today. In fact it was considerably more expensive. Before the advent of canning, sterilization and refrigeration, it was costly to salt or cure meat and to dry peas or fruit like raisins. Even now cheese, then a standard ration, is more expensive than milk.

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    This seems to be a sufficiently motivated reason.
    – DKNguyen
    Jan 29, 2021 at 5:10

My answer to the question "Were shipboard gardens ever typical?" mentions a source discussing the allegedly superior diets of Chinese sailors compared to Western ones:

Avoiding the Dire straits: An Inquiry into Food Provisioning and Scurvy in the Maritime and Military History of China and wider East Asia Mathieu Torck, Pages 132-134, 146, 150

If Chinese sailors did have better anti scurvy diets, the discussion there may explain some of the reasons for the difference in provisioning Chinese and European ships.

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