I was very proud this fall when I finally got to use my Nani’s heavy, lacquered earthenware crock – the same one that she used to make the cherry brandy that my cousins and I would lick pooled from the bottoms of the tiny glasses that we collected from the adults after Christmas dinner. My plan was to make sauerkraut – a decidedly non-Italian specialty, albeit less time-intensive. I had purchased a few dense heads of red cabbage at the farmer’s market, and simply searched the internet, bi-passing detailed diatribes on the science behind it, to compare a few different recipes. Sure, I knew that sauerkraut was fermented, and had even made my own kimchi and fermented countertop pickles in the past, not to mention my other forays into harnessing “good” bacteria in yogurt- and cheese-making. My thinking behind trying these methods was of course tied into my efforts to eat locally and sustainably and inexpensively: if I could make my own fresh mozzarella, I wouldn’t have to buy it, thus saving money while also being aware of exactly what went into my favorite foods. It was also, of course, anthropological – I wanted to explore traditional preservation and preparation techniques to learn more about how my food is made, and connect with the practices of my culinary ancestors.
Thus, when I started the relatively easy process of preparing my cabbage for kraut (slice it thinly, layer with salt, press down to cover it all with its own brine, add more salted-water brine to ensure that it was all covered, let sit, weighted, for three weeks), I had already understood the basic process of fermenting: microbes already present in now salted raw veggies, sitting in their own brine, would change the chemical composition to create a fermented food that would not spoil. The salt killed the bad bacteria, and the lack of oxygen beneath the brine allowed the good stuff to proliferate. I learned that this process was technically “lacto-fermentation”, thusly named after the type of bacteria present in this process. I figured I needed to know enough to ensure that my food was safe for eating and would be delicious. The process for making yogurt (also lacto-fermented), by comparison, wasn’t all too different – heat up the milk enough to kill the bad microbes, introduce the good microbes and then wait for them to take over and yogurt-ify the milk. Chill once the good guys did their work, which would also stop the bad guys from taking back over. I had never worried about anyone getting sick from homemade yogurt – one sniff or taste and it would obvious if it was not fit to eat, despite that it had to sit at warmer-than-room temperatures for more than six hours. I didn’t give much thought to the health benefits of all those microbes – despite the watered down marketing messages we had been getting from yogurt makers for the past few years, and despite the interviewing I had been doing with picklers of all stripes, and even despite the amount of reading and research I have done in general about traditional preparation and preservation methods and overall health and environmental benefits of unprocessed foods.
But then I met Michaela Hayes of Crock and Jar, who makes both vinegar-based and fermented pickles in Brooklyn, in addition to giving classes on the subject. After telling me about her Brooklyn business, she also noted that she was inspired by fermenters on the west coast, where I would be traveling a few months later. These fermenters had a bit of a different philosophy towards their food – while so many picklers I had met in New York or Boston were inspired by traditional methods taught to them by their grandparents or prevalent at their holiday table, once I started to connect to the west coast fermenters, I learned that they were more influenced by the health benefits of fermented pickles. Fermenters like Alex Hozven, owner and founder of sixteen-year-old Cultured Pickles in Berkeley, California had been long approaching pickling as much from the perspective that fermented pickles are an integral part of a healthy diet, as through her efforts to experiment with traditional fermenting methods from around the world. While she only sells her products within about a hundred mile radius (in part because fermented foods are generally sold refrigerated, as the fermenting process can continue as long as they are at room temperature, which can affect taste, but generally not safety, of a product), she was well-known to all of the fermenters to which I spoke around the country as being one of the most innovative, tenacious, and disciplined fermented pickle businesses. Others, like Crock and Jar in Brooklyn, Brassica and Brine in Los Angeles, Happy Girl Kitchens in Central California, and Firefly Kitchens in Seattle, all tout the health benefits of fermented pickles, as well as their versatility and deliciousness. Over and over I heard of ailments disappearing after starting ingesting just a small amount of fermented foods daily. These stories, and the science that backed up these claims make good sense: it has been documented how our extensive use of anti-biotics and anti-bacterial everything has limited our bodies’ own ability to fight infection introduced from air and skin, so has the disappearance of “good” gut bacteria from what used to be common foods items like yogurt, kefir, and fermented produce has been affecting our digestion and health. But interestingly, in my relatively brief encounters with fermented food on the east coast, what had been highlighted was the cultural aspect the German kraut, for example, or Korean kimchi, rather than the health aspects. And that was what I had been focusing on when I made my first forays into fermented pickles – the how of the dish, rather than the complex answer to why.
I now have put together the larger narrative of fermented foods: the need to preserve produce before there was refrigeration and the very early discovery millennia ago that adding salt and eliminating oxygen would help do this. But I also have learned that these good microbes have been aiding digestion and bolstering immune systems for many, many generations in various ways in food cultures around the world. And that even the diluted messages we get about the health benefits of fermented foods are often negated in practice by the heat pasteurizing of most store-bought krauts. While food safety is a very good development to have come out of the industrialization of our food system, it has instilled in many a fear that traditional methods of preparation could result in illness or death. In fact, fermenting is highly safe because the process itself creates an environment that is inhospitable to the dreaded e.coli bacteria and there has never been a documented case of botulism sickening anyone through a fermented food product. Still, many, mostly mass-, fermenters, heat pasteurize their products, allowing it to be shelf-stable but killing the gut-healthy microbes in the process. I’ll admit – I too heat-processed much of my finished ruby sauerkraut before giving jars away for the holidays, without realizing how I was changing both the flavor and texture, while also negating much of the natural health benefits. Although in the past few months, I have tried my hand at new fermenting experiments, that were equally easy and just as successful. Grated carrots, salt, and ginger, pressed until submerged in their own brine and then left in a sealed jar for five days turned into a sweet and tangy slaw that was great out of the jar or atop eggs or salad.
I now look at my Nani’s sturdy crock in a new light: while using it for one of my projects does help me feel closer to the woman who has inspired me to cook and preserve and learn more about food culture – I am now also reflective on what other knowledge her inspiration has led me toward, beyond recipes and menus. Perhaps Nani didn’t give much thought to the health benefits of fermented foods – (and there is some discussion among family members if she ever fermented more than booze in her crock – her sugar-to-alcohol-fermented cherry brandy obviously not quite possessing the same health benefits as anaerobic salt-fermented kraut) – my mere possession of her crock has led me to investigate my food in deeper ways, beyond my own heritage and in a more complex light than recreating methodology. I thank her, and her crock, for teaching me that that was more to fermenting beyond the crock.
*Author’s Note: These amazing fermenters were all interviewed in support of my upcoming book Small Batch: The Fall and Rise of Artisanal Pickle, Cheese, Chocolate, and Alcoholic Spirits in America (Alta Mira, 2014). The information above is presented as a brief narrative into my research in fermenting, and there is much, much more available about the science behind fermented foods, the health benefits, cultural history, and recipes and methodology for trying fermenting at home. Besides checking out the websites of the purveyors I mentioned above, the venerable Sandor Katz is known as the godfather of fermenting and has a website and two great books on the subject as well.