GET DOWN, GET WILD
by Iris Chinook
[photo Nagyman from Canada via Wikimedia Commons]
[published: March 28, 2012 (6:00PM PST)]
I’ve come to believe that the single most important thing you can do for your food security is to learn to make fermented, or cultured, foods. These nourishing and vital foods were once a large part of our daily diet before refrigeration. We’ve not had electricity a whole lot longer than we have and for most of our time on this planet we’ve eaten foods that were not refrigerated, pasteurized, packaged, and processed before we even took them home.
This means that our guts have evolved eating fresh, dried, fermented and salted foods. The bacteria enabling us to do this have evolved right along with, inhabiting the full range of our digestive system; or they’re supposed to. We need these critical, beneficial bacterial colonies to help us digest our food fully and completely. If we don’t eat and properly digest good food, a whole lot of ill health comes our way. I first wrote about fermenting and culturing vegetables here at CollapseNet when I first started experimenting with it (see ANOTHER KIND OF WILD FOOD - 15 FEBRUARY 2011). I was excited as I’d just been turned on to the book, Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz. I dove in head first, scouring the neighboring thrift stores for crocks, used crock pot liners, or anything else that might prove useful in my first attempt to make kimchee. I eventually bought two commercial, 1 gallon crocks from Lehman’s, found a plate that fit the crock and made my first batch from cabbage, carrots and radishes from the garden. It turned out good enough for me to want to do it again and the next couple of batches were okay too. I guess I was feeling a little cocky about it all because then a batch went bad and I had to compost the whole thing. There was too much air in it (lactic acid fermentation is an anaerobic process) and instead of fermenting it just plain rotted.
Sometimes a strong fermented vegetable or other food can smell a little rotten to our modern, overly sanitized senses of smell and taste but let me tell you, the difference is boldly recognizable after you start dealing with fermented stuff. That batch was just plain nasty to the point that no one would want to eat it no matter how accustomed to cultured food they might be. Discouraged and distracted by other things, I gave up for a while and bought live sauerkraut from the little fermentation shop over in the Rogue River valley, Pickled Planet, or Bubbie’s sour pickles and sauerkraut. Then I went over to a friends’ house and had the very best kimchee I’ve ever tasted and was encouraged to try again with spectacular results.
All through this process it’s gradually dawned on me that I’ve been offered fermented, or “live” foods, off and on throughout my life and have rejected them because they tasted sour or like they had gone bad. One of the earliest memories of this is when I was traveling in my mid-twenties and stopped at a little diner somewhere in Wyoming. They had oat porridge on their menu and I thought a hot, steamy bowl of oatmeal sounded great. I thought porridge and oatmeal were the same thing. When it came I wolfed a couple of bites and then realized that it tasted bad. I called the waitress over and she brought me another bowl and it was the same and she simply told me that was the way they made it. I ordered something else and went on my way. I didn’t realize until reading Sandor’s book that porridge is a food that has been with us since forever and that it has a special, deservedly honored, place in our history. The book quotes Sally Fallon, author of Nourishing Traditions:
“The well-meaning advice of many nutritionists, to consume whole grains as our ancestors did and not refined flours and polished rice, is misleading and often harmful in its consequences; for while our ancestors ate whole grains, they did not consume them as presented in our modern foods, and virtually all pre-industrialized peoples soaked or fermented their grains before making them into porridge, breads, cakes and casseroles.”
Katz has recipes for oat porridge, Ogi (African millet porridge) and introduces us to congee, a Chinese breakfast porridge that can be made by placing whole grains in a stainless steel thermos at night (with various healing herbs), pouring boiling water over them and leaving them too steep in the insulated environment overnight.
Another time I was offered a premium fermented food and turned it down as being “spoiled” was at a little Japanese restaurant near my house in Seattle that had some of the best sushi in the city. Their yaki soba was also outstanding. One night they gave me pickled ginger with my sushi that was very different than the crisp, pink flakes of gingery goodness I’d become accustomed to. It was yellow, mushy and smelled off to me. I called over the owner and told him in a whisper that I thought it was spoiled. He reached over and plucked a piece off of my plate, popped it in his mouth, chewed and said no. It was fine, nothing wrong with it. I was flabbergasted, pushed it over to the edge of my plate and ate the rest of my meal. Next time I went in there the pink stuff was back. After buying a little jar of fermented ginger from Pickled Planet in Ashland I instantly recognized it as the stuff in the restaurant I’d turned my nose up at.
I’ve recently gotten into the rhythm of making water kefir as it has not only beneficial bacteria but is one of the only sources of the beneficial yeast that inhabits healthy digestive tracts, helping to keep unhealthy yeast (Candida albans) from overgrowing. It’s the easiest cultivation I’ve tried and I want to suggest it to you as a starting place for introducing fermented foods back into your diet. Water kefir can be done anywhere, anytime. All you need is the “grains”, which you can buy online or at your local health food store, a food source for the grains such as sugar, and an appropriate container. It’s delicious, nutritious and oddly refreshing as it tends to be a little fizzy.
Culturing vegetables, water, milk and other foods had added an unforeseen boon to my everyday life; it connects me to the world around me in a deeply present and practical way. Katz says it nicely:
"Resistance [to the global food syndicate] takes place on many planes. Occasionally it can be dramatic and public, but most of the decisions we are faced with are mundane and private. What to eat is a choice that we make several times a day, if we are lucky. The cumulative choices we make about food have profound implications.”
“Food offers us many opportunities to resist the culture of mass marketing and commodification. Through consumer action can take many creative and powerful forms, we do not have to be reduced to the role of consumers selecting from seductive convenience items. We can merge appetite with activism and choose to involve ourselves in food as co-creators. Food has historically been one of our most direct links to the life forces of the Earth. Bountiful harvests have always been occasions for celebration and appreciation of the divine.”
“In our urbanized society, the vast majority of people are completely cut off from the process of growing food, and even from the raw products of agriculture. Most Americans are used to buying and eating food that has already been processed in a factory….. Industrial food is dead. It severs our connection to the life forces that sustain us and deprives us of our access to the powerful magic so abundantly present in the natural world.”
“Not everyone can be a farmer. But that’s not the only way to cultivate a connection to the Earth and buck the trend toward global market uniformity and standardization. One small but tangible way to resist the homogenization of culture is to get involved in the harnessing and gentle manipulation of wild microbial cultures. Rediscover and reinterpret the vast array of fermentation techniques used by our ancestors. Build your body’s cultural ecology as you engage and honor the life forces all around you.”
Yeah….I think I will.