Mainely Tipping Points 33
Sandor Ellix Katz’s WILD FERMENTATION: THE FLAVOR, NUTRITION, AND CRAFT OF LIVE-CULTURE FOODS arrived last week. I found myself dropping all other activities and reading it straight through.
By noon the next day I had a ball of cloth-wrapped cheese hanging from a kitchen knob, dripping away the last of its whey.
In two days’ time I had a quart mason jar filled with fermenting kale leaves, or Gundru, a Tibetan ferment. (You can’t imagine how many kale leaves it takes to fill a quart jar once you’ve wilted them in the sun and pounded them so that they release their juices—the leaves of about eight kale plants.) And now I’m eyeing the crocks over my stove, bought for decorative purposes mostly, and wondering what from the fall harvest I can ferment next.
Katz, who is a charming writer, would say “lots of things.” And, indeed, Katz discusses how to ferment vegetables, fruits, beans, dairy, grains and breads, beverages, wines, beers, and vinegars. “Fermentation,” writes Katz, gives us many of our most basic staples, such as bread and cheese, and our most pleasurable treats, including chocolate, coffee, wine, and beer” (2).
Microscopic bacteria and fungi, or microflora, are, writes Katz, agents of transformation; they feast upon decaying matter and shift dynamic life forces from one creation to the next (2). That’s why “fermented foods and drinks are quite literally alive with flavor and nutrition. Their flavors tend to be strong and pronounced,” like “stinky aged cheeses, tangy sauerkraut, rich earthy miso [made traditionally, which can take several years], smooth sublime wines. Human have always appreciated the distinctive flavors resulting from the transformative power of microscopic bacteria and fungi” (5).
But, why should we home cooks ferment anything? First, fermented foods we make for ourselves are guaranteed to be very rich in enzymes.
You might recall me writing in earlier Tipping Points essays about Edward Howell’s theory on enzymes. Howell, who died in 2000 at the age of 102, spent his life studying the role of enzymes in health and disease. He posited that if one does not eat enzyme-rich foods, the body has both to use existing stored enzymes and to work harder to digest foods, all of which takes a toll. Ron Schmid, in THE UNTOLD STORY OF MILK, notes Howell’s assessment that humans have lower levels of starch-digesting enzymes in their blood than other creatures and higher levels in their urine, which means their resident enzymes are being used up faster. And, as Schmid notes, based on various studies, it’s clear that diets deficient in enzymes result in shortened life spans (101-105). Certainly this assessment is a piece of the growing body of information pointing toward the health problems associated with starchy carbohydrate-heavy diets.
Second, fermentation removes toxins from foods. All grains, nuts, seeds, and tubers contain inhibitors (phytic acids) which block human absorption of nutrients. These inhibitors are inactivated by traditional food preparation methods that involve soaking in acids, like whey or lemon juice, which begins a fermentation process, or by sprouting (101-105). Few, if any, commercial foods have been properly prepared so as to inactivate nutrient inhibitors while, at the same time, preserving nutrients. Thus, unless you are properly preparing these foods, your body isn’t getting all of the nutrients in these foods and is, to add insult to injury, struggling to digest them.
Fermentation can remove toxins as powerful as cyanide from cassava, an enormous tuber used in tropical regions of the Americas and, now, in Africa and Asia. Other toxins fermentation can eliminate or reduce include nitrites, prussic acid, oxalic acid, nitrosamines, and glucosides (7).
Third, fermentation preserves food because it produces “alcohol, lactic acid, and acetic acid, all `bio-preservatives’ that retain nutrients and prevent spoilage.” Hence, highly perishable foods, like vegetables, fruits, milk, fish, and meat, can be stored after harvest for consumption in leaner seasons. Or, as Captain James Cook discovered during his eighteenth century explorations, preserved fermented sauerkraut prevented scurvy during long ocean voyages (5).
“Microscopic bacteria and fungi,” writes Katz, “…are in every breath we take and every bite we eat.” These microflora are “in a symbiotic relationship” with humans. They “digest food into nutrients our bodies can absorb, protect us from potentially dangerous organisms, and teach our immune systems how to function” (2). Most importantly, writes Katz, “we need to promote diversity among microbial cultures” in our bodies because “biodiversity is increasingly recognized as critical to the survival of larger-scale ecosystems” (11).
Not all fermented foods are alive when you eat them. Bread, for instance, must be cooked. But, the most nutritious fermented foods, such as yogurt, are consumed alive (7). Or, such as sauerkraut, which I make by the half-gallon and keep in our refrigerator as a ready “asset” to compliment a meal. I used red cabbage for my current batch, and it is the loveliest deep ruby color.
Live yogurt and sauerkraut couldn’t be easier to make, and I have time-tested recipes for both in the recipe section of this blog. I have not yet tried Katz’s recipe, but it has some really exciting suggested additions. Plus, Katz’s sauerkraut lives in a crock in a cool place and does not require refrigeration.
Fourth and finally, fermenting is a political act, an act that stands in stark opposition to what Sally Fallon Morell of the Weston A. Price Foundation, who wrote the introduction to WILD FERMENTATION, describes as “the centralization and industrialization of our food supply.” Real culture, writes Fallon, “begins at the farm, not in the opera house, and binds a people to a land and its artisans.” Many commentators, notes Fallon, have said that America lacks culture. But, “how can we be cultured when we eat only food that has been canned, pasteurized, and embalmed?” (xii). Food artisans ferment food, and they are increasingly being regulated out of existence by the government in the name of “food safety”—which is nothing more than industry’s power in a so-called “free market” to eliminate all its competitors.
Katz writes the following: “Thinking about mass food production makes me sad and angry. Chemical mono-crop agriculture. Genetic engineering of the most basic food crops. Ugly, inhumane factory animal breeding. Ultra-processed foods full of preservative chemicals, industrial byproducts, and packaging. Food production is just one realm among many in which ever more concentrated corporate units extract profits from the Earth and the mass of humanity” (163).
Katz encourages us to “draw inspiration from the action of bacteria and yeast, and make your life a transformative process.” Wild fermentation, he writes “is the opposite of homogenization and uniformity, a small antidote you can undertake in your home, using the extremely localized populations of microbial cultures present there to produce your own unique fermented foods” (21).
Take back your power, Katz urges, to “use your fermented goodies to nourish your family and friends and allies. The life-affirming power of these basic foods contrasts sharply with the lifeless, industrially processed foods that fill supermarket shelves” (166). Remember that “wild fermentation is a way of incorporating the wild into your body,” so that you become “one with the natural world” once more (12).
Don’t wait, like I did, to get a copy of Katz’s WILD FERMENTATION.
GO WILD now!