[published: April 15, 2009]
Homemade sauerkraut is suddenly in vogue. For some, it’s the gateway to a fundamental shift in the way we think about food.
In the food world, revolutions tend to come in the same few forms: newer, bigger, and faster. There was the advent of McDonald’s drive-thru, the invention of the microwave oven, Earl Butz’s suggestion that farmers “Get Big or Get Out”, the arrival of GMO seed and farm machines the size of houses. These phenomena have changed the face of food and farming over the past few decades, with little pushback from the public. Yet deep in souls of folks out there, in the soil on new farms popping up around the country, and old farms finding new life, something is shifting. Perhaps a paradigm.
To give credit where it’s due, there have always been people fighting back in thought, action and word. The hope now is that we’re reaching some kind of crescendo. Sit quietly, preferably in a field on an organic farm, and you can feel it. Bite into a heirloom tomato in July and you can taste it. Step into a bustling greenmarket and you can hear it. There’s a faint throbbing in the hearts of sustainable farms and conscious consumers that’s growing louder by the day. It’s the stirrings of a new kind of revolution, the admirable throwing-off-of-the-yoke kind, of folks stepping out and doing things a little differently.
Interestingly enough, doing things differently is increasingly looking like returning to the old ways, the old wisdom, albeit with a modern twist. It’s about churning your own butter by choice, casting aside the Teflon for cast iron, plowing fields with draft horses and tearing up your manicured lawn to plant organic vegetables. It’s a return to the knowledge and practices of past generations, of our grandparents, and great grandparents.
We food revolutionaries are trying to slow down, to savor, and remember tastes in danger of slipping away, but we’re doing it with an edge and a style that’s all our own. We’re pouring over old cookbooks and actually trying out the recipes. We’re collecting offbeat kitchen implements that our parents hung up as decorations and using them. Old Stoneware crocks, impregnated with the flavors or sauerkrauts past, get us very excited. Having good clean dirt under our fingernails is a point of pride. “Do it yourself” has become something of a rallying cry.
Yes, something is brewing, in some cases quite literally — like microbrews and homemade wine. For now, let’s focus on a specific branch of this food revolution, one that is fermenting (and fomenting?) in old crocks, big wooden barrels, glass canning jars and food-grade plastic buckets all across this country. We’re talking about real sauerkraut, Korean kimchi, sour pickles and dilly beans. It turns out, conveniently enough, that real fermented vegetables (lacto-fermented is the appropriate term) are a terrific metaphor for the food revolution burbling up around us. Jars of pickled beets and sauerkraut aren’t mass-marketable or particularly shelf-stable. They’re funky and punky and alive, with flavors both vibrant and slightly unpredictable. They thrive on the local level.
Sauerkraut was my gateway drug, my entry point to the world of real and traditional foods. In 2004 I stepped into the barn at Morses’s Sauerkraut, in Maine, where traditionally fermented kraut has been produced since 1918. Wooden barrels, several feet high, were full of slowly fermenting shredded cabbage. The smell was distinct and strong and each barrel sported a thick layer of multicolored mold that was literally bubbling. Slightly terrified and mostly thrilled, I knew immediately that this was something I wanted. This was what it was all about. The change I had been waiting for. I bought a half gallon to eat, and soon, I had jars and crocks lining my own kitchen counters, and a refrigerator full of cabbage and radish kimchi, pickled ramp bulbs and fermented beets.
It didn’t take much; the best part about joining this revolution, is that it’s simple. Want to try some fermented veggies? Great! Artisanal producers around the country are fermenting small batches and hand-labeling as we speak. There’s a list of sources at the end of this page. Want to try making your own? Even better! It’s simple, it’s fun, and it’s mildly addictive. All you need is good sea salt, fresh water, some good vegetables and a proper receptacle. Your tastebuds will be delighted and your friends will be impressed. I’ve found that, like having the inside scoop on a new indie band, making your own kimchi gives you cred.
Lacto-fermenting vegetables seems intimidating, even when someone tells you it’s easy, but the hardest part is just taking that first step. Seth Travins, kraut meister of Hawthorne Valley Farm in Ghent, NY says it best, “You just sort of have to jump in head first.” He did, and now he makes award-winning sauerkraut, kimchi, pickled beets and sour pickles for local distribution. “I get a lot of calls from the West Coast wanting it shipped,” he says. “But I’d just like to see more people like myself starting up in regional places. Maybe we could have some kind of community of fermented vegetable producers.”
We’re actually getting close. From California to North Carolina, Texas to Maine, small companies, both new and old, are creating their own signature vegetable ferments, packaging them with care and sending them out to the tables of American foodies, many of whom have gotten into the fermentation game themselves. The de-facto leader of the movement is Sandor Katz, aka Sandorkraut, a self-proclaimed “fermentation fetishist” who has written the bible on real fermented foods: Wild Fermentation. He has a website too, and he’ll tell you how to get started, ease your fears, and answer your questions (really, he responds.) Thousands have read his books and joined in the fermentation adventure. As Travins casually points out, “It’s pretty trendy right now.”
It’s also practical. Lacto-fermentation is a simple and cost-effective way to preserve and enhance your garden’s harvest, extending the season a bit and making use of the bumper crop of cabbage or cucumbers that you weren’t quite expecting. (Which, of course, is precisely why our forebears did it.) Ferment a batch of sauerkraut and kimchi and it will last for months in the refrigerator, a steady and delicious reminder of the summer’s bounty. The process doesn’t take a lot of know-how, just a certain degree of trust in nature, and in yourself.
Each finished batch of kimchi or sour pickles is slightly different, leaving food pairing opportunities wide open. Ruby Sauerkraut (made with red cabbage and sometimes beets) is delicious on an open-faced grilled cheese. Spicy Kimchi can be the perfect match for ground beef. Traditional combinations, like sauerkraut and a bratwurst are brought to new levels when the kraut is alive and uniquely your own.
You can’t fit real fermented foods neatly into categories and boxes, because like any good revolutionary concept, they are continually evolving. In the cultural melting pot that is America, we can draw from the dozens of fermenting traditions that have been passed down by generations of German, French, Korean, Italian and Japanese immigrants – - and then we can come up with something entirely new. Yes, we are in the midst of a food revolution, and though we might not know exactly how it will turn out, we do know that it’s a delicious process.
Lacto-Fermented Vegetable Producers:
Farmer’s Daughter, Carrboro, NC
Farmhouse Culture, Santra Cruz, CA
Hawthorne Valley Farm, Ghent, NY
It’s Alive Food, Portland, OR
Leelanau Cultured Vegetables, Traverse City, MI
Morse’s Sauerkraut, Waldoboro, ME
Powerkraut, Viroqua, WI
Real Pickles, Montague, MA
Straight from the Vine, Austin, TX
For More Information
Anne Dailey is a writer and locavore who grew up in Maine and now lives in the Hudson Valley where she writes about food and farms, grows a little garden and runs a small farmer-to-consumer food co-op. She maintains a blog, Raw Milk & Liver and loves doing yoga by the Hudson River. Her last article for Last Exit was onraw milk.
Copyright Last Exit 2009
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