Last week, I walked into the library and spotted the latest book by Robin Hobb winking at me from the New Arrivals shelf. I danced a little jig (which the librarians completely understood), and took the heavy, shiny new book to my house, where I devoured it over the course of three or four days.
But normally, as you know, I am very careful about when I allow myself to read fiction, taking into consideration my ability to completely and utterly forsake every other activity--such as feeding the children, showering, or working--until I've finished the last word.
It's an addiction. I admit it.
So my last checkout, which was a non-fiction book, totally surprised me by being just as readable as any fiction novel. I've pored over it and neglected stuff almost as much as when I read fiction, only because there are no characters or plot line in which to become personally invested, I have an easier time putting it down. Still, it's fascinating.
The book is The Art of Fermentation: An In-depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from around the World (with practical information on fermenting vegetables, fruits, grains, milk, beans, meats, and more) by Sandor Ellix Katz. Who wouldn't want to tear into something with that intriguing title? And, since I have had great success in making my own delicious fermented sauerkraut and rejuvelac (a beverage made by soaking whole grains in water), I was hooked.
Katz's previous book, Wild Fermentation: the Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Food offers more specific recipes and how-to's, but The Art of Fermentation takes you around the world to get a peek at how globally prevalent fermentation is as a method of food storage as well as cultural cuisine. Before refrigeration and electricity were the norm, people had to preserve foods in other ways. Fermentation not only preserves foods for long periods of time, but those foods provide a great deal of nutrition along with their rich flavors.
Fermentation is the process of encouraging specific, desirable cultures of bacteria (or, in some cases, mold) to begin breaking down the sugars, fibers, and cell walls of a food before consumption. The fermenting process literally pre-digests the food, allowing your body to reap greater benefits from the now unlocked nutrients that are normally trapped within. The environment of a successful ferment also prevents the growth of the types of bacteria that spoil or putrify fresh food and cause illness or even death (I'm looking at you, Clostridium botulinum!).
Americans probably don't consider just how much of our food is fermented. There are the obvious alcoholic beverages, of course, but we regularly consume fermented vegetables (pickles of all sorts, sauerkraut, kimchi, etc.), dairy (yogurt, kefir, cheeses, sour cream, buttermilk), meats (salamis, sausages), breads (sourdoughs) and others. Commercial food production has taken so many shortcuts that we are no longer likely to get truly fermented food products on the grocery store shelves anymore, but the ones we do buy and eat were originally based on truly fermented food.
Truly fermented food, though it can be an acquired taste, is so good for you. The same bacteria that make up a healthy human gut also populate fermented foods, so when you eat real ferments, you are strengthening your gut. Gut health is largely ignored by Western medicine, but when you have a healthy gut, you have a healthy body. Prescription medications, antibiotics, junk food, and refined foods are insidious because they cause a massive imbalance in the gut flora and fauna. This imbalance allows one or two strains of microbes to overproduce, which is why so many people suffer from an overgrowth of Candida yeast, for instance. When the gut is healthy, microbes grow in a balanced, beneficial way, and work to extract the nutrients from the whole foods you eat and distribute them to your blood stream, cells, and tissues. If you have an imbalance, the yeasts and bacteria that become too prevalent demand the foods they love--usually sugar and simple carbohydrates. The gut can no longer adequately break down and absorb nutrients, and your gut becomes severely damaged, leading to chronic diseases and inflammation of the entire body.
I'm not sure I'm ready for fermented mare's milk, but I don't live on the Mongolian steppes, where mare's milk is one of the primary sources of food. But I would love to step up my fermenting experimentation with more vegetables, grains, and dairy and use some of the methods that other cultures have used. Asian cultures, especially, have perfected fermentation. I would love to try making my own tempeh (which is actually culturing mold, not bacteria), for instance. Or Japanese koji, which is similar to tempeh but also uses rice or barely as substrates on which to culture the right mold.
My cabbage sauerkraut is going to get some other vegetable additions, too. And rejuvelac and other beneficial, non-alcoholic fermented beverages are so exciting to me. Kombucha, anyone?
I haven't been more successful at ferments simply because I haven't gotten into the rhythm of taking care of them. Ferments, starters, and cultures are kind of like pets in that they need regular attention in order to thrive. If you start small, I'm sure you get accustomed to it gradually, both in developing a taste for fermented foods and getting better at nurturing them to maturity.