In praise of fermentation

Our Chief Pickler at Adamah, Josh Rosenstein, went on vacation for two weeks — just as the first succession of cucumbers was ripening and ready for harvest. I have stepped in to manage operations while he’s gone. What an unexpected and delightful realm of food learning this has opened up!

Many wisdom traditions teach that each person has within them all the tools they need to live their life. Bernie Glassman suggests in his Zen Buddhist “Instructions to the Cook” that each of us has all the necessary ingredients to cook the perfect meal. And Moses reassures us from Deuteronomy, “Lo ba-shamayim hi” — the truth of the Torah is not in heaven, some far off place which we cannot access; rather, it is right here in our midst. With pickles I am learning this simple and beautiful truth all over again.

People have been fermenting all kinds of foods since forever. The word sounds complicated, and instructions for pickling that talk about pH, acidity, starters, lacto-fermentation, airlocks and on and on might give the impression that fermentation is something to be undertaken by experts. It just ain’t so. Pickling is all about creating the right environment for a host of micro-organisms, constantly present, to live and thrive, and the truth is — these conditions basically exist in any well-equipped kitchen.

Why ferment foods? I was skeptical at first. I thought pickles were just tasty, but not really all that good for you. In fact, it seems that fermented grains (sprouted bread and porridges), dairy products (yogurt, kefir, cheese), and vegetables (pickles, sourkraut, dilly beans and many more) are full of health benefits. In fermented foods, a host of micro-organisms and bacteria set to work on the sugars and starches in our foods, converting them to acid (which preserves them) and transforming some of the enzymes (which make the food eaasier to digest, and in some cases, make more of the nutrients ‘bioavailable,’ that is, easy for us to absorb).

But pickles aren’t just good for you — they’re good for the world, too. I’ve been extremely impressed with the work of Sandor Ellix Katz, a Jewish activist homesteader living with AIDS in Tennesee. Sandor weaves together ideas about ecosystem balance and biodiversity, DIY culture, estrangement from cultural roots and the power of the natural world, and the ways that fermented foods can bring us (and our community, and our intestines) back into harmony and power. In his outstanding and comprehensive book, Wild Fermentations: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods, he writes:

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.
… Most Americans are used to buying and eating food that has already been processed in a factory. “Both eaters and eaten are thus in exile from biological reality,” writes Wendell Berry. “And the result is a kind of solitude, unprecedented in human experience, in which the eater may think of eating as first a purely commercial transaction between him and a supplier, and then as a purely appetitive transaction between him and his food.” Industrially produced 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. “The time has come to reclaim the stolen harvest,” writes Indian activist Vandana Shiva, “and celebrate the growing and giving of good food as the highest gift and the most revolutionary act.” (Wild Fermentation, p. 26-27)

Pickling, the general art of preserving vegetables in brine, can be done with almost any vegetable. We’re making dills (with our own cucumbers and dill), garlic scapes, onions, eventually sourkraut and kimchi. The pickling helps us deal with an onslaught of ripe produce (you want me to eat HOW much cucmber salad? dayenu!), extending the season and providing us with tasty, healthy vegetables we can enjoy through the winter.

We’ll have our pickles available for purchase soon — I’ll keep you posted!

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3 Responses to “In praise of fermentation”

  1. Zelig Golden Says:

    It’s fantastic to see Adamahniks handcrafting artisenal foods with the works of their hands . . . And from what I hear, these pickles are even better than from the old country! Rock on Adamah


  2. eric Says:

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    My selfish reason for contacting you is as follows:

    Like you, I am competing in the Bloggers Choice Awards, although in the political category, not religious. I often write about Israeli/Palestinian issues.

    Like you, I am competing in the Bloggers Choice Awards, but in differing categories.

    Anyway, I would like it very much if you would go to and vote for me for best political blog and best overall blog as well, IF you feel my blog is of a high quality. I really think I have a legitimate shot at winning. If you are open to spreading the word, that would be cool as well.

    I am more than happy to reciprocate. Cross promotion is a win win for everybody.

    Thank you.

    eric aka

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