More About Why People Ferment

Kind of, sort of, you may consider this a follow-up to my previous post about the rhetoric and logic of why people ferment. Two of the folks who I’ve interviewed for this project — one a very old friend, and one a fairly recent one — both had some very interesting observations about why they make pickles, and why other people do too. To a certain degree, they engage with some of the reasons bloggers lay out for pickling — fermentation as tradition, environmental consciousness, health, etc. — but when I said before that those rhetorical moves are far from comprehensive — well — I think you’ll see what I mean. Just read.

On the Rhetoric of Lacto-Fermentation Online

If you’re wondering where I’ve been (dear readers!), the answer is otherwise occupied.  The past two weeks have been overflowing with grading, and more grading, and a plethora of projects that spread their tendrils like a delicate blue-cheese penicillium into every crack and crevice of my free time.  At least one of those projects is food related, however, and based on some research I’ve done for it, here is one observation.

There are a few standard rhetorical moves that food bloggers — including myself — make when introducing lacto-fermentation to their audience:

  • The broad call to history and tradition: “This is a technique as old as time itself, that has sustained humanity through its harshest winters when it would otherwise have starved.  I want you to feel — FEEL — that connection, people.”
  • The call to family history: “This is a wholesome food, and I know it’s wholesome because it’s something that my great grandmother would have eaten with relish.”
  • The call to ethnic heritage: “My family is from Lithuania, so when I think of sauerkraut, I think of old men in suspenders, up to their elbows in cabbage, smoking cigars on the porch on Sunday afternoon.”
  • The health claim: “I’m no doctor, I’ll admit, but after eating these peachy fermented green beans for a month, the knot in my back unclenched and my singing voice improved!”
  • The moral claim: “By doing this, we’re saving the environment and sparing our children from a gut bereft of beneficial bacteria.  Won’t somebody please think of the children?”
  • The foodie claim: “Michael Pollan / Sandor Katz / Sally Fallon / whoever else all but demand that we ferment!”
  • The disclaimer: “I know that this sauerkraut looks funky.  But it tastes fun-KAY!”  Or: “I swear guys, lacto-fermentation won’t kill you.”

The thing about all of these moves is that while they have their place and while, in a limited way, they describe some of the reasons we ferment, they are not comprehensive.  It turns out that folks practice lacto-fermentation for all kinds of reasons.  And while health, morality, or tradition may play some role, practical concerns — like the question of what to do when your neighbor gives you a bale of kale — are at least as important. It seems only right that deliciousness and the thrifty thrill of a homemade salty snack often win the day over loftier ideals.

There’s no particular judgment here.  Like I said, I have engaged in many of these rhetorical moves, and I stand by the idea (for example) that lacto-fermentation is worth doing because it connects us to our common humanity.  But I can’t eat common humanity, whereas I’ve got a great big inviting jar of pickled turnips waiting right over there.

Klingon Gagh

Klingon Gagh

Klingon gagh, no doubt, is the iconic food of the modern Star Trek canon. Whether it’s on The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine, whenever a group of Klingon warriors congregate together to share a meal and sing a song, there are two things of which you can always be assured: first, that there will be loud calls, in mixed tones of anger and levity, for another barrel of blood wine; and second, that there will be the relished consumption of gagh.

According to Memory Alpha the great wiki repository of all things Star Trek canon, gagh is a Klingon delicacy made from serpent worms. Although most Klingons preferred it live, it could also be served stewed or cold.

Pear-Apple Crisp

Pear-Apple Crisp

My intention, I have to admit, was not to make a pear-apple crisp. This was meant to be a tart. It was meant to be neatly sliced wedges of fruit lined up in a pretty pattern, forming concentric spiraling circles, embedded in an ever-so-slightly sweetened mascarpone base, inside the most delicate of shortcrust pastry shells.

I had imagined it — obviously — maybe a little bit too vividly. It would have been glorious.

Eclair Extravaganza!

These eclairs were pastries of necessity, people.  With almost four dozen eggs haunting my fridge, I really had no choice but to act rashly.  But the thing with making eclairs for no particular occasion is that they can only be done in batches of two dozen.  And with only three or four people to devour them — that’s a high per capita rate of pastry cream.

Eclair Extravaganza!

Eclair Extravaganza!

I cannot — alas — give you a recipe.  It isn’t mine to give.  But if you’re interested, I would highly recommend investing in a copy of Pastry: Savory & Sweet by Michel Roux. It is short, cheap, and has lots of pictures.  But despite those things, I have not seen a better book for making elegant pastries at home.

Peachy Mead

Peachy Mead

Just when I thought I was out, the mead keeps pulling me back in.

It was less than a month ago, now, that I bottled last year’s strawberry melomel. With Sarah’s invaluable help, there was a flurry of sanitizing and syphoning, filling, corking, cleaning, and trundling boxes of bottles down into the basement.

The strawberry mead came out just right: pale pink, with a definite and delicious fruit flavor, and a hint of oxidation that adds toffee complexity at the back end of every sip. It will need to age for a year or two. It’s still a little hot, alcoholically speaking. But I’m pleased. No doubt — one of the better meads I’ve made.

Picking Blackberries in New Jersey

Picking Blackberries in New Jersey

I went out to Mood’s Farm in rural New Jersey with friends Linda and Keli, we spent really only a couple of hours picking, and the result — which is what you see above — is over 45 pounds of berries. That’s fifteen pounds for each of us. Or — actually — enough berries to make a pie for me, and then the rest for Linda and Keli who made several different kinds of jelly and jam (and I think liqueur), and gave me jars of preserved things in return for my efforts.

It’s a good idea, people, to have friends who are enthusiastic about canning. And it’s even better to have canning-happy friends who are always on the lookout for economical fruit, and grateful to have an extra hand in getting it. My pantry, dear readers, is stocked.

Lacto-Fermented Green Beans

Lacto-Fermented Green Beans

This should come as a surprise to no one who has ever been there, but I’m going to say it anyway: hands down, New Orleans in my favorite food town in the United States. It exists at the cultural convergence of French, Italian, and down home Southern foodways. It draws on the best of Creole, Cajun, and Caribbean cuisine. In the past ten years, it has developed a strong link to Southeast Asia. And all of that while sitting on top of some of the best seafood on the continent.

It’s hard not to love New Orleans cooking, and when Sarah and I were down there last month — roadtripping and visiting my (too often neglected) family — we both fell in love with the food all over again. The fine dining, of course, is great. But we mostly went to in the other direction: po’ boy shops for fried oyster sandwiches (dressed); Mandina’s for trout almandines, sherried turtle soup, and crab parts buried in garlic and butter; into the French Quarter for raw oysters; and then out into (as far as I could figure) the middle of nowhere for some of the best phở I’ve ever eaten.

Tempering Chocolate Using the Seed Method

Tempering Chocolate Using the Seed Method

Tempering chocolate used to drive me crazy. There were several years there where I’d make chocolate dipped shortbread to send around to friends and family as gifts for the holidays. I would grit my teeth, pull out my electronic thermometer, marble slab, and heating pad, then fuss with getting my chocolate up to 130F, then down to 88F, then back up — just a hair of a hair, mind you — to the point of liquidity.

Achieving and maintaining those precise temperatures required constant vigilance. It always made a huge mess. And half the time, despite my best efforts, I missed my marks anyway, and my chocolate-dipped treats turned out streaky and waxy and gross, and totally unfit for service in yuletide care packages — or anywhere else.

Pal’s Sudden Service in Greeneville, Tennessee

Pal's Sudden Service in Greeneville, Tennessee

I had no idea that such a thing as a Pal’s Sudden Service existed, but apparently, they sell hamburgers, chili dogs, and sweet tea all over Tennessee.  I did not — alas — get a chance to eat at one of their establishments.  But the delightfully campy exterior of this specimen in Greeneville tickled my sense of Americana.  And when next I’m passing through the neighborhood, if I think I can stomach a dose of fast food, I might just stop.