I like most pickles. Obviously. But if I had to compile a list of four or five favorites — of the sorts of pickles I couldn’t do without — kkakdugi kimchi, or kimchi made from big honking radishes, would definitely rank. I’ve talked about them here before. In this other post about pickled daikons, I believe I said that because my preparation owes so much to Lauryn Chun and to Maangchi’s fabulous Korean food blog, I probably wouldn’t be posting a version of it here.
But that was then, and this is now. And in the meantime, I’ve changed my mind.
I found myself in the produce aisle at the grocery yesterday, staring at some very pretty, very large daikon radishes. And I thought to myself: I want kkakdugi! And then I thought to myself: since I’m going to make it anyway, I might as well make enough to share.
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.
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.
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.
I feel like it’s been events and announcements and self-promotion all around for the past few weeks, and that I’ve been short changing you all on substantial writing about food.
That will change very soon. Promise.
But in the meantime, if you’re in the Philadelphia area, come out and hear me speak tomorrow night at the Barren Hill Tavern and Brewery in Lafayette Hill — on Germantown pike, not too far from Chestnut Hill. I’ll be reprising the talk that I gave at Science on Tap in April — “Culturing Food: History, Health and Fermentation.” But it will be a new audience, with new questions, and (I hope) some slightly spiffed up visuals.
At any rate, it’s part of an event called Pint of Science — a multi-city, International, three day mini-festival that happens in a bunch of cities. The people who run the Philadelphia chapter are super sharp. The other speakers sound fascinating. And did I mention that there is also going to be beer?
Here’s the relevant information: the Barren Hill Tavern & Brewery is at 646 Germantown Pike; the event goes from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm; mine is the second talk of the night. And though they seem to want you to RSVP here using Eventbrite, registration is in fact free.
Come on out, have a beer, and have a good time. And if you do make it, say hello. I want to meet you!
Update: Here is a link to the complete story, including audio of the broadcast, at WHYY’s Newsworks.org.
Do you remember last month when I gave that talk about fermentation at Philadelphia’s Science on Tap? What I didn’t tell you then was that Lari Robling, reporter from WHYY — our local NPR station — was in attendance. She interviewed me for a piece she was working on about the current popularity of fermented foods, and she taped a little bit of my lecture.
Well this Friday — May 16 — Lari tells me that the piece will finally air.
If you are in Philadelphia, tune into WHYY’s science and technology program, The Pulse, at 9:00AM on Friday or 10:00AM on Saturday to hear what we had talked about.
Or, if you’re not local, check out this page to see the story online. It should be available at the same time as — or perhaps directly after — the story goes live.
Folks often ask me — Adam, they ask, it’s great that you make all of these lacto-pickles, or fermented vegetables, or whatever. But what do you do with them once you have them? And then they’re disappointed, and they make a face, and their curiosity kind of turns off when I tell them the truth — that mostly what I do is eat them for breakfast. Straight-up. Without any additional preparation at all.
So I’ve been thinking about other things I can do with lacto-pickles — or at least other things that I can tell people that they should do that won’t disappoint them, or weird them out, or abruptly end the conversation. And that’s how I came up with this salad.
A little while ago, as you might recall, I posted this recipe for pickled watermelon radishes. They were the ones that smelled so — well, they stank as they fermented.
They’re delicious — sweet and savory and a little bit piquant — now that they’re done. And diced, and tossed with slices of seedless cucumber, they make a perfect salad. It’s invigorating, and cooling, and — once it finally warms up — it will be a great early-summer treat.
Here are the ingredients:
3 Seedless Cucumbers, sliced into discs
10-12 Slices of Pickled Radish (or other fermented root veg), diced fine
A Pinch of Nutritional Yeast
A Thin-Sliced disc of Lemon, for garnish
No instructions necessary. Just toss, then plate, then eat.
Before we start, here is what you need to know about me. Though this is indeed Science on Tap, and though I was indeed invited here by the College of Physicians, I am neither a scientist nor an M.D. I am a food blogger, a folklorist, a historian, and — if anything — a fermentation enthusiast. This means that what I am interested in is people — how people use fermentation, how they have used it in the past, and how it works as a technology that improves quality of life, and the flavor and longevity of whatever it is folks are eating.
Fermentation is a bit of a popular topic right now. Alternet, the online indy reporting outfit and sometime light-news rag, called it their number one top food trend of 2013. In December of last year, they wrote:
Don’t forget, folks — this is happening on Monday, April 14, at 6PM. My talk at Science on Tap. If you’re in Philly, and if you’re around, come on out to the National Mechanics bar on South 3rd St. to hear me talk about fermentation as a science and a technology. There will be pickles! There will be bread! There’s going to be a healthy dose of The Epic of Gilgamesh, and even a little bit of the Bible thrown in for good measure!
(I can talk about the Bible in a science lecture, right? That won’t get me thrown off the stage?)
Anyway: the talk is free. The bar is great. You’ll need to pay for your food and drinks, but National Mechanics does all that stuff super well.
If you come by, say hello. I’d love to meet you.
For all their stunning beauty, watermelon radishes emit a pungent, offensive odor as they ferment. It’s the sort of smell that might make you turn around and ask yourself: is it possible that I’ve stepped in something?
But mature, they are pink, and pleasant, and piquant. And flavored with garlic, hot peppers, and star anise, I have no doubt that they will be an excellent addition to the edible menagerie of living foods that are slowly taking over the fridge.
The recipe is as follows:
About 8 Watermelon Radishes (sliced thinly into semicircles)
1 1/2 quarts Brine (filtered water, plus 3 tbsp of Sea Salt)
2 Cloves of Garlic
1 Star Anise Pod
Dried Hot Peppers and Black Peppercorns to taste
To put it all together, have a look over at this post about Lactofermented radishes from a couple of years ago.