I have a confession to make: we eat a lot of processed food. About one third of our vegetable intake is processed and almost all of our beverages and I foresee our future including a lot more!
It feels like a confession because anyone who gets into a conversation about food, farming or health with me is likely to pick up on the fact that I base our diet and lifestyle on whole, traditional foods. However its a confession that allows for a longer explanation because my kind of ‘processed’ does not come from the grocery store. It rarely comes from a sealed glass jar that I ‘canned’ in the fall using industrial vinegars, salts and sugars. It comes from a variety of crockpots with cheesecloth tops, glass jars that have bail top lids and get opened regularly and then put back on the cool shelf or into the fridge, and various carboys and bottles. You see – I’ve developed an obsession with fermenting.
Fermentation can be defined, in its simplest form, as a transformation process that takes place through microbiological activity. In food and beverage, it is about creating the conditions that allow microorganisms to transform raw food into food that will last longer, taste better (or at least different, depending on your palate), be easier to digest, and increase the nutritional qualities of many items.
It sounds intimidating and awfully close to letting foods spoil. What?! You are promoting the growth of bacteria on food? Isn’t that just what we are fighting against in a world where every item on the shelf claims to kill 99.9% of bacteria?
Yet I am willing to bet you that you’ve eaten at least two fermented items today: coffee, tea, cheese, yogurt, sauerkraut, kosher pickles, sourdough breads, many types of sausages, hams, olives, vanilla, wine, beer…. and the list goes on. However with the commercialization and industrialization of food – many of the foods that have traditionally been fermented are now made with industrial ingredients and processes that kill off the beneficial bacteria, with some products then added those ‘good bugs’ back in. Look at your tub of yogurt – it probably lists among its attributes added probiotics.
So the difference is that the processed foods we are eating around here are teeming with probiotics which we received for free because we encouraged their presence in our food. They are already there in and on our foods and our stomachs co-evolved with these bacteria and our digestion is dependent on them; fermenting allows us to encourage them and to continue to reintroduce them into our bodies.
I am not alone in my obsession: more and more people are gaining an interest in them. Over Christmas I had many conversations with family and friends about what and how and why – especially after sharing with them platters of my ‘pickles’, bottles of mead, or jars of hot pepper sauce. So with this confession off my chest – I am going to use this little space to share with you more about the what and how and why over the next few weeks. I may pass on my obsession to some of you; in the least – it might mean my contribution to the next potluck will be met with less suspicion.
The following piece is part of a regular column in the local newspaper that Brenda writes, often inspired by our farm journey and adventures. It first appeared in The Chautauqua in 2013.