Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Cultural Rehabilitation

I'm online so rarely, and have so little access to the electricity that keeps things like camera batteries charged, that getting everything together for a blog post these days is getting tricky.  What IS going extremely well in my life is, well, pretty much everything else!  So I think it's safe to say that this blog definitely has a rather limited shelf life.

After a full year of life in a tent without power we've come to the conclusion that we really don't need electricity.  The only technology we really want to add back in is refrigeration, and perhaps a little electric lighting, but we don't need to reconnect to the grid, or spend a fortune on solar panels to do that.  Propane refrigerators work well, and can be pulled from old RVs if the price tag of a new one is daunting (which it always is!).  Washing clothes by hand, as I've mentioned before, is a royal pain in the arse, but for now we are happy to tend to this chore at the laundry mat, where we can charge up the electronics and pop off a quick blog post.  [Just remembered that I needed to charge up the camera battery!  Thank you, memory jog!  Maybe next time I can have some pictures to go with my ranting.]

I've been reading a book called "Wild Fermentation" by Sandor Katz, and thought I might just share a section from it this time around, because it is very high quality stuff, and very much needed in our "culture" (or lack thereof) these days.  Here goes:

Fermented foods and drinks are quite literally alive with flavor and nutrition.  Their flavors tend to be strong and pronounced.  Think of stinky aged cheeses, tangy sauerkraut, rich earthy miso, smooth sulbime wines.  Humans have always appreciated the distinctive flavors resulting from the transformative power of microscopic bacteria and fungi. 

One major benefit of fermentation is that is preserves food.  Fermentation organisms produce alcohol, lactic acid, and acetic aced, all "bio-preservatives" that retain nutrients and prevent spoilage.  Vegatables, fruits, milk, fish, and meat are highly perishable, and our ancestors used whatever techniques they could discover to store foods from seasons of plenty for later consumption.  Captain James Cook, the eighteenth-century English explorer who extended the far reaches of the British Empire, was recognized by the Royal Society for having conquered scurvy (Vitamin C deficiency) among his crews by sailing with large quantities of sauerkraut.  On his second round-the-world voyage, in the 1770s, sixty barrels of kraut lasted for twenty-seven months, and not a single crew member developed scurvy, which previously had killed huge numbers of the crews of long sea voyages.

Anomg the many lands Cook "discovered" and delivered into the Crown's realm were the Hawaiian Islands (Cook called them the Sandwich Islands in honor of his patron).  I find it an interesting parallel that the Polynesian people who crossed the Pacific Ocean and populated Hawaii more than a thousand years before Captain Cook also sustained themselves through the long voyage with fermented food, in this case poi, a thick starchy taro root porridge still popular in Hawaii and throughout the South Pacific.

Fermentation not only preserves nutrients, it breaks them down into more easily digestible forms.  Soybeans are a good example.  This extraordinarily protein-rich food is largely indigestible without fermentation.  Fermentation breaks down the soybeans' complex protein into redily digestible amino acids, giving us traditional Asian foods such as miso, tempeh, and tamari (soy sauce), which have become staples in contemporary Western vegetarian cuisine.

Milk, too, is difficult for many people to digest.  Lactobacilli (a type of bacteria present in fermented dairy products and many other types of ferments) transform lactose, the milk sugar that so many humans cannot tolerate, into easier-to-digest lactic acid.  Likewise, wheat that has undergone fermentation is easier to digest than unfermented wheat.  A study in the journal Nutritional Health compared unfermented and fermented versions of a mix of barley, lentils, milk powder, and tomato pulp and found that "starch digestibility almost doubled in the fermented mixture."  According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which actively promotes fermentation as a critical source of nutrients worldwide, fermentation improves the bioavailability of minerals present in food.  Bill Mollison, author of the Permaculture Book of Ferment and Human Nutrition, calls the action of fermenting foods a "a form of pre-digestion."

Fermentation also creates new nutrients.  As they go through their life cycles, microbial cultures create B vitamins, including folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, and biotin.  (Ferments have often been credited with creating vitamin B12, otherwise absent from plant-source foods; however, this bubble has now been burst by improved assaying techniques that show that what had been identified as B12 in fermented soy and vegetables are actually inactive "analogues."  B12 is only found in foods from animal sources, suggesting that a vegan diet is deficient in B12 without supplementation, the efficacy of which is quite controversial.)

Some ferments have been shown to function as antioxidants, scavenging cancer precursors known as "free radicals" from the cells of your body.  Lactobacilli create omega-3 fatty acids, essential for cell membrane and immune system function.  A marketer of "cultured whole food supplements" boasts that "the culturing process generates copious amounts of naturally occurring ingredients like superoxide dismustase, GTF chromium, detoxifying compounds like glutathione, phospholipids, digestie enzymes, and beta 1,3 glucans.  Frankly, nutritional factoids like this make my eyes glaze over.  You don't really need chemical analysis to tell you what foods are healthy.  Trust your instincts and your taste buds.  The data adds [sic] up to this: Fermentation makes food more nutritious.

Fermentation also removes toxins from foods.  This is vividly illustrated by the case of cassava, an enormous tuber native to the tropical regions of the Americas that has also become a staple food in equatorial regions of Africa and Asia.  Certain varieties of cassava contain high levels of cyanide and are poisonous until they have undergone a soaking fermentation.  The fermentation process eliminates the cyanide, rendering the cassava edible and nutritious.

Not all food toxins are as dramatic as cyanide.  All grains contain a compound called phytic acid, which can block absorption of zinc, calciuim, iron, magnesium, and other minerals and lead to mineral deficiencies.  Fermenting grains by soaking them before cooking neutralizes phytic acid, rendering the grain far more nutritious.  Nitrites, prussic acid, oxalic acid, nitrosamines, and glucosides are some other potentially toxic chemicals found in foods that can be reduced or eliminated by fermentation.

Eating fermented foods live is an incredibly healthy practice, directly supplying your digestive tract with living cultures essential to breaking down food and assimilating nutrients.  Not all fermented foods are still alive when you eat them.  Certain foods, by their nature, cannot contain live cultures.  Breads, for instance, must be baked, thereby killing the organisms present in them.  However, many fermented foods can be consumed live, especially those involving Lactobacilli, and alive is the most nutritious way to eat them.

Read labels and be aware: Many commercially available fermented foods are pasteurized, which means heated to the point at which microorganisms die.  Though yogurt is well known for its live cultures, many yogurt brands are pasteurized after culturing, killing the prized bacteria.  Yogurt that is still alive generally includes in the small print of the label words to the effect that the yogurt "contains live cultures."  Sauerkraut too is usually heat-processed and canned to extend shelf life, at the cost of its healthful live bacteria.  Even miso is often dried and sold in a lifeless powdered form.  If you want live-culture fermented foods in our food-security-obsessed , instant-gratification age, you have to seek them out or make them yourself.

By promoting digestive health, live fermented foods can help control digestive disease processes such as diarrhea and dysentery.  Live-culture foods can even improve infant survival rates.  A study conducted in Tanzania compared mortality rates between infants fed different "weaning gruels," some cultured, some not.  The infants eating fermented gruels had half as many "diarrhea episodes" as the infants fed nonfermented gruels.  Lactobacillus fermentation inhibits the growth of diarrhea-related bacteria such as Shigella, Salmonella, and E. coli.  Another study, reported in the journal Nutrition, concludes that thriving microflora prevent disease because Lactobacillus "competes with...potential pathogens for receptor sites at the mucosal cell surfaces" of the intestines and proposes a treatment strategy of "ecoimmunonutrition."

As eighteen-letter words go, I like the word ecoimmunonutrition.  It recognizes that an organism's immune function occurs in the context of an ecology, an ecosystem of different microbial cultures, and that it is possible to build and develop that cultural ecology in oneself through diet...

As soon as I can I'll post the next section of this fascinating tour de microflora, an even better rant, this time making a case against the sterility with which our culture is so obsessed these days.  For our part, we are moving in the live food direction once again, immortalizing Memorial Day 2013 by starting a new sourdough culture, something we haven't done in a few years, and something from which our culture at large would have benefitted a lot more than watching another pro-imperial parade on television.  We're also trying out a "spontaneous cider" - a gallon of apple cider in a glass jug left out with a cloth over the top to keep flies out for a couple of days, then capped with a balloon to act as a one-way air valve.  Katz says it can be "hard and dry," delicious, and ready to drink in as little as 5 days.  For 7 bucks and the cost of a balloon, a gallon of hard cider sounds pretty inviting.  This weekend at the farmers market we are looking for a few heads of fresh organic cabbage with which to start a crock of sauerkraut, and after tasting a test batch of our daughter's famous "Ella Blend Tea" made into a honey mead, we'll be ramping up production of that one, too.  It was mighty fine.

Hey, who knows, we might not need that fridge after all...


  1. I read Wild Fermenting last year and have been fermenting since then; to the delight of my health and all our household's health.
    Best wishes for your self reliance journey... we are heading in that direction as well.

  2. I want to say that all this yucky food they have come out with I can not eat anymore. I have developed severe allergies now.I have been eating a lot more healthier foods so much my system won't tolerate the other. I haven't tried fermented food but will get there eventually.

  3. Thanks for sharing this post...:-)
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  4. Thanks for sharing this post...:-)
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  5. "So I think it's safe to say that this blog definitely has a rather limited shelf life."

    Please don't abandon your audience completely; seasonal updates would be terrific.