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Eugene Weekly : Food : 10.23.08




American Gothic

Zombie cuisine and the magic of fermentation

Words and photo by Jennifer Burns Levin

Halloween’s coming, and my thoughts turn to the Gothic. In my day job as a college instructor, I like to teach Edgar Allan Poe and the history of the Gothic from fiction to subculture. And I brew up some toil and trouble in the kitchen as well. I don’t mean the cute Halloween theme party adaptations of food like cupcakes with frosting that looks like brains, but rather the dark wonder of prolonging the life of produce and meat … indeed, giving it an afterlife.

I’m talking about fermentation, the zombie of food.

You may be aware of the new craze for fermented foods. Americans usually tend towards sweet, soft foods, alas, and we don’t have much of a tradition of integrating pickling into daily meals, but that is beginning to change. Those of us with still-lingering Middle Euro-pean backgrounds, to say nothing of those of us with Chinese or Korean backgrounds, are digging the increased awareness of how healthy — and how delicious — fermented vegetables can be. 

Take fermented cabbage, for example. Something magical happens when you combine salt and shredded cabbage in a heavy crock and let it sit, undisturbed, for a few weeks. Sauerkraut emerges, soured by lacto-fermentation, the same lactobacilli that make yogurt so good for digestive ailments, and other good bacteria. The raw kraut is packed with vitamins K, C and iron, even healthier than the cabbage it came from, kind of like a superhuman zombie that is raised from the dead and emerges with new powers.

See where I’m going with this? 

Sandor Ellix Katz, self-described sauerkraut fetishist and author of Wild Fermentation, a singularly unique guide to the craft of fermenting foods, describes the microbial cultures that work this magic as “ubiquitous agents of transformation, feasting upon decaying matter, constantly shifting dynamic forces from one miraculous and horrible creation to the next.” Katz sings his ode, in essence, to the power of decomposition. And I think there should be room in our rainy, Pacific Northwest-y, compost-everlovin’ hearts for this sublimity as we ponder, weak and weary, the month of November.

One of the things I love most about sauerkraut is that it appeals to people in all strata of American society interested in fresh, local cuisine. Grant Wood’s famous 1930 painting American Gothic pictures the hardscrabble, stoic rural folks I imagine putting up their garden cabbages for sauerkraut all winter long. Our own local agriculture education and advocacy service, Lane County Extension, always teaches sauerkraut-making in the Master Food Preserver program and provides some strange and unusual recipes (sauerkraut pizza, sauerkraut chocolate cake) in its publications. Vegans, macrobiotic lifestylers and regular health-conscious folks have turned to sauerkraut for its nutritive value, and you can see it showing up on the shelves at our local markets, spiced with curry powder and fortified with seaweed. Russian grandmas eat up every last strand and then drink the juice as a digestive tonic. And some of us just like it raw on our beer sausages (freshly made and purchased at the farmers’ market, of course). 

Katz provides a recipe for a savory seed sauerkraut with caraway, celery and dill seed, and my own grandma will tell you to throw in some juniper berries with your caraway. Germans make sauerkraut in myriad ways, including softball-sized whole cabbage cores or layers of intact leaves that you can then use as tasty wrappings for cabbage rolls. Wine can be added to the kraut, either during the fermentation process or after it is finished, as part of the Alsatian dish choucroute garnie, an almost impossibly decadent mix of Riesling-baked sauerkraut, smoked and fresh pork and sausages. The Master Food Preservers have a recipe for creamy potato soup with sauerkraut, and there’s goulash with sauerkraut and pork and …

Sorry. We were talking about health here, and American Gothic cuisine. Sauerkraut is just one example of fermented food and a good one to raise awareness of the life process of which we are so romantically and dramatically a part. Before you take a bite of pungent, homely raw sauerkraut and feel that almost bouncy crunch between your teeth and the slightly sweet aftertaste, behold the pale, otherworldly creature that has emerged after sleeping in darkness for so many weeks. It is simply like nothing else … nothing living, anyway. Arise, ye powers of the living vegetable dead!

If you are interested in sauerkraut-making, please visit culinariaeugenius.wordpress.com or call Lane County Extension at 541-682-4243.