On Pickles, Meaning, and Life's Mysteries

If your all-American Fourth of July barbecue includes pickles and sauerkraut, consider this... 

Fermented foods are having a moment among culinary creators and health-conscious consumers — with surging interest in delicacies from miso, kombucha and kimchi to pickles, kraut, and kefir. But did you know this trendy fare is deeply connected to Jewish history, culture, and thought?  

Look no further than the Torah. In Genesis (9:20), after the flood, Noah plants a vineyard. In the next line, we learn he drank enough wine (fermented fruit juice) to become drunk. Later in Genesis (18:8), Abraham receives three strangers, to whom he offers refreshments including "curds" (fermented sour milk). Perhaps the best-known early reference to fermented food is the Passover story in Exodus (12:39): When the Jews were "thrust out of Egypt, and could not tarry," their dough could not rise (through fermentation). We know this unleavened bread as matzo. 

Fermented food staples of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish culture include salt-cured lemons, pickled eggplant, cauliflower, and Persian cucumbers among other vegetables, sourdough flatbread, and yogurt. Ashkenazi Jews have been eating dill pickles, sauerkraut, olives, pickled green tomatoes, kvass, and borsch for centuries. 

In 2003, Sandor Katz published Wild Fermentation. The American food writer, do-it-yourself (DIY) food enthusiast, and self-described fermentation fetishist began sharing with mass audiences new (and we find thought-provoking in a Jewish context) ways to think about fermented and fermenting our own — foods. 

"Fermentation is a metaphor," he says:

  • Literally and metaphorically, he asserts, fermentation is about transformation: breaking down previous forms into new forms. 
  • It's about hope and investment in the future, because it does not yield immediate gratification. 

Katz says people are drawn to doing their own fermentation for various reasons: for some, it’s creating outrageous flavors, preserving the abundance of the garden, or the health promises of probiotics. For others, he notes, it's an act of connection:

  • connecting to the living world
  • connecting with a ritual or recipe from our heritage or homeland
  • connecting with the nuance and mystery in life. 

"One thing I hear often from people is it’s making them more aware of invisible forces that are continually at work. When you’re focusing on your little jar of vegetables and you can’t see any of the bacteria and yet you begin to see changes, it forces you to pay attention in different kinds of ways," Katz said. "People carry this beyond the kitchen. They tap into a broader unknown, aspects of the world that are easy to ignore because they don’t seem directly relevant to our life, but are." 

Katz says in today's fermentation movement, innovation and creativity are enabling people to not just revive traditions, but make them their own, fostering deeply personal expressions of one's culture(s) and values. Metaphorically, he observes, "People pay attention to the environments we create and how they determine which organisms are going to be able to thrive."

His musings give us much to chew on.


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