On eating live foods

Bangbang:  making her spice mix for the table.  That knife looks closer than it is…her hand is about 4″ above it, have no fear

I have never been particularly trendy, or guru-worshiping.   It goes without saying then that I’ve never been one to follow a fad, except architectural ones.  Perhaps this is my inner (eek!) conservatism speaking, but doing something because a bunch of other people are doing it generally trips my bullsh*t-o-meter.  I’m also not particularly preachy or prone to the picking of nits.

All the above?  I mean In person:  the blog is something else entirely!  So, here, let me spew forth on the idea that you (you!) need to eat a lot more live foods!  Be trendy, and go raw, and go cultured!

Nothing like the funky ferment of freshly decanted kimchi out of the pickle crock first thing in the morning!  Five days in the crock, then into the fridge for the CSA folks.

Ahem.  For the last twenty years or so, I have been stuck in the loop of research/practice/direct observation of two things:  the growing of food and the making of food.

I have always believed in compost.  It makes sense that the addition of live microflora and fungi and microbes into your soil will nourish the soil that in turn nourishes the plants that nourish you.  And in my studies of peasant cuisine, there is one constant that can be found in societies as geographically and culturally different as the Laplands are from Micronesia, the desert Southwest from the Czech republic, and that is that all peoples nourish themselves with cultured, live foods, daily, and usually with most meals.

American people?  Not so much.  Our grocery stores guarantee that everything we buy is either dead or has never been living.  And the few “live” foods they do sell are suspect (e. coli in salads, sprouts; salmonella in eggs; pesticides on apples) and even the “active culture” yogurt is made from very dead milk that’s been inoculated, after the fact.  Our American fear of what we cannot see is so extreme, it’s like we’re more successful at the war on microbes than the war on terror…witness the proliferation of hand sanitizers and antimicrobial everything if you think I exaggerate.  Likewise, the “convenience” aspect of all food preparation has generated whole industries to ensure that the bother of, say, cutting up a head of broccoli (that most time-consuming of tasks) need not be done, as you can easily pick up a package of microwave-ready florets.  And then the experts wonder why we won’t eat our vegetables, and why we’re so fat.

Osmosis in action:  a mix of four types of cabbage for the pickle crock, tossed with salt first to bring out its moisture.  In two weeks or so this will be sauerkraut.

Why do I natter on so about “live” foods?  I guess it doesn’t take a genius to see that what we eat has radically shifted lo these last 75 years, and one of the first things to go has been cultured or microbially-active food.  Whole, unadulterated, unprocessed foods went next.  Out with the milkman, in with the ultrapasteurized milk carton that can sit on your pantry shelf forever.  In with the boxes and cans of food or microwave-ready comestibles, out with the idea that one needs to actually MAKE dinner, or breakfast, or even lunch (as you can now find in your grocer’s freezer section crust-less peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for your kid).  And don’t get me started on getting food through your car window, okay?

Sprouting wheat berries for bread

Me?  I like life in my food.  I have a lifelong aversion to leftovers and old food, so…this seems a contradictory stance.  Bear with me though.  Our recent food tradition has been such that, if we cook at all, we cook to death just about everything (hey, our milk is even cooked) and eschew that which is uncooked, mainly to worship the god of Convenience.  This is a new development, one in which our bodies (it is my belief) have not evolved to completely tolerate.  I will admit that I too cook nearly everything:  even my bread is well-baked even if its starter was alive.  But I do try, in every meal, to feed my family something un-dead.

The un-dead:  Camembert and peach jam on sourdough toast

Un-dead!  Zombie food, really?  Not really.  It’s more like this:  breakfast is sourdough toast with homemade raw-milk cheese (camembert, chevre, etc.) topped with fruit jam, or maybe a bowl of cultured oatmeal.  Lunch might mean a small bowl of kimchi, a handful of almonds, and a bowl of yogurt with some fruit and local raw honey.  After-school snack is a glass of chilled kombucha tea with a few homemade herbed crackers, or some cubes of feta, or a fruit/kefir smoothie.  Dinner includes cooked foods (mostly vegetables) paired with a huge salad topped with buttermilk dressing and walnuts, dessert is a couple raw apples.  Nothing terribly radical here…except that it’s me and not the food industry doing the making.

Listen.  I have seen what the introduction of compost did to the nearly-dead soil on my farm.  I can only wonder about the pleasing interaction between fungal hyphae and the root nodules of my own broccoli…what this unseen magic does for the plant.  Likewise, one’s own gut flora is a near imponderable to me!  Who knows how many unseen things I am host to, those little untold billions that sustain this corpus?  I believe it can’t hurt to have them nourished by live foods to help them do their job.  I expect to be around for a long time…and can only believe that feeding every little bit of me, well, will help me live long and happily.  And:  it’s a tasty way to be.

I figured out this weekend that the masonry oven can handle 15 loaves at a time.  All hail the Loven!

You can, too.  Just think about what it is you eat, and why.

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28 responses to “On eating live foods

  1. WOW–son and I had visions of making an outdoor bread oven. This pic is fantastic…did you have a plan/book for building the oven? Think the bread would go good when we sell our honey at the markets….DEE

  2. My friend sent me the article about the cabbage shortage. I will make sure and appreciate the 3 heads of cabbage I have left in the garden! I’m planning on making kimchi. Could you share your recipe? From the picture, it doesn’t look like you put red pepper flakes in your kimchi?

    Great picture of your daughter hard at work. What does she like in her spice mix?

    15 loaves at a time? Wow! So cool!

    Could you also share your peach jam recipe sometime? I am able to buy unsprayed peaches at the farmers mkt every summer. This summer I made a bunch of peach butter, but would like the try a jam next time.

    Thank you!

  3. I grew up on breakfast as either cold cereal and milk or cheese toast where the “cheese” was pre-sliced orange pasturized cheese food and a glass of juice. Oatmeal was something my grandmother cooked in a double boiler for my grandfather. Weekends were Bisquick pancakes, eggs and bacon and packaged juice. Never any fresh fruit. I moved for 2 years to New Orleans and there learned how to truly cook from scratch and begin to appreciate fresh foods. There’s nothing like eating fish or seafood caught 30mins ago with a salad just picked from your backyard.

    There’s something satisfying about good bread/crackers, real cheese, and fresh fruit (The French have known about it for centuries!). There’s something in fresh vegetables (cooked and raw) that my body craves daily. It can’t be duplicated by any manufactured chemical combination no matter how good the “food” looks on the commercial. And whenever I veer away, my body lets me know.

    Your blogs remind me that with a bit more planning, I could push my cookery skills to include developing homemade yogurt and soft cheeses. Thanks.

  4. Hey, did you read my last post?

    I love live food too, and don’t eat as much as I should. I made kim chee last week, and it’s pretty yummy. I am also going to try sauerkraut this coming week. Never made it before, so I’d appreciate a little guidance too.

    I too am shocked (shocked, I tell you!) at how far the “convienance food” trend has gone. Precooked rice in vacuum packed baggies? puh-lease!

    • Hah! Nope! Great minds, I guess, Aimee. had to laugh about your inedibles in the fridge: fwiw you’re describing MY fridge. Our go-to item of edible convenience though around here is bread, usually in the form of toast.

      Considering all the queries, I think I will have to do a kimchi or sauerkraut demo. It’s really easy, and my most fail-safe way to test it is to stir it and sample it every flipping day until I deem it Done.

  5. I order kimchee when I eat at korean restaurants, but often it’s too hot. I like spicy, just not “Clear the sinuses, instant sweat on brow” spicy-hot. Would love a “demo”!

  6. Hurrah for whole foods! Now, if only I LIKED those things! It’s the sour aftertaste of yogurt that turns me off. And because of my yogurt experiences, I can’t bring myself to try kefir or any of the other live culture foods. Vinegar is another taste that does not appeal – so things like sauerkraut won’t enter my kitchen. >sigh<

    Still, I do make my own breads, and grow my own veg. It's a start, eh?

  7. Fifteen loaves! Will your family eat all that? Or is some of that for other people as well?

  8. LOVE your brick oven! I have one on my “Honey Do” list.
    I totally agree, we eat live foods. We’ve gotten rid of all beet sugars in our diet( we use raw cane sugar sparingly, mainly raw honey or cane molasses) and have been experimenting with old world preservation techniques; lactic fermintation, preserving with oils, sugar, salt, vinegar and dehydration. :o)

    Kraut( cabbage or other shredded veggie combinations) is my absolute favorite, in fact we’re making a 5 gallon crock full of kraut this week.

  9. Wow! That is a gorgeous oven!! 15 loaves is impressive. I’ll be excited to get one out of our oven at this point.

  10. I love that your CSA customers receive kimchi, bread, and other delicacies besides veggies…really neat.

    I’m curious, do you think it is important to eat both cooked and raw veggies rather than mostly raw? This is something I have been thinking about of late and have been trying to create a better balance between raw and cooked foods. I sometimes think we are a little to heavy on the raw side and are perhaps not assimilating all of the nutrients from food that we could be…but it is hard to find any info. that does not favor one way or the other.

    • Hi Mike: quick reply as there’s something to what you’re saying. I think mixing it up with raw, cultured and cooked is really the way to go. Variety, not too much of one thing, and make sure you have plenty of color on your plate (which, with all your carrots and beets, you’re already doing!). As it is, the typical American food life is heavy on the cooked/overcooked, and of course overprocessed, and usually white, beige and brown in color. Going in any one extreme might not be all that grand for anyone’s system, including raw! I know that, say, carrots have nutrients not easily processed by us unless they’re cooked (soybeans too, etc.) and cooking OR culturing them brings out their nutrients in a more easily digested form. It’s kind of like predigestion! Likewise, cooking some things kills the enzymes and nutrients right out of foods, so…eating that raw apple or carrot in its freshest from-the-garden form is also great.

      It’s a balancing act, obviously. Heating things, barely, brings out more flavors. For this reason, I often make hot dressings for my kale/carrot salads…I just warm up the garlicky vinaigrette and toss it on. Best of all worlds then is if I toss some feta on top!

  11. i’m half korean, so i’m pretty sure kimchi runs through my veins – yum! however, am very distracted by the loven at the end. 15 loaves! i’m turning green over here. so, so awesome. i really want a loven!

  12. Great post, El! I’ll have to add more fermented foods to the list of things to make. We tried making sauerkraut late this summer- it was so-so. I have to plan cabbage to be harvestable in the autumn, not the summer. Lesson learned.

    Kimchi would be a good addition, so I’m looking forward to your post on that!

  13. Have you read “wild fermentation” by Sandor Ellix Katz? (Probably you have!).

    Its a very cool book that put all the types of live foods together for me. I really need to pick up my own copy. I admit I’m a little more scared of the countertop crock recipes than the basic blue book types or preserving, but I’m slowly adjusting my comfort level.

    I love the comparison to compost, by the way. It makes a lot of sense that the benefits of diversity in soil and plants in growing food extends right up to eating it. I’m with you on the variety thing, a little bit of everything is good, extremism or elitism in eating (or politics) can be a scary thing 😉

    • Yeah, Sara…he’s about as close to a guru as I can get. What I appreciate about his approach is that it’s so not Blue Book! There’s a certain hand’s off approach with much of preserving in that your very hands are of course filthydirtynasty…which I of course don’t choose to believe. I had made kraut for years before I got that book, and now I will only use his methods, mainly because he makes you in control of the process. (Before it was always “dice exactly this size, leave to ferment in this temperature of a room for this exact time,” which, considering the variables, is nonsense. If you check your bubbling concoction every single day, you’ll know when it’s ready. I killed a LOT of crocks of kraut before I read his book.)

  14. You said “cultured oatmeal”….wow, what’s that? Please tell more, I’ve never heard of this before! thanks.

  15. How I’d love a recipe file attached to this blog! This bread looks gorgeous. I am searching for a sprouted whole-grain sourdough boule recipe. Somewhere…. somewhere…

    Very fun and inspiring post. I adore your work ethic.

  16. Love this. I tried to ferment more and can less this year but in the heat of the battle I ended up canning much more than planned. Slowly getting my family to eat more fermented foods – pickles, kvass, salsa, kefir but it’s not been easy. It’s a good reminder to see posts like this. I should bet eating sometihng fermented with every meal!

    And El I want you to know that I’ve decided I am getting dairy goats. You are right – it’s what I want to do and I just need to cut some other things out. If I have to buy my meat precured or buy some processed food in order to fit in daily milkings then so be it.

    I am smitten.

  17. Hi, Dee. The oven is modified from Alan Scott’s The Bread Builders. I think bread would go quite well with your honey! However building one of these things is a bit of an endurance challenge…just so you’re warned.

    Elizabeth, will do, next kimchi batch I make. See, you’re in control if you make your own: I didn’t use red pepper flakes but did use a few of my hottest peppers, and no, it won’t straighten your hair! I got the peach recipe from the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, at least I think I did because it’s pretty versatile. Peach jam can be kind of boring, so sometimes I make it with a few cranberries thrown in for color and tart texture. But yeah, she likes pepper, salt, thyme and mustard in her mix, sometimes with a few more dried green leafy things. It’s cute.

    JoAnna, your story is not at all unique, at least, the upbringing part. I am glad you woke up and got over it, isn’t life more fun? And just like a home-grown tomato, the homemade ferments and cultured goodies like yogurt are really a world apart, trust me!

    Aimee, I had to crack up at your trolling Trader Joe’s. Yeah, isn’t it crazy? I mean, sure, TJs can be fun(ish) but not for shopping in daily. I mean, it’s nice to make things from scratch too, and I can hardly believe making rice is a hardship. Maybe I just don’t live in that world though.

    JoAnna, yep, once the sauerkraut from this pic gets finished, I have plenty of garden leavings ripe for some kimchi. And yeah, not terribly hot unless you want it that way…

    Ellen, well, my husband is in your camp and only eats these foods under duress. Actually that’s not true, mostly he doesn’t eat them at all. BUT: he likes the kimchi! Anyway, I HATED sauerkraut until I made my own, and yeah, I tend to love my honey with my yogurt…but vinegar is always something I liked, and making my own? much better than expected! But baby steps. Maybe you won’t like it after all but there are alternatives and other things, like that bread you mentioned.

    Anju, well, some goes to my CSA customers, some to us, and some to the school’s snack program…so yeah it would be a little nutty if we went through 15 loaves a week, wouldn’t it?

    Kelle, how fun, right? I have tried some of those preservation methods, yet tend to fall back on canning or not preserving at all and trying to eat it fresh when in season. I wish we could cut out more beet sugar out of our lives…I have, but not everyone in my house can live without it. Sigh.

    Esperanza, time will tell. Our first heating (done by me, who is not a fire bug) was wimpy; needed reinforcement in the form of taking the food out and reheating by husband. Dinner was quite late that evening if I remember correctly.

    Mike and Jules, well, like I said, I think life’s better if you mix things up. All I am kind of saying with this post is it’s nice to eat raw, cultured, and fermented at least daily. Eating all processed foods is not the answer, that much I know.

    Serina, hah! I like my kimchi but I am sure it doesn’t hold a candle to the traditional. But indeed the Loven is a thing of beauty. With the threat of rain yesterday I ended up not using it (a good thing considering the flooding we got) and I am kind of lonesome for the smell of woodsmoke!

    Paula, yeah, the cole crops aren’t their best in the summer…it could’ve reflected this in your sauerkraut. Kimchi is a lot more forgiving though. I think with all of them it’s a matter of tasting them often to make sure things are going the way you want them to.

    Sara, well, yeah. Variety! I think you should buy yourself a copy of that book…you’ll like having it even if you don’t refer to it all the time.

    Laurie, I simply pre-soak the thick-rolled oats in raw milk and refrigerate it overnight. Then it’s easier to cook in the morning and I hope it has a little extra goodness too.

    Michael, hah! thanks. I will say I am not the best with recipes because I rarely use them unless it’s a baked good and therefore prone to exactitude. Everything around here depends on what’s at hand, usually straight out of the garden, so it’s hard to write much less follow recipes if the rules change so much!

    Annette, I am so happy! It is baby steps, isn’t it. My goodness my girl had no choice in this eating life here because she’s but 6 so she’s grown up in the garden, but my husband is an entirely different animal. Luckily, he wasn’t too much of a convenience-food kind of guy when I met him, even if his tastes are limited…and fortunately he likes things tart. That’s huge. But indeed, I will have to email you, probably today if work’s not too crazed. Goats are great.

  18. don’t be too much of a snob. no, everyone (“you can too”) can’t do what you do. i used to live next door to a very sad family. they had to leave the (agriculturally better) rural South to come to the industrial lands where their grandchildren lived, to care for them. they were poor and their budget was small, and they had no resources. they could never have done what you do, let’s not even start with the fact they lived in an apartment complex and had no land. this wasn’t something they wanted; they did so because to do anything else meant the deaths of their grandchildren.

    i enjoy my gardens. but i don’t kid myself, they are a privilege and not something that makes me better than those who can’t keep one.

    • Now, now, Chidy: consider who is reading my blog. I sincerely doubt it is folks like your former neighbors, trolling for vegetative kicks in the blogosphere.

      I do try very hard to close the gap between the me-I-me-look-what-I-can-do-me-me that most, nay, 95% of all blog posts do, especially gardening and/or food blogs. I am trying to make people think about what they eat, and show, maybe, that there’s a different way out there. Do I need to clobber them over the heads that industrial eating is their, and the world’s, downfall? (Nope; I am pretty much spitting into the wind on that one.) Your neighbors are good examples of that in that they left their own food-rich turf for the barren one of a Chicago apartment. I can only hope that they’re old enough (you said they were custodial grandparents) that they have a solid food tradition to fall back on. Most vernacular food traditions are just that, rich: think collards, think grits, think fatback if we’re talking the American south. Look anywhere else in the world and you’d see the same thing. My point with this post is there are a lot of good food traditions we’ve lost sight of, like fermented stuff, in our quest to be whatever it is we have become.

      People with gardens and blogs and farms are, well, privileged. I cannot deny that I am better off than 96% of the planet’s inhabitants. You gotta write from somewhere, and I am trying hard to write from a more neutral place than the one I occupy (capital-P Privilege) and therefore convince more people that things are within their grasp. What am I to say to your former neighbors? That they cannot do any of these things because they don’t have a garden? I find that argument spurious at best, and insulting too. All I am trying to say is that if we ate more like where they came from and less like where they are (where most of us reading this are) then we’d all be better off. And doing it with “old”-style food methods is one way to get there.

  19. In response to Chidy:
    How does writing a blog about doing something you love make you a snob? Everyone has something they’re good at doing.

    As for not having access to some land: there are gardening co-ops all over the US, especially in Chicago, where neighbors get together and and share a plot of land. You just have to look. You can even grow greens and salads in an apartment, even under artificial lights. Making your own yogurt of soft cheese is not hard, just time consuming.
    Preserving your own produce by canning again is not hard if you follow all the steps. I mean, pioneers did this stuff and most of them were not college graduates! All this stuff takes some planning but it isn’t nucleur physics.

    El has chosen a lifestyle where she is in control of most of the food she provides for her family and CSA. She lives on an old fruit farm. She writes about her choices. That’s it.

    I used to teach elementary school for 14 years, so I talked a lot about kid’s projects, and their personalities, and fieldtrips, and complain about “No Child Left Behind”. It was what I did everyday to earn a paycheck. And I was accused of snobbery and eliticism because I challenged my students to excel beyond their grade level. I had my students in a contained classroom: all the subjects except art and gym were taught by me. One parent told me that I must’ve gone to school in the suburbs because no Detroit teacher would ask his/her students to complete the projects I asked of them. Ex: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Since it was February, I told them to find a dead African-American who was in the same/similar field, a living African American, and show a job description of their future career. This was to be displayed on a 3-panel display board. I had prepared my students since September for this assignment with book reports, and guest speakers, and videos, etc… We had also talked about the history of certain careers, and technological inventions of the 20th century. Because my ideas of education were a bit different, I had to deal with complaints from other teachers, that I was teaching outside of my current grade level. At one time, the science teacher was mad with me because we had covered the parts of plants, their growth cycle, their uses in common things and industry in the 2nd grade during a 2 month project. When my students told her they already did that, she tested them and they all passed. She had to totally redo her plant lesson in her planner and was not happy with me.

    I wrote all of this to say that El is not shoving this down your throat. You can choose to not read her blogs if they somehow offend you with hints of an enlightened guru preaching to the clueless masses. Owning a productive garden isn’t a “privilege” but a choice, like living in a condo or a loft. El’s choosing to blog about flexing her gardening/cookery muscles is a choice that I’m glad to enjoy weekly.

    Ok. I’m done.

  20. A question, a question! I didn’t grow cabbage this year but got a great pile of it (Savoy) from an organic farmer down the road. I chopped it and rinsed it in water with vinegar. But there are so many tiny tiny bugs! Aphids, I think. I’ve removed all i can but there’s no way I didn’t miss some. Tell me there are other people making sauerkraut out there with this problem. Or am I making bugkraut?

    • Mac! Are they gray? If so, they’re an aphid that seems to just love the cabbage family. And you’ve chopped already, huh.

      Take heart in two little factoids: One, vegetarian South Asians began to suffer certain nutritional deficits once their grains were all thoroughly de-bugged with industrialized agriculture (as in, they’d unknowingly been eating bugs in high numbers previously) and two, if worse comes to worst then developing a taste for bugs, especially fleshy larvae, will save the human race.

      I would say don’t worry about it overmuch, as I doubt they’ll hurt you (other than tripping the Ick Factor). Next time, should there be a next time, you can attempt to soak/rinse the outer leaves individually and toss the ones with all the little bits of goop on them. It’s my experience that the bugs don’t get into the heart of the cabbage at all so that should be safe.

  21. Cheers, I’ll try that next time. Haven’t seen any more yet (glass crock). Whew, savoy cabbage is a bitch to clean.

  22. Thanks for this, El …. love this post and the connection between compost and fermentation – one I think of often!

    I’ve found that growing your own, making your own, and using traditional methods for cooking, preserving, and eating is much more economical (to pick up the “snob” thread) than buying food that someone else grew and prepared.

    Also: where I live in the mountains of North Carolina, there’s an interesting overlap between people new to traditional foodways–who researched and reinvented their way to live foods, fresh foods, wild foods, and traditional foods–and old-timers who have been growing, fermenting, canning, salting, butchering, and foraging as a way of life as long as anyone can remember.

    In other words, there is a somewhat-intact indigenous food culture here, mostly carried on by people with few economic resources — which exists side by side with and is cherished by a subculture of enthusiastic converts, newcomers who may be college-educated, have more cash on hand to by shiny new crocks and skillets, and read and write books and blogs. There’s a productive and dynamic relationship between these two groups, one that honors and preserves food traditions, from what I have witnessed. I think writing about these ways of thinking about and relating to and growing and preparing and preserving food is an essential way to honor and protect the traditions (usually practiced by poor people) that the modern agro-industrial corporate food machine has rolled over and attempted to squelch.

    So in my experience the dynamic is a lot more subtle and interesting than “snob” vs “poor disadvantaged uninformed eater” – which is why I’m grateful for your blog and will defend it against charges of snobbery any day!

    Lovely to catch up with what you’ve been doing – I’ve been out of the blog world for a few months and am happily back to reading and writing and cooking and preserving and Fast Grow the Weeds is a lovely part of that rhythm!

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