Much like good bacteria lying dormant in my gastrointestinal system for lack of food to revive it, I believe the fermentation bug has always been with me, passed down through the mists of time from one person to another, waiting for a reason to revive.
Having been raised in Europe, where naturally fermented foods like yogurt and cheese were not just staples but everyday delights, I grew up with a taste for strongly flavored, potent and sour things.
The bluer the cheese, the better. The more sour the yogurt, the better.
My mom was making kombucha in the 80s and 90s, long before it became a household name. My grandmothers made pickles and sauerkraut that sat in jars on shelves for us to consume throughout the long winters.
Then something changed, the world wanted to have things faster and cheaper, and food became a thing to have at will rather than a slow thing to do with others.
Food came in boxes in powdered form, the nutrients zapped out of it in favor of a long shelf life. The relationship between humans and food was sacrificed for efficiency to accommodate increasingly busy schedules.
Somewhere in my mid-twenties, I started to experience a strange kind of anxiety. One that ran counter to my personality. I became afraid of social situations, of being in large groups of people, of talking to large groups of people.
My anxiety bubbled over into all aspects of my life, causing several hospitalizations and endless questions about why I felt like I couldn’t breath at times.
Eventually I learned to control the anxiety without taking medication, but it would stay there in the background, looming over any situation and rearing it’s ugly head at inopportune times like public speaking engagements and plane rides.
After a severe leg infection hospitalized me for four days, and which required some of the strongest antibiotics known to man to treat it, I started to realize a connection between how my mind worked and what my stomach was doing.
I began a very slow regimen of taking probiotics in hopes of mitigating some of the damage from the antibiotics, but the flash-frozen pills never really brought the kind of relief I was seeking.
It was many, many years later, in fact, it was six months ago, that I discovered that the connection between my stomach and my mind is so connected, every little thing I ingest can impact how I feel at any given time.
I tested different foods to monitor reactions.
I started intermittent fasting to see what eating at different times of the day would do to me.
And I stuffed a bunch of salted cabbage into a Mason jar and left it sit on my kitchen counter for four weeks.
There were two reasons for this. The first reason is that I wanted some sauerkraut. The second reason is that I read that modern pickles and sauerkraut are made using a vinegar process that destroys all the natural, healthy probiotics usually associated with preserved vegetables.
I read a lot of Sandor Katz, a man who contracted AIDS and who was able to heal himself and prolong his life through eating lacto-fermented foods like sauerkraut and pickles.
I ate the first jar of kraut and pickled a second jar of red kraut with hot peppers and carrots in it. I ate the second jar of red kraut with hot peppers in it and made a third jar with red kraut, habaneros, garlic and turmeric.
I bought a crock and open-fermented a batch of sauerkraut in the kitchen.
I bought canning pickles in the middle of winter and fermented them in a jar on my counter.
Over the last six months, I have had a daily diet of lacto-fermented foods. And in that time, almost every bit of social anxiety has disappeared.
I’m enough of a journalist to believe that could be the case. Correlation does not equal causation, in my world.
But when I noticed my then 16-year-old son struggling with social situations and complaining of chronic stomach issues related to eating certain foods, I decided to push my lactolifestyle on him.
Unfortunately, he wouldn’t eat sauerkraut. So I made kimchi using all the spices found in the amazing Korean staple but fermented in a jar the way I understood the process I had been doing the last six months.
But a boy of 16 can only eat so much kimchi without sweating garlic and red sauce from his pores.
I needed another solution that didn’t involve remembering to take a pill each day.
So I ordered some kefir grains from a delightful lady in Ohio, who packaged some of the strange, cheese-curd-looking bits of cellulose into little packets and mailed them off to me. In return, I got a $20 bill and sent it off to her as payment.
I dropped the grains in a jar of milk and let them sit overnight. The next morning, the milk was a thick, yogurt-like substance that tasted wild and slightly sour.
I threw some blackened bananas from the freezer and some fresh strawberries into a blender, poured the soured milk over the mess of it and proceeded to blend it all into a lavender-colored concoction that I left in the fridge for him to drink.
The boy often gets up and goes for a run in the mornings to accomplish his goal of running more than 900 miles this summer, but when he returns, he drinks a large glass of my kefir.
Coincidence or not, the last month I’ve seen him worry less and able to eat more of the foods he couldn’t before. He now asks for kefir every day, realizing the health benefits if not the subtle flavorings I add to it each day.
Yesterday I found guavas for 99 cents a pounds, so I threw those in the mix with some frozen raspberries, a tablespoon of coconut oil and a tablespoon of potato starch.
The other kids are coming around too, realizing that they feel good after a week of drinking dad’s kefir.
My counter, if you look at it now, is full of fermenting things. Radishes with a week or two to go, beets in need of a few more weeks of fermenting and some fresh tongbaechu-kimchi.
As the summer arrives, I’m finding more delightful things to ferment and numerous methods to ferment and preserve things.
I’m enthralled by a process that breaks food down and essentially improves on the flavors, all while packing a walloping array of beneficial little bugs that make my stomach feel good, which in turn, makes my head feel good.
I told my wife I needed a new hobby this year. I enjoy brewing beer, but it gets expensive, and beer might be far more accessible today, but it’s still somewhat of a luxury, especially as I age.
But brewing your own food, well, now that’s something special.