Peace, Love, and Gut Bacteria

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How hippie food became mainstream.

“The Hippies Have Won.” That was the conclusion of a New York Times article on April 4th, which suggested that “just as yoga and meditation have gone mainstream, so have ideas and products surrounding health, wellness and eating that play like a flashback to the early 1970s.”

The nicely-observed piece supported its claims in part by explaining that fermented foods such as kombucha and kimchi are no longer fringe-fads, but are now considered by many to promote good gut health, supporting the development of a healthy microbiome.

Well, right on.

In fact, the NYT says that kombucha, for example, has gone from being “something your art teacher might have made in her basement [to where] the company GT’s Kombucha brews more than a million bottles annually and sells many of them at Walmart and Safeway.”

Fermented foods, as well as being undeniably tasty, tend to be rich in bacteria – particularly those strains that might be classified as probiotics, which, in general, are a good thing when they arrive in your gut.

But has the world of fermented food been entirely taken over by corporate giants?

Thankfully not.

While we’re definitely grateful that big business is banging the drum for these healthy diet additions, getting them into the hands (and mouths) of a wider market, it’s comforting to report that a great deal of grass-roots fermentation is still going on, and, indeed, there’s been something of a revival in this area.

Our attention was drawn to a new edition of the 2003 classic “Wild Fermentation,” written by a man named Sandor Katz, who describes himself as a “fermentation fetishist.”

Whatever tickles your pickle, one might say.

Sandor, who’s so into fermentation that he’s known and loved by many as Sandorkraut, has been described by food author and activist Michael Pollan as showing you “why an act as practical as making your own sauerkraut represents nothing less than a way of engaging with the world.”

There’s a delightful short documentary film on the NYT website, showing Sandor making sauerkraut in a satisfyingly “earthy” way.

A charming, messy kitchen.

Plenty of bare-handed squishing of shredded cabbage.

Repurposed old jars.

And splendidly-aged fermentation crocks in stone-walled basements.

The documentary directors even found a great old country song named “Sauerkraut” for the soundtrack.

The tune, incidentally, was sung back in 1926 by country music pioneer Riley Puckett, best known for being the first country artist to yodel in his performances.

What’s not to like about a yodelling country singer with a song about fermented cabbage?

Actually, he was probably on controversial ground, since sauerkraut had been renamed Victory Cabbage as a marketing move during World War I (1914-18) because of the word sauerkraut’s associations with Germany.

By 1926, however, it was clearly safe to go back to how things had been pre-war.

Sandor Katz explains that wild fermentation refers to the reliance on naturally-occurring bacteria and yeast to ferment food.

He points out that humans didn’t really discover fermentation, as it was already occurring in the wild.

We just found ways to harness this natural process.

So, fruit already has yeast on its surface, which enables the fermentation process to take place, as it does in the wild – much to the delight of certain species of tropical bats.

And cabbage leaves provide a home for bacteria that, in anaerobic conditions, produce carbon dioxide and lactic acid, the latter being what kickstarts fermentation.

Sandor grew up in New York City, but moved to rural Tennessee after a life-changing diagnosis of AIDS.

He’d originally been a “policy wonk,” so moving to an off-the-grid rural community was indeed a significant life change.

His new focus has led to him teaching hundreds of food workshops in the US and all over the world, and he now runs a fermentation school at Walnut Ridge, a restored 1820s log cabin in Liberty, Tennessee.

What do we know about the scientific basis of probiotics, though?

It’s often suggested that the microorganisms concerned may not actually reach the gut intact, and, of course, it’s their presence in the lower gut, in particular, that is believed to be beneficial.

Well, in an article published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Dr Anatoly Bezkorovainy, an assistant professor in the biochemistry department at Rush Medical College, reported that estimates suggest that 20-40% of selected strains of probiotics make it through the stomach into the gut.

Their main obstacles are gastric acidity and the action of bile salts.

Interestingly, however, Dr Bezkorovainy went on to report that there’s little evidence that probiotic bacteria adhere to the mucosal walls in the intestine, so they tend to pass through you, like sh**s in the night.

This seems to support the notion that the benefits of fermented food don’t really result from a “fix-it-and-forget-it” action.

Instead, it appears to be important to consume it on a regular basis.

Finally, returning to Riley Puckett, although he erroneously sang about vinegar being part of the sauerkraut-making process, when, in fact, the dear old cabbage just needs the addition of salt for it to make its own acid, it seemed apt to end on his words from 90 years ago, clearly not only a time when you could write a hit song about cabbage, but also a time of lower prices:

If you will only listen to who I speak about,
I ain’t no voice to tell you how to make that sauerkraut,
It’s made out of vinegar, so everyone suppose,
And of that little flower, they call that cabbage rose.

Oh sauerkraut is bully, I told you it was high,
I think I ought to know for why,
I eat him all the time.

Then it’s sauerkraut, then it’s sauerkraut,
Priced good you know, because you love it so.
Then it’s sauerkraut, then it’s sauerkraut,
Only five cents, one pint.


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