Lacto-fermentation is a hot trend right now. However, though it may seem like a new thing for young, health-conscious weirdos, the practice has been around for thousands of years. In fact, for about as long as there have been people, there has been fermentation. As it turns out, it’s also been a huge part of culture and community for all that time.
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Preservation & Food Safety
Fermentation is a fantastic way to preserve food without refrigeration. How does it work? While methods vary from food to food, generally the process is the same. Fermentation occurs when the naturally occurring bacteria on food is combined with some sort of culture: whey, wild yeasts, or, in modern days, a purchased strain of starter culture. Keep the fermenting food away from oxygen and leave it at room temperature. The good bacteria will grow, and the food will transform into a tangy, bubbly treasure that can safely be stored in a cool environment for months.
You can imagine how helpful a process fermentation would have been in the days without refrigeration, freezers, or dehydrators. Food could be thrown in a vessel with some salt, covered, and safely fermented for long-term storage. Vegetables became pickles, milk became cheese- you get the idea.
You can also imagine how this would have improved food safety. How did people drink without access to clean water? You guessed it: beer and wine. The fermentation process eliminates any bad bacteria and creates a nutritional drink that can be safely consumed.
Every culture has foods that are traditionally prepared through fermentation. Some of them are easily recognizable; others I’ve never heard of. Here are some examples:
- Sourdough bread
- Soy Sauce
- Fermented condiments, chutneys, etc.
The list goes on and on… Some of these foods have geographically specific origins; others have been made across so many regions that it’s hard to tell where they started. Regardless, it’s safe to say that fermented foods are wide-spread and common across cultures and times.
Celebrations & Traditions
Food has always been a part of almost any celebration. It seems that the craft and time taken in preparing fermented foods only adds to the sacred nature of a special occasion.
I was absolutely fascinated by a lecture on “cultural topsoil” by Marc Williams, ethnobiologist and teacher of the herbal mead brewing portion of the Herbal Fermentation Course. Marc writes:
“Brewing herbal mead can be much more than simply making an alcoholic beverage. Indeed, for me, brewing herbal mead is a ritualistic journey of celebrating community—honoring the people, places, and plants that have provided guidance, knowledge, friendship, or support throughout my life. In fact, brewing herbal mead is one method, among many in the realm of fermentation and food production, that can even be used to honor the changing of the seasons, times of year, or memorable milestones in your life and the lives of those in your community.”
How true that so many foods- fermented and otherwise- can play into our cultural traditions and celebrations.
Think about it. It’s a holiday in your house, and you’ve pulled out your great-grandmother’s special recipe that has been passed down through the generations. You may only make it once a year, but that makes it all the more special.
I know a lady who makes friendship fruit cakes every Christmas- she begins the process in November, ferments her cake batter for 30 days, then bakes them and shares both the cakes and the starters with friends.
The joy of fermented foods in particular is that they take so much time and care to create. Cabbage fermented from your own garden feels much more connected, grounded, and personal than a can of dead sauerkraut from the grocery store. An herbal ale or mead made at home from foraged plants speaks of craft, thoughtfulness, and nourishment- not drunkenness and foolishness. The fermented cake recipe from my friend tastes strongly of tradition, love, and generosity. After all, I know she’s been culturing, baking, and sharing from the same starter for years on end.
Not only can fermented foods be a big part of special occasions, they can also be a beautiful part of community building. I’ve seen it over and over again: someone hears about what’s bubbling in my kitchen. She’s interested, so she wants to try a little bit. I share my creations and pretty soon she’s giving it a whirl too. I may not know her all that well, but we now have a common bond: a three year old sourdough starter (or kefir grains or kombucha scoby) that’s in both of our kitchens, actively functioning and feeding both of our families.
It’s not long til that food-sharing inspires more connections. We get together again to share another kitchen experiment. Maybe we pass it on to another person, and maybe that person shares it with someone else. It’s funny how a fermented food can become a conversation starter, an inspiration, and a friendship builder.
Culture Your Culture
Give it a try. Venture into fermented foods and see how culturing food can play into your cultural traditions. Pull out a fermented food or beverage at a special occasion and watch to see the interest it sparks. Build new connections with people who you may not know too well. Share a scoby, a bottle of kombucha, or a loaf of sourdough. Watch to see how the foods can become part of your traditions and the connections made can foster generosity, friendships, and cultural richness.
I also love my Fermentools kit for easy, worry-free fermentation in mason jars. Check them out here.