"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Alchemy of Cabbage (A Little Knowledge Can Be a Good Thing)

we bought some kim-chee in a jar

wrapped it up and threw it in the car
but before we got too far

Oh God, what's that smell?
Have we driven into hell?
I don't think this bodes too well....

We got a kim chee situation!
it's lacto-fermentation!
stinking up the nation!
cancel the vacation!

- rock song made up by my daughter Rowan. Based on real-life events, as they say.

Lyrics notwithstanding, I actually love kim chee. It's not something I thought I would ever make at home, but all the books I've been reading about food preservation talk about lacto-fermentation (think sauerkraut and kosher pickles) as an indispensable technique. There is really a lot that is very cool about fermentation. It's the only common preservation method that actually increases foods vitamin content. It's basic kitchen-alchemy. Along with brewing, wine making, sourdough leavening, and the milk-preservation arts (which encompass everything from yogurt to kefir to Parmesano-Reggiano), lacto-fermentation feels like witchery.

In the best sense of course - women's magic, true old fashioned feminine wisdom. Passed down from grandmother to granddaughter (or re-learned when the generational chain gets interrupted, as it has for most of us). Not-so-secret knowledge of how to make good food that keeps the family alive and healthy. Beyond food magic, of course there are the traditional feminine mysteries of midwifery, herbal lore, sewing and the fiber arts. Horticulture. Storytelling, history-remembering, child rearing, nursing the sick and smoothing the way for death. All essential, all capable of opening up into a lifetime of study and practice.

I'm a generalist kind of person - I'll never be a specialist of any kind. I love to dabble and explore. I adore beginnings, and find it delightfully easy and fascinating to achieve a certain basic level of competence in just about anything - but I hate persevering after it starts to get hard. I'd so much rather move on to the next thing.

This has always been interpreted to me as a character flaw. In our culture, enamored of specialists, I guess it might be. Obviously, we need specialists! Specialists of all sorts. But I think we also need generalists. We need people who have a wide knowledge base, who know a little something about almost everything. People who can make up a story AND cook a balanced meal AND deliver a goat kid AND kill a chicken AND pick out a tune on the piano AND knit a pair of socks AND make a decent half-sour pickle. I'm an utter generalist, but even I have an area of expertise, and it's in the kitchen.

I love being a kitchen witch. I love developing a store of useful, practical knowledge and elaborating it into art. I also, of course, like to eat. I like the feeling of knowing my family can depend on me to put food on the table - healthy, nutritionally balanced, delicious food - day after day. I really really like the process of learning about all the food related arts I've been learning about these last few years. I like being a competent housewife, goddammit.

In the old days, the knowledge of preservation often was quite literally the line between life and death. But even without being quite so dramatic, imagine the difference between a long, northern-European winter with plenty of wine, beer, raised bread, pickles and cheese - or with only cold roots and rusks. I imagine people could make it through to spring on roots and rusks... but would they want to?

I know this is a big extrapolation from a gallon of kim chee, but I am very certain that MY house will be of the former variety in these long northern winters, not the latter.

And I'm proud of that.


AnyEdge said...

"So if she weighs the same as a duck?"

"She's made of wood!"

"And therefore?"

"She's a witch!"


polly's path said...

and you should be proud.

I love pickled veggies. My grandmother used to pickle a mix of broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, green tomatoes, and carrots. She made jars and jars and jars of it and it lasted her through winter, enough to give away as well.

She died before we bought our farm and before I had developed any interest in preserving/pickling/reducing dependance on the grocery store. I wish I had asked her how she did it, and I wish I had her recipes.
Let me quit before I cry. She raised me. I miss her.

AnyEdge said...


It sounds to me as though, while perhaps her recipes have pass on, her spirit of industriousness and self reliance and nurturing have been well preserved.

Obviously, I don't know her or you, but I know that if it were me, I'd rather my values survive than my book of recipes.

Holly said...

IKim Chee has peeked my interest. but I worry that the aging process would cause allergy reactions. Alcohol is a big no no for me. Our daughter can't even have pickles because of the vinegar. Know of any good books about it that I can read?

Aimee said...

Not about allergies. Sorry. But Kim chee is not made with vinegar, and the fermentation is bacterial, not yeast, so theoretically there shouldn't be any alcohol.

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