Making Sauerkraut, Among Other Things

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On a recent Sunday, armed with my newly purchased copy of Nourishing Traditions and two gigantic heads of cabbage from a local farmer’s market, I set out to make my first ever batch of lacto-fermented sauerkraut.

The recipe I used was for making the sauerkraut in glass quart jars, a good thing, since I didn’t have any kind of crock at the time. I started out trying to shred the cabbage by hand, and then I thought, “What, am I stupid? Use the food processor!” So I dug out my blades, set the thing up, turned it on, and started shoving chunks of cabbage down into it. It became clear really quickly that I wasn’t shredding the cabbage though; I was mincing it. Still, it didn’t seem like a major problem, and I’d already gotten started, so I figured what the heck. It would be sauerkraut relish. When I had enough to fill a large bowl, I added the ground sea salt and the caraway seed. Then I dug in there and mixed it all together. I had ten minutes of pounding ahead of me to get the juices flowing. Then I was supposed to put it in the jar, make sure the juices were all the way to the top, and close the jar tightly so that no air would get in. According to the recipe, after three days at room temperature, this stuff would be edible.

To the casual eye, the ingredients in sauerkraut are simple enough – cabbage, salt and caraway seeds. But sauerkraut is more than the sum of these three things. It is what they combine to become and what, as a result of their combination, comes into being. This is an actual biological fact. But like so many other actual, biological facts, it has metaphysical implications.

Lacto-fermentation – both as a vocabulary word and as a concept – is new to me. Lactic acid is a natural preservative that inhibits the growth of bad bacteria. The surfaces of vegetables and fruits are covered in lactic acid-producing bacteria, and lacto-fermentation is the process by which we can encourage these bacteria to convert the starches and sugars in vegetables and fruits into lactic acid. The presence of large amounts of lactic acid in fruits and vegetables makes them more digestible and makes the vitamins in them easier to absorb. Also, eating lacto-fermented vegetables as a condiment makes it easier for our bodies to extract nutrients from and to digest other foods, most notably, meat. [See “Sauerkraut: What Makes It Sour?” for more on lacto-fermentation and sauerkraut. – Ed.] Lacto-fermentation is a very old process that has been used by Greek, Middle Eastern, Asian and American Indian cultures for many centuries. The Greeks called the process of lacto-fermentation “alchemy,” and as I was pounding my minced cabbage with the end of an old wooden rolling pin that used to belong to my paternal grandmother, alchemy was very much on my mind.

In a previous post I approached the issue of the relationship between our inner and outer lives, and I’m not sure what, if anything, that I accomplished. But the question is nagging at me again today, because the sauerkraut strikes me as a kind of metaphor for something that I’m still struggling to understand. If the cabbage and the salt and the caraway seeds are the regular old things that I see around me every day as I go about my business, and the sauerkraut is a finished product – an end, a commodity, a success – then what occurs in between, inside that sealed jar, invisible to the naked eye, is the mystery of creativity.

And when do we ever “see” creativity?

It’s easy to think of nature as something happening all around us and outside of us. We tend to separate our own consciousness from the spurts and sprawls, the wilts and rest and rejuvenation that are par for the course in the natural world. It’s hard to place ourselves squarely into the center of things that are outside of our control because that means that we are not entirely under our own control. And yet I can’t think how often I’m listening to an interview on NPR with some writer, or film-maker, or actor, and hear some reference to characters taking over a story, or to a story “writing itself.” It seems a common artistic observation that the creative process takes on a life of its own that we can’t exactly see. We only see its effects. All of which is to say that perhaps the same alchemy that’s going on in nature is going on in us.

Twenty-four hours after setting the sealed jars aside, I check back on my sauerkraut. It does not appear that anything is happening. I had read that the color would gradually change; that the cabbage would appear less green and that it would take on the tannish color that I’m used to seeing in sauerkraut. But at this point I can see no evidence of this.

After 48 hours, one of the jars has started to leak. I can also see that all of the liquid seems to have moved to the top of the jar. The leaking concerns me. Lacto-fermentation is supposed to be an anaerobic process – no air. Does the leaking mean that air is getting in? Or only that the pressure in the jar is getting to be so high that the liquid is forcing its way out? It occurs to me to wonder if the jars might explode. My husband suggests putting them inside of a cardboard box in case they do explode. That seems like a good idea, so I do it, which is when I realize that there are two jars leaking.

At the 72-hour mark, I definitely have three jars leaking; one of them copiously, and I’m seriously fearing an explosion. According to the directions, this stuff is supposed to be ready to eat. So, remembering a recent Foxwood Farms post about opening their lacto-fermented salsa (“What Harvest Means to Me“), I hold one of the jars over the sink and give the lid a twist. And it’s a good thing that I do, too, because first comes all the fizzy liquid, and then the sauerkraut itself rises up about two inches out of the jar in a column … and stops. And that’s it.

So, there’s the issue of leaking which makes this sauerkraut suspect. And there’s the unfamiliarity of it all. Is it any good? Will it make it me sick? I mean, “bacteria” is hardly a word with a positive connotation in our society. Sally Fallon, the author of Nourishing Traditions assures me in her section on lacto-fermentation that if the process goes wrong it will smell so bad that nothing could induce me to eat it. I can’t smell anything from a distance, so I put my nose tentatively towards the jar and…

Let me tell you something, this stuff smells good. I mean, it smells really good. It’s the very scent of freshness. That’s the thing, it smells FRESH. Like a spring morning. It makes me think of grass. And far from worrying about eating it, I feel as though some ancient human instinct has kicked in, and I really want to eat it. The desire to start shoveling this stuff into my mouth comes on like a craving. It’s almost overpowering. It’s like I’m programmed to eat this stuff.

And it’s delicious. We have it for dinner with beef short ribs, cooked slowly for hours with garlic and rosemary. And the whole thing is just DE-LI-CIOUS.

Since then I’ve made roasted turkey and cheese sandwiches with it. I’ve eaten it with lamb. I’ve eaten it with cheese. I’ve made a sandwich with sauerkraut, hardboiled egg and butter on toast (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it). I’ve stopped by the fridge and eaten it by the forkful out of the jar. Supposedly the flavor improves over time, and maybe that’s true if I hadn’t opened the jars, but as I said there was some serious pressure building up in there, and I felt I had no choice. To me, nothing compares to how it smelled and tasted on that very first day. I will definitely be trying this technique with other vegetables.

What I am reminded of by the process of making the sauerkraut is that it takes time for things to combine in such a way that something new comes into being, and that this is not a process that we can control, because it is in both our physiognomy and our natures that we cannot ever fully see or understand or maybe even grasp everything that is being combined. Any control that we might claim in the process is an illusion.

I am not one of those hard-core, literature-to-the-exclusion-of-everything-else-in-life type writers. My philosophical position, developed perhaps out of necessity, is that it is not a temporary evil for a novelist to hold down some type of job in the “real world” but a moral necessity. It keeps one’s work in the world and provides that connective tissue through which others can approach it. When I was younger I wanted to be a hippie-bohemian-artist type. It seemed necessary. But over the years I’ve come to realize that I am not that type at all.

I am a fairly conservative, sometimes depressingly responsible, traditionalist type. I like to take my time, proceed with caution, and hedge my bets. I don’t tend to get into trouble until I start trying to live days or weeks or months or even years ahead of myself. And this is exactly where and how and why the pleasure of writing a novel slipped away from me for awhile; because at some point a few years back I stopped letting the novel do it’s own work, and I started becoming obsessed with achievement and success – with “having done,” instead of with “doing.” But “having done” is not a place where a person can live.

For many of the fourteen years that I was working on my recently finished novel, the process of the work had a very particular character. Much of that novel was written in fits and starts across many dated notebooks worth of bound pages while I was engaged in the practice of various professions. Pieces of the manuscript are interspersed with lists for groceries I need to buy, people I need to call, chores I need to complete. The novel developed alongside me as I went about the business of living. It bore the daunting responsibility of a child who has to be something other than its parents without ever really being able to escape them. Our discoveries overlap and dovetail. The work brought a level of meaning and spirituality to my life. To paraphrase the words of a writer and a publisher that I know, writing is my way of processing and participating in the world. To add my own sentiment: Writing belongs to me. “Having written” belongs to whoever might come along behind me.

With that thought in mind, I set aside a little time this past weekend for returning to myself. I took an hour or so and I flipped through my notes from the past few weeks. I opened up the outline for my new novel and I composed a paragraph or two. I revisited a little of what I had already done. It was both restorative and luxurious; a lacto-fermented condiment to the meal of my day; part medicine, part pleasure, part aid to help me digest and make sense out of the immensity of life; a reminder that even when we can’t see it, even when it doesn’t seem so, that something is happening.