She said it with an absolute certainty, as though it was an order – get yourself some sauerkraut! It was said kindly, but as though I should have figured this out already for myself.
And she was right. The woman sitting next to me on the bench outside my synagogue was a Russian woman of late middle age, the mother of five sons, the survivor of all most of what was thrown at the Russian Jews. She knew things, and wasn’t shy about telling me, although her English and my poor Russian made the conversations challenging at times.
I was pale, greenish and pasty from the epic morning sickness that accompanied me through the first five months of each pregnancy. Although I didn’t think she’d actually seen me throwing up in the bushes around the corner of the synagogue (after a similar and extremely dramatic demonstration in the shul bathroom, while a number of elderly women outside the stall milled worriedly around enquiring whether I needed help), but it wasn’t exactly rocket science to figure it out. She sat down next to me, put her arm around my shoulders and ordered me to go and get myself some sauerkraut. And she was right.
At the risk of turning everyone off from the subject of food altogether, I have to say my passion for fermented foods is entirely tied up in the fact that they were one of the few things I could actually eat during my early pregnancies – I love their tastes but most of all, I feel they saved me. It may seem strange that my affection for them stems so deeply from a time I don’t remember at all fondly, but it is true. All of my pregnancies were basically the same – I began throwing up 10-20 times per day, occasionally even before the lines on the stick showed a pregnancy and didn’t stop until 5 months. I lost 25lbs each first trimester, and none of the treatments others suggests did the least bit of good – not the ginger or sea bands, and really not the medications prescribed by my midwives after I inevitably ended up being rehydrated with an IV.
The number of foods I could actually eat would dwindle, sometimes into the single digits. But I had to eat – because the nausea was made vastly worse on an empty stomach – indeed, that’s how I would end up being rehydrated by IV – not eating made me more nauseous which eventually meant I couldn’t keep anything down, and off we’d go. Everywhere I went I would travel with the few things on my dietary list – watermelon, blueberries and miso soup in one pregnancy, almond biscotti, apricot juice and tangerines another. These did not a well balanced diet make, but I didn’t care – I just had to eat something or it was back to the ER. My midwives and the OBs they consulted with had very little to offer me – a stream of medications that didn’t help. They advised me just to eat anything I could and do the best I could. By the third and fourth times ’round, I had accepted that there wasn’t anything anyone could do, and dispensed with the meds.
The one universal, through every pregnancy, was that I could eat sour and spicy fermented foods. I ate kimchi by the pound – a korean friend of mine joked that I was trying to rival her entire family’s annual consumption (above 300lbs annually). I could eat sauerkraut, cornichon and chinese pickled mustard greens. Sometimes these were the only things I could eat, and wonder of wonders, occasionally their inclusion in a meal meant I could eat the rest of the meal as well – kimchi could be made into kimchi tofu soup, or stir fried with beef and mochi noodles, and wow, I actually ate a meal. It felt so good to be able to eat – not just to have a little protein now and again, but also to sit with other people through a meal and be part of the social world that is the sharing of food.
For me, these foods will always come with a basic, essential sense of gratitude – I don’t think it is easy to explain to someone who has never been unable to eat how miserable that experience is, and how grateful you can be for the simple, ordinary pleasure of enjoying a meal. Not only were the foods themselves nutritious, but they were comforting in some basic way. Not everyone would consider fiery kimchi or deeply sour pickles to be comforting, but for me they were magic – and I’m not the only one. There’s a reason for the myth of pickles and ice cream for pregnant women. The whole experience of morning sickness was desperately depressing and miserable for me – it is hard to articulate how happy I was just to be able to sit down with other people and eat a meal.
And thus it was that from the tribe of other women who have endured difficult pregnancies came the chorus of suggestions for fermented foods that might help. Other women waited until they passed the critical three month mark in their pregnancies to reveal themselves – everyone always knew I was pregnant pretty much from the get-go – there is no way to conceal morning sickness on the scale I experienced it. My students knew, as I went racing out of classrooms in the middle of sentences about Renaissance history. My neighbors knew when, during a playdate at the park I begged them to watch my two boys while I found the nearest bush. Total strangers knew, for example, when during my first pregnancy, I visited an open air fish market to purchase fish for my father’s 50th birthday party, and was so overcome by the smell of fish and rotting trash that a kind elderly chinese woman had to lead me, blind and heaving, away from the garbage can I was huddled over, into her shop and let me sit for a while, desperately inhaling the spices and herbs she sold. Once or twice I heard someone wonder if I was drunk, usually in the bathrooms of various public transport stations, where drunken vomiting is probably more common than the pregnant kind, but for the most part every woman of childbearing age or older who saw me instantly intuited my status, and many of them would press their favorite fermented things upon me. People I know on chemo have also told me that some fermented foods were edible to them when almost nothing else was – a friend of ours lived through months on lemon sorbet and pickles.
It became quite expensive to keep me in kimchi, cornichons and really good sauerkraut – add in the other minor fermented constituents of my diet – I fell in love with a middle eastern style fermented carrots sold in a Syrian grocer across town, and Eric went on pilgrimages to fetch them – and it turned out that quite a lot of our budget was going to fermented foods. So it became necessary to learn to make them.
I have done every conceivable thing (so to speak) to ensure that I will never get pregnant again, so I don’t anticipate *needing* to eat lactofermented foods again anytime soon. But I can’t imagine a week without them appearing in my diet simply because they are so very delicious – or to imagine eating them without a flash of affection and gratitude.
It is a little early to get seriously into the season of lactofermentation, but the time is coming soon – while I make summer pickles and kimchi all year round, the serious work of cool fermentation has to wait until the cool weather. Everything tastes best when fermented at cool, but not cold temperatures, and come autumn, we make tons of kraut, late pickles and kimchi, as well as smaller quantities of pickled carrots, fermented corn relish pickled mustard greens, rice fermented greens and other delicacies. These keep in a fridge or a coldish place for many months, and we dig into them with delight, a slightly altered but utterly delicious taste of summer in winter.
Every year we try old-fashioned fermentation of more produce, and are astonished at the range of wonderful flavors and textures we achieve. And every year I find myself throwing my memory back to the Russian woman who calmly ordered to get myself some sauerkraut – it was after her order that I first began to make it for myself and discovered that not only could I eat it, but I didn’t really want to stop. If you have only ever eaten store-versions of most of these foods, you will be astonished at the malleability and quality that you can achieve.
For those of you who have never lactofermented, here’s some basic know-how – the great Sandor Katz on lactofermentation of vegetables:
If you’d like to learn more about it, I’ll be teaching an online class beginning next week on all aspects of food preservation, including lactofermentation. Email me at email@example.com for more details.