Putting bacteria back into our food, one pickle at a time

For millennia, all pickles were living things, home to an invisible mass of microbes. Now they often only live in sterile vinegar - but we need to put the bacteria back, for the sake of our health.

I was recently asked to speak at a friend’s birthday celebrations. Tim being a poet, most of the other guests did a turn in verse. I, however, was asked to riff on the subject of pickles. Party catering came in the form of vinegary vegetables.
 
Tim, you see, is a pickle lover; before I began the research for my talk I might even have labelled him an obsessive. Then I read about America’s small but passionate “fermento” movement. Fermentos believe that pickles are the key to many modern health problems – not just any old gherkins, mind you, but proper pickles: the old-fashioned, traditionally fermented kind. The sort of pickle that’s still alive when you bite into it.
 
For millennia, all pickles were living things, home to an invisible mass of microbes. These microbes were responsible for transforming fresh food into something that would keep for months, even years, through fermentation.
 
The pickles achieved this by converting the sugars in the fresh foods to acids, creating an environment so acidic that no bacteria which were potentially more dangerous could survive. The food was thus preserved almost indefinitely. Three hundred-year-old pickled breadfruit has been found in Fiji in an edible, if not particularly attractive state. As Michael Pollan concedes in his book Cooked: a Natural History of Transformation, “the idea that the safety of a food is guaranteed by the bacteria still alive in it is a hard one for us Pasteurians to stomach”. But every culture has its own fermented speciality, often an acquired taste, because the process often produces very distinctive flavours.
 
It can be hard for the uninitiated to stomach Japanese natto, or fermented soybeans; the same is true of the vinegary Ethiopian injera bread. And Captain Cook fairly had to force his crew to eat sauerkraut to ward off scurvy during a 27-month voyage.
 
As well as the tangy cabbage they could see, Cook’s sailors would have been ingesting all manner of what is called, in probiotic food advertisements, “friendly bacteria”. Yet in the past century what is now a selling point in pricey yoghurt drinks has become the enemy in our diet as a whole.
 
Live yoghurt is the last refuge of the living foodstuff – most “pickles” today are in fact just soaked in sterile vinegar. Even those that are still fermented in the old way, such as kimchi and sauerkraut, are now routinely pasteurised before sale.
 
Fermentos (or “post- Pasteurians”) believe this fear of the microbial world is making us ill – and, though it is unlikely that yoghurt or sourdough holds the key to universal health, there is growing evidence to suggest that, mad as they sound, the fermentos may have a point.
 
Consider that 90 per cent of the cells in our bodies belong to microbes, many of them resident in our digestive system and most of them, if evolutionary theory is to be believed, living there for a very good reason. Though we still know relatively little about the function of the vast majority, studies suggest a diet rich in beneficial bacteria can have surprising benefits, from shortening the duration of children’s colds to relieving the symptoms of asthma and irritable bowel syndrome.
 
It seems that human beings need those microbes as much as they need us, yet we are still doing everything we can to kill them off. The routine use of antibiotics, and our obsession with sterilising everything in sight, from chopping boards to cheese, makes us fail to replenish the microbial crowd within, and neglect to nourish its existing residents.
 
Naturally, only the most deluded fermento would deny that Pasteur’s discovery saves millions of lives worldwide, but in a far more hygienic age it is no longer a universal panacea. We need to put the bacteria back, and if that means fermenting sauerkraut in the shed, then so be it. Perhaps Peter Piper was ahead of his time.
Snacking on traditionally preserved gherkins and olives can be a great thing for the gut. Image: Marcus Nilsson

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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Jonathan Safran Foer Q&A: “I feel like every good piece of advice boils down to patience”

The author on delivering babies, Chance The Rapper, and sailing down the Erie Canal.

Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of the novels “Everything Is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”, and the nonfiction book “Eating Animals”. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

What’s your earliest memory?

Falling asleep on my dad’s chest on a swing at my grandparents’ house. But the memory is a bit suspicious because there is a photograph and I remember my mum taking it, so I guess I wasn’t really asleep.

Who are your heroes?

The only person I have ever been nervous to meet, or whose presence felt larger than life, is Barack Obama. I don’t think that makes him a hero but there are many ways in which I aspire to be more like him.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?

Man Is Not Alone by Abraham Joshua Heschel. It’s a meditation on religion – not really organised religion but the feeling of religiosity and spirituality. I can’t believe how clear he is about the most complicated subjects that feel like language shouldn’t be able to capture. It really changed me.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

There was a period of about two years when my kids and I would go to an inn every other weekend so maybe the inns of Mid-Atlantic states? I’m not sure Mastermind would ever ask about that, though, so my other specialism is 20th century architecture and design.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I would be very happy to return to my childhood in Washington, DC. In a way, what I would really like is to be somewhere else at another time as somebody else. 

What TV show could you not live without?

I really like Veep, it’s unbelievably funny – but I could definitely live without it. Podcasts, on the other hand, are something that I could live without but might not be able to sleep without.

What’s your theme tune?

I don’t have a theme tune but I do have a ringtone, which is this Chance The Rapper song called “Juice”. Every time it rings, it goes: “I got the juice, I got the juice, I got the juice, juice, juice.” I absolutely love it and I find myself singing it constantly.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

It isn’t really delivered as advice but King Solomon says in the Bible: “This, too, shall pass.” I feel like every good piece of advice I’ve ever heard – about parenting, writing, relationships, inner turmoil – boils down to patience.

When were you happiest?

I took a vacation with my two sons recently where we rented a narrowboat and sailed down Erie Canal. We were so drunk on the thrill of hiring our own boat, the weather, the solitude, just the excitement of it. I can’t remember being happier than that.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

An obstetrician. No obstetrician comes home on a Friday and thinks: “I delivered 20 babies this week, what’s the point?” The point is so self-evident. Writing is the opposite of that. I managed not to fill any pages this week with my bad jokes and trite ideas, flat images and unbelievable characters. Being a part of the drama of life in such a direct way really appeals to me.

Are we all doomed?

We’re all going to die. Isn’t that what it is to be doomed? There is a wonderful line at the end of Man Is Not Alone, which is something along the lines of: for the person who is capable of appreciating the cyclicality of life, to die is privilege. It’s not doom but one’s ultimate participation in life. Everything needs to change.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest novel “Here I Am” is published in paperback by Penguin

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem