Counter-Culture: Transformation Through Fermentation

I have been trying to write this post for weeks, which is why I saved it for my last post. There is so, so much to be said about fermentation- the history of it, the benefits and risks, the extremely varied creations and recipes, and the list goes on and on- how could I pack all that in to a short blog post? I can’t! But that’s ok, because some lovely people have researched and experimented and put all of their findings into some of the best books I have ever laid my hands on. Please find them listed in the resources at the bottom of this post.

What I can tell you is that fermentation gives us wonderfully yeasty breads, cheeses, yogurt, tofu, meats, and a wide variety of wine and beer. It can make foods more digestible, allow better access to nutrients and, as in the case of taro, can even neutralize toxicity. But there was a time (before microscopes existed) when people believed that the mold appearing on their meat, bread or fruit was a product of “spontaneous generation,” unexpected spoilage caused by mischievous gods, magic or demons.

In 1858, German scientist Rudolf Virchow luanched a great controversy by arguing that 1. Every cell comes from a preexisting cell and 2. There is no spontaneous generation of cells. In response, the Paris Academy of Sciences offered a prize to anyone who could prove or disprove spontaneous generation. Two short years later, French scientist Louis Pasteur disproved “spontaneous generation” by sealing boiled (and thereby sterilized) water in a swan-necked flask, discovering the liquid inside remained sterile indefinitely, as long as it was kept sealed off from microorganisms from the air. Solid proof that the catalysts for fermentation don’t just spontaneously appear out of the ether. Through these studies, pasteurization was born. Heating foods to a certain temperature kills off any bacteria that may cause harm, true, but any beneficial bacteria is destroyed in the process too. Overly pasteurized food is consumable, but is it good for us? Or does it allow for a huge flaw in our food system? For example: as long as we can pasteurize all the dangerous bacteria away, what does it matter that our dairy cattle are fed inappropriate food that leads to infected digestive tracts and pus in their milk (which is now seriously lacking in the good bacteria now, too)?

It is important to know that not all microbes are beneficial- some make food unhealthy or unappetizing (although what is“delicious” vs “unappetizing” is highly subjective) – but when you provide the microbes you want with the right environment they flourish, and you reap the benefits. Educate yourself by finding a knowledgeable mentor, crack open a book, or head to a workshop (like the unbelievable workshops I’m attending this summer; one here at GCC and one in Tennessee (again, check out the links below)!

In my kitchen right now, in various stages of ferment, I have bright pink sauerkraut (made with purple cabbage!), ginger beer, ginger-rhubarb shrub (a fizzy colonial-era fruit juice concoction), Lemon Balm T’ej (an Ethiopian style honey wine), easter egg radishes, kimchi and an enzyme cleaner made from citrus peels. I will soon have strawberry wine, a folk- recipe root-beer, sumac and citrus sodas, pickled veggies and who knows what else. With the right resources and an open mind, you can do the same. It’s easier to jump in to the (relatively) unknown with a friend, though, so gather up some willing companions, grab one of the books listed below, and get to it! By creating nutritious, flavorful food in your own kitchen, you are freeing yourself from the capitalist food system we are all a part of, even if only a little bit. And by sharing this knowledge with anyone who will listen, you are transforming your kitchen in to a petri dish where you and your neighbors act as the catalysts that begin a revolution, and transform your world along with your food.

If you’re ready to start a Counter- Culture movement, check out these resources:“Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition and Craft of Live-Culture Foods” By Sandor Katz – For the beginner or experienced.
“Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation” By Stephen Harrod Buhner
“The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World” By Sandor Katz – Less how-to and more history and troubleshooting
www.wildfermentation.com – Website of Author and Fermentation Expert Sandor Ellix Katz
www.thefarm.org – The Eco-Village in Tennessee where I’ll be taking a Permaculture and Fermentation workshop with Sandor Katz and Albert Bates
http://www.gcc.mass.edu/farmandfoodsystems/classes/ – Preservation and Fermentation right here at GCC!
www.greenriverambrosia.com – Mead and Kombucha from Greenfield!
www.realpickles.com – fermented veggies from Greenfield!

Springtime in the Valley (a mini-post).

What I meant to be a post on ‘Spring Cleaning,’ has morphed into something else altogether…

I have the great fortune to be writing this at one of my many weekly visits to the Farmers Market. It is a chilly June afternoon, one more gray, drizzly day in a line of many others. Even though the thunderstorms still threaten to let loose I am surrounded by old and new friends, and their children and companions. I am visited over and and over again by the tiny little daughter of a friend, her face streaked with the first strawberry juice of the season. Friends chat each other up and ask for advice from the farmers. We sit, or stroll around in this little cove, held by the new greenery and by the gentle, endless fiddle music. Later on, the hoard of children here will all stand together and sing folk songs, and help each other with the words- without fussing- you can’t tell me that’s not an amazing feat. But it happens, I’ve seen it!

The amazing thing about going to the market is that no matter what is happening outside of this moment- what struggles we are enduring at work or home or school- we are all, undeniably, lifted out of the gloom and made to feel a bit better. The Farmers Market is another form of “Food as Medicine” made real. It’s a tangible, touchable, and magical thing. The very act of visiting the market is nourishing and healing and extends in little tendrils out in to the rest of your life if you let it. You can try a new vegetable or plant start, learn or pass on a new recipe, run in to someone you’ve been missing, play with the neighborhood kids, start a relationship with your farmers or just sit and watch it all, as I am doing today, and know that just by being here, you are healing, even if you didn’t realize you needed it.

** the images at the top of this post are both advertising the Tuesday Market behind Thornes Marketplace, and were done by local artists.

Sweeter Than Sugar

Maple sugaring season may have passed, but it is never too late to talk about all the benefits of ditching sugar for something a little sweeter to your health. Cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup are equally detrimental. Neither cane sugar or corn syrup come with any sort of protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants or fiber. They are in essence empty calories, meaning we make ourselves feel full when we eat them but we don’t give our bodies the nutrients they need to function at their best. Or, even worse, because we crave sweets, we eat more than we need which potentially leads to obesity (especially in children) and the health issues associated with it, like diabetes. Sugary cereals, energy drinks, candies and as a hidden ingredients in breads or crackers can all lead to over-consumption of sugar. It is estimated by the FDA that the average American consumes between 76 and 100 lbs of excess sugar per year (that’s per person folks!). And this number doesn’t include sugars from natural foods, as in honey or fruit.

Not to worry, though, mother nature provides us with a few sweeteners that we can feel good about eating, and some of them are even local. You can reach for raw honey, brown rice syrup, agave nectar, molasses and maple syrup. If you’re lucky (and live in the northern regions) you can even make your own. I had the pleasure of doing just that this past season and would like to share the process with you here. What I share with you here is local wisdom gathered at backyard sugaring workshops, at farmer’s market workshops and from my friend Ben, whose family owns Intervale Farm in Westhampton, MA. This won’t be full-on instructional, because I don’t think I’ve learned enough to provide that- just a quick re-cap of my sugaring adventures. I will list some resources at the end of the post for those interested.

Answers to some frequently asked questions:
-It takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup (see why it’s so expensive?)
-Tap trees when it is beginning to warm up during the day but is still freezing at night. Otherwise, the sap that has risen to the tops of the trees won’t run back down for you to catch (approximately mid February- the end of March).
-Tapping does not hurt the tree when done properly.
-If the taps are left in too long (more than 6-8 weeks), the tree will begin to heal over them.
-Ideally, sap collecting buckets are checked daily for fullness and cleanliness.
-Sap may be a little yellow, but it should not be milky. If it is, dump it in your compost pile.
-Ice may form in your buckets or storage tanks- this is great! Sap doesn’t freeze, water does. –Any frozen water is water you don’t have to boil- just toss it, being sure you don’t toss any of the unfrozen sap.
-Never boil sap in your house- there is WAY too much steam- remember, you are evaporating the water out of the sap, and it has to go somewhere!
-Syrup is graded based on color: Grade A is lighter, milder, takes less energy and time to make, and is more expensive. Grade B is darker and richer, takes more energy and time to make, but is (confusingly) cheaper.
-Maple syrup keeps indefinitely when stored properly- in a cool, dark place.

Books on Sugaring:
“Backyard Sugarin’: A Complete How-To Guide” by Rink Mann and Daniel Wolf
“Sugaring Time” Kathryn Lasky and Christopher G. Night

Www.foodsensitivechildren.com (sugar cycle image)
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/27/business/us-cuts-estimate-of-sugar-intake-of-typical-american.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 (sugar consumption article)

What is Medicine?

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘medicine?’ Most of us, I think pills, antibiotics, patches and syringes. Things we are ‘supposed’ to take in order to get better, to lessen the symptoms or prevent bodily annoyances. Name brands may even come to mind in place of the medicine itself, because we see them advertised on TV and in magazines alongside clothes, soft drinks and electronics and they become little more than impulse buys.
But let’s go back to the definition (from Merriam-Webster):
Medicine (noun):
1. The science or practice of the treatment and prevention of disease.
Medicinal (adjective):
1. Having healing properties.

As complex and difficult as healing can be, I also believe that it can be equally as simple. I believe that anything that heals or prevents dis-ease is medicine. Anything that eases suffering, soothes, comforts, is medicine. And I believe that we (especially here in the US) have become unfamiliar with the most beneficial medicine of all: Food. We, unlike many other countries, have such an abundance of food that we waste a staggering amount each day. All for profit, we synthesize edible products in laboratories and pump them full of artificial flavor to make them taste good. We eat things full of fat, sugar and salt but completely devoid of nutrients. And we swap genes between species, and create crops that can’t survive without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides- and we make ourselves and the land we depend on for survival sick in the process.

To me, medicine truly is the practice and art of treating and preventing dis-ease in all organisms in our natural environment: in humans, in the many species we share our earth with, and in the earth itself. Healing goes so far beyond alleviating symptoms of dis-ease; to heal is to regenerate, reinvigorate and restore. I believe that we are able to do all of these things when we re-learn how and what we can grow locally and naturally. Food grown locally and in season not only tastes better, but is more nutritionally valuable than food grown elsewhere, picked unripe, and shipped thousands of miles to our grocery stores.

We have such a respect for medicine and doctors, understandably, but are barely aware of the people out there growing, tending and harvesting the most crucial elements for our health and well-being: the farmers. We depend on a certain code of ethics from our medical professionals, but it gets a bit murky when we start talking about food. What is ethical when it comes to food production and who decides?
In trying to answer these questions, I found that the “Values of Medical Ethics” apply perfectly to our food system.

The Six Values of Medical Ethics (as applied to food systems and justice).

1) Non-maleficence – “first, do no harm” ( Putting the health and wellbeing of all organisms before profit by reducing dependence on processed foods and allowing indigenous peoples to maintain traditional lands and practices).
2) Beneficence - a practitioner should act in the best interest of the patient. (Regulators and government officials should act in the best interest of all organisms, rather than in the interest of profits).
3) Respect for Persons- the patient -and the person treating the patient- have the right to be treated with dignity. (Those who buy, those who grow, harvest and package our foods here and in other countries, and all animals involved should all be treated with dignity).
4) Truthfulness and Honesty-the concept of informed consent (All people have a right to know how their food is cultivated and processed- including disclosure of ingredients, chemical use/synthetic ingredients, and genetically modified organisms).
5) Justice- concerns the distribution of scarce health resources, and the decision of who gets what treatment -fairness and equality- (All people deserve access to fresh, culturally appropriate, whole foods, regardless of social or financial standing).
6) Respect for autonomy – the patient has the right to refuse or choose their treatment. (All people in all countries should have a say in how their foods are grown and processed, and the collective voice of the people should be given more power than the voice of corproations).

The ways in which we interact with and consume our food has within it the ability to destroy ecosystems, human/nature ralationships and human/human relationships, as well as heal them, bring people together and encourage resilliencey and bounty. When I think of medicine, I envision communities coming together to help each other harvest, forage for wild edibles, grow community gardens and host potlucks. I see neighbors teaching one another how to become more self-sufficient through planting and preserving. I think of all of my friends who have knowledge and skills just waiting to be shared. I remember how much more alive I felt when I learned we could actually do something to reduce the damage and suffering in our world, and that beginning can be as simple as getting to know your farmer.


(For me, that means stopping by the Tuesday or Saturday Market in Northampton, MA!)

A little something for those chilly spring nights.


The first day of Spring has come and gone, chased by a final (…probably) snow storm, reminding us that winter takes its time in leaving Massachusetts. At the first hint of warm weather we put away our woolens and head outdoors; the days may be sunny and warm, but the evenings can still be raw and bone-chilling. This makes for a perfect maple syrup season (ooh, foreshadowing, possibly?) but can leave many of us feeling cranky and uncomfortable. That’s why I keep a mason jar full of chai concentrate (decoction) in my fridge, ready to blend in a mug of warm milk. (I even froth mine with a french press before adding the concentrate, which makes it feel super indulgent.) The herbs I use stimulate blood flow, aid in digestion, and have anti-bacterial properties to help you keep away those last minute colds, too.

Making a decoction (or concentrate) is very similar to making a quick infusion (like when we make a cup of tea). Rather than pouring hot water over herbs and doing a quick steep, we simmer them together in a pot until the water has reduced in volume by about half. Not only does this result in a stronger flavor, but it allows us to get all that tougher roots (astragalus) and barks (cinnamon) have to offer, in a way that a quick steep couldn’t.

Watching people bundle back up in the nighttime chill (after a nearly 70 degreen day!) as I sip my own mug of spicy chai made me want to share my recipe, which has been adapted from many other recipes over several years:

‘Warm Me Up’ Chai Decoction (Concentrate)
2-3 cups of concentrate

24 cardamom pods
18 whole allspice
9 inches cinnamon bark
3 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
3 teaspoon whole cloves
3 inches piece fresh ginger root
3 inches dried astragalus root
4-6 tablespoons of regular or decaf black tea OR red rooibos tea OR no tea at all.
3 -4 cup water
2 tablespoons honey or more to taste (maple syrup may be used)

1. Coarsely crush all spices in a mortar and pestle, or by wrapping in a tea towel and crushing with a rolling pin.
2. Combine crushed spices and water, and bring to a boil, with the lid on (for now leaving out the black tea, or other tea, if using).
3. Reduce to a simmer for 30-90 minutes, with the lid off. (The amount of time needed will vary
4. You have two options here: You can remove the pot from heat and steep as long as you’d like (overnight, even), to get a spicier concentrate, omitting or adding black tea later -OR- you can remove from heat and add black or other tea now, steeping for 5-10 minutes.
5. Strain all herbs through a sieve lined with a cheesecloth or cotton muslin, and decant in to a mason jar with a lid. Add desired amount of honey or maple syrup. Store in the fridge for longest shelf-life
6. When you’re ready for a cup of chai, heat a cup of milk on the stove, bringing to a quick boil (keep an eye on it! It can boil over quickly!) Optional: Pour milk in a french press, and plunge carefully but quickly, until milk is light and foamy. (It will at least double in volume, keep this in mind, and make sure the spout side is turned away from you so you don’t get burnt.)
7. Pour 1/3 cup of concentrate in a mug, top with frothed milk, and enjoy the warmth.

Experiment! This is how I like my chai, but you can add any number of spices and herbs to this: fennel, anise, orange or lemon peel, cacao…

Though these organic herbs are not local, they can be purchased in an ethical, sustainable way which supports small farmers in countries financially dependent on exports.

[ For more information on buying spices and herbs in bulk, check out www.acadiaherbals.com. Acadia Herbs is a well-stocked herb shop in downtown Northampton, MA, with a friendly, knowledgeable owner and staff ready to answer any questions. ]

 

 

Food as Medicine

 

Hello, Everyone! My name is Krystal Graybeal, and like the other students here, I will be sharing aspects of my internship journey with you. For the past couple of years I have been studying Permaculture with (among many talented others) Abrah Dresdale -our dedicated Farm and Food Systems coordinator and mentor extraordinaire-, as well as Home and Advanced Herbalism with the wonderful Brittany Wood Nickerson in Amherst, MA. Individually, these two subjects have proven to be the most valuable and engaging of my educational experience so far– so imagine my wonder when Abrah suggested a melding of the two- Local Food as Medicine! (Keep your eyes peeled for my next post to find out exactly what I mean by that- it’s likely not quite what you might think!)

How are these two subjects related?
Permaculture is about much more than growing food. One of my favorite definitions of Permaculture comes straight from Ryan Harb, Permaculture Academic Coordinator at UMASS Amherst. “Permaculture is really about solutions. It’s about taking all the problems we have in the world and making something good out of them.” To me, it is about healing the land itself, as well as our human connections with the land, and with one another. And Brittany’s motto is “Healing Starts at Home.” How true. So much can be accomplished when we all take small steps in the same direction.

Here, over the next several weeks, I will update with local plant profiles, do-it-yourself tutorials, and highlight some of the local folk who made these things their livelihood.

I would like to leave you with a question today: What sort of relationship do you have with the land around you? Or with the food you eat?

 

“The greatest delight the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me and I to them.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson