This is the third article in a series about the Master Food Preserver program that I’m writing for the Tri-City Weekly.
My grandma has lived in a little redwood house on top of a hill above Rio Dell since the early ‘40s. The rooms of that house are filled with hundreds of memories. For me, most of these memories are in the kitchen. I remember my Grandma’s fried chicken, cinnamon rolls, homemade jelly and all the other delicious meals and treats she used to make for my brother and me. There’s one food memory that stands far above all of the others, though. Even above the memory of the whiskey mixed with hard candy that she kept in a jar in the cupboard and would give to us when we had a cold.
Every August my Grandma would harvest cabbage from her expansive garden. She would chop it up, mix it with salt and pack it into giant crocks. She then placed these crocks all over her sun porch. It caught me off guard every year. I would happily skip up the path to the front door, fling it open, and before I could holler, “Hey Gram,” it would hit me. That smell. If you have never smelled fermenting sauerkraut, let me try to illustrate in words for you. It smells like rotten eggs mixed with the breath of someone on the 10th day of a bender mixed with the bay at low tide mixed with all of the misery of the entire world. It’s not good.
Throughout my entire life I haven’t been able to take a bite of sauerkraut. If I get just the smallest whiff of it, my eyes water and I have to step away and breathe through my mouth. Needless to say, when I arrived to the Pickling Master Food Preserver class on March 3 to find out that I was assigned to the lab group making sauerkraut, I was not overjoyed.
Before the lab, we were treated to a guest speaker. Pete Haggard is not only an authority on bugs, having written the book, Insects of the Pacific Northwest, he is also a pickling fanatic. He appeared before us with a large bucket of brewing kimchi, as well as some other pickles he had made. For Pete, pickling is fun and a way of tapping into history. He explained that people have been making pickles using natural fermentation methods for centuries because of the numerous health benefits including helping with digestion and preventing scurvy. Pete also makes pickles because he loves the taste.
“What I like about a hot dog is all the stuff you put on a hot dog because you don’t want to think about what’s in a hot dog.”
Pickling means to preserve food with acid and salt. The most common method is the one most people are familiar with, where a brine is added to cucumbers or other produce and processed in a water bath. This results in things like your favorite Kosher dills, bread and butter pickles, or the one good thing I learned about from my ex-husband, Southern pickled peaches. Pickles can also be made by letting the vegetables ferment in a salt-water solution for two to six weeks. This causes lactic acid-producing bacteria to thrive and, in turn, preserves the vegetables.
After Pete showed us his methods for making pickles, he opened his jars and gave us tasting plates of all the items he had made. There were preserved lemons, kimchi and spiced apple chutney. They were all delicious. He also held up a jar of crabapples that he had preserved in 1983. They’re still so beautiful that he uses the jar for photographs but has no intention of eating them.
“They’ll throw those in the crematorium as they’re cooking me, and they’ll say ‘Mmmmm. He smells pretty good.’”
During the lab portion, half of the class made an Italian pickled vegetable medley called Giardiniera. They cut the vegetables, packed them in jars, covered them with a brine and processed them in a water bath.
The rest of us made sauerkraut. We thinly sliced cabbage, tossed it with canning salt, packed it into jars and tamped it down with a blunt wooden instrument. Since it takes several weeks to ferment, three of us took the jars home to babysit.
This means there is now a jar of developing sauerkraut sitting on my kitchen counter. Every few days we (and I say we meaning my husband Mark) will have to carefully take off the cover and remove the layer of scum that has formed on top. It also means that one day soon I will happily hop up the stairs of the porch to the front door, fling it open and be greeted by the smell. Mark insists I’m going to like it. We’ll see about that. It’s bad enough that I’m turning into my Grandma.