My kimchi fermented in a jar by my pillow, smelling sour. I imagined the vegetable shreds bubbling in salt and their own juices, as the millions of bacteria in the container facilitated the vegetables’ chemical breakdown into the Korean staple. Nestling it further into an old sweatshirt, I made sure the concoction would be warm enough through the night – if it reached below room temperature, the bacteria would die and the fermentation would stop. My roommate watched my new, slightly bizarre nighttime ritual with skepticism.
My obsessive care for these pungent vegetables had only begun in March, after I attended a workshop titled “Break it Down: The Art and Wonder of Fermentation” at the New Haven Free Skool. Started by a group of artists and activists in New Haven, the Free Skool hosts volunteer-run classes on everything from herbal medicine to chicken raising. When I arrived at the first night of fermentation class, the long room was full. Fermentation – which keeps food edible through chemical breakdown by bacteria and yeasts – has grown in popularity over the past few months, both in New Haven and across the country. Both foodies and laypeople have joined in the trend, fermenting various foods and drinks in their own homes with Mason jars, salt, and bacteria cultures. The Free Skool originally intended to have around ten people in its fermentation class, but so many people signed up that the teacher sent around an email before the first class begging those who already knew how to make kimchi and sauerkraut to stay home.
“I’ve taught a lot of fermentation classes, and interest just increases every single year,” the teacher Diane Litwin told me. She speaks of fermentation with an almost spiritual devotion, likening the process in class to a magical experience. “I think it’s a big shift in our generation of the importance of DIY. It also has a lot to do with empowering yourself, bringing back the culture, really taking your health into your own hands.”
My classmates and I painstakingly shredded cabbage, carrots, onions, peppers, and radishes into careful slices: too thin and the vegetables lose their crunch, too thick and they don’t absorb enough water in the fermentation process. After chopping everything, we tossed the mixture with salt and divided up the contents into four jars, one for each of us to take home.
After two weeks, the vegetables would have soaked in their own juices long enough to turn into kimchi. When I first read about fermentation, it seemed simple: chop up some produce, stick it in a jar with salt, and wait for the bacteria to do their thing. I quickly discovered that the process was not so dispassionate. I returned home from the class with my jar and strict instructions from Litwin to cover it with a plastic bag, compressing the vegetables throughout the day to ensure they remained submerged in their juices. I worried constantly about the health of my kimchi.
I considered asking my roommate to check in on my kimchi while I was in class, but restrained myself. I began to view fermentation as not just an activity, but a lifestyle. Perhaps I would branch out into more complicated food and drink, incorporating some sort of fermented concoction in all of my meals.
Because of its ancient origins and resurgence in popularity, fermentation awkwardly straddles the realm between tradition and the New Age DIY culture currently embracing it. While it was first used by farmers and those in harsh climates to preserve extra food, it now represents a creative way to create healthy dishes. Litwin stresses fermentation as a way to eliminate food waste and increase farm productivity by preserving any surplus produce that would ordinarily be thrown away – a difficulty that I, having all of my meals provided to me in a dining hall, do not confront directly.
Shizue RocheAdachi, a Yale sophomore who interned at a pickling store in Berkeley, California last summer, notes the contrast between fermentation’s various uses.
“It’s definitely part of this whole artisanal food movement,” she says. “From the other side, it’s about a lot of people who are into the deprivation, hipster, being thrifty model.”
When I met RocheAdachi in a coffee shop, she ordered nothing; instead, she drank water from a Mason jar. A student farm manager* at the Yale Farm, her passion for self-sufficiency and sustainability had sparked her interest in preservation technique. Her Japanese heritage exposed her to fermentation from a young age. As a child, her family would eat preserved vegetables called tseukemono, which literally translates to “pickled things.” Originally, she says, she hated some of the pickled foods her family ate, but came to develop an enthusiasm for the craft.
More than the idea of returning to ancestral foods, I identified with Litwin’s comment that fermenting food is like having a pet. It not only adds a few billion new creatures to your living space, it also requires constant maintenance and commitment. After bestowing so much care upon my kimchi, I almost couldn’t bring myself to consume it. But I eventually gave in, closing my eyes as the sour yet spicy cabbage crunched in my mouth.
A few weeks later I found myself walking to Edge of the Woods, a self-described “natural market” in New Haven, to pick up ingredients to make kefir, a type of fermented milk. The recipe I followed stressed that kefir was an acquired taste, but I felt confident enough in my new-found enthusiasm for fermentation to try it. Occasionally I felt embarrassed by my sudden interest in fermentation. Was I simply a bandwagon fan, latching onto the latest trend?
“I was that weird kid working at a pickle shop,” RocheAdachi laughs. “And then I came back and all of a sudden fermentation was the thing of 2013.” She informs me that I’m “not the first” to have asked her about fermentation as a craze. “But I do fear that it will be too much of a food fad.”
One later afternoon after I strained my kefir, I practiced steeling my nostrils against its harsh, sour scent. My roommate once again looked skeptical when I brought the concoction back to our room. I haven’t yet brought myself to try the dish, as a troubling thought occurred to me upon first smelling it: I can’t tell the difference between kefir and rancid milk.
* The original text of this story stated that Shizue RocheAdachi was a volunteer at the Yale Farm. TNJ regrets the error.