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Food Preservation: The Unexpected Challenges


When we started experimenting with traditional food preservation techniques we experienced the normal sorts of problems: not knowing quite what to do, figuring out how to store things the wrong way, not storing enough of some foods and too much of others, etc. etc. Those learning curve challenges we expected but we also ran into several challenges that caught us by surprise, here they are in no particular order, next time they'll just be an expected part of the experience.

The Fear Challenge

The first one happens because of culture: choosing to preserve our own foods, rather than buying them properly preserved from the store, was really terrifying. We were afraid that we were going to kill ourselves and our whole family via some terrible microbe. Since we were pretty sure that every single new experiment would be our last, we practiced great caution when we tried every new culinary product: we gave some to Burton first. It's best to poison the breadwinner you know. "I think our ginger ale is ready...how is it?", "How's the sauerkraut? Good? Okay, I'll try some." The funny thing is that the fear is all mental because traditionally preserved foods are actually much more safe than commercially preserved foods. For example, botulism, that most dreaded of all food-borne illnesses, comes from toxins secreted by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, which is a very common soil bacteria. Botulism poisoning itself, however, was a very rare illness until the advent of canning, when cases skyrocketed. This is because botulism bacteria are extremely heat tolerant and can simply go dormant and then wake up again later in the finished product and happily reproduce without any competition from other bacteria. However, C. botulinum as well as other dreaded pathogens including Salmonella, Escherichia coli, Listeria, and Clostridium cannot survive in plant foods acidified by fermentation. "In a ferment, even in the case of contamination of the raw ingredients, the contaminating bacteria would have to struggle for survival in the presence of a stable community of acidifying bacteria specially adapted to the specific rich nutritive environment, and secreting acids and other protective compounds" (Sandor Katz, The Art of Fermentation, p. 19). This actually makes fermented foods, like sauerkraut, pickles, cheese, yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, etc., arguably more safe than raw vegetables and certainly more safe than canned vegetables. Prior to the advent of canning, botulism was only a problem in improperly prepared dry-cured sausages, which is why nitrate, traditionally saltpeter, is used in the production of these products since it inhibits the growth of C. botulinum. Properly preserved sausages are perfectly safe to eat and are a foundational preserved meat for many cultures. In fact, when Marc Buzzio, a New York based salami producer, had to prove to the USDA that his traditionally prepared, raw sausages were safe, he hired a scientist frequently consulted by the agency to test his sausage-making process. "The scientist followed Salumeria Biellese's process to the letter, with one exception: He injected each product with pure E. coli and L. monocytogenes, producing much higher levels of bacteria than would normally be found in raw meat. Then he aged the products in the same way that they are aged at the salumeria. When the scientist tested the meats at the end of the aging period, he found that the very high levels of bacteria had been eliminated. Essentially, his study validated what centuries of practice had already demonstrated--that dry aging, when done knowledgably and with care, makes raw meat safe to eat" (Sarah diGregoria, "The Salami Maker Who Fought the Law," Gastronomica 7(4), p. 57 (2007)). Traditional food preservation techniques control pathogenic bacteria growth, they just do it in ways very different from the modern kill 'em all techniques. Most pathogenic organisms need a warm, high oxygen, low acid, non-salty environment. Traditional techniques change the environment of the food, and the pathogenic organisms can't survive: "If the temperature is too low, acidity too high, water content insufficient, or salt concentration too high, microbes simply cannot multiply. As it is equally effective to destroy microorganisms or inhibit their growth, the method chosen should be the one that best protects the appearance, flavor, and nutritional value of the food, without adding undesirable substances" (Preserving Food, p. xviii-xix).

So, know that when you choose to make your own sauerkraut rather than buy it from a store, you are making a wise safe, healthy, tasty choice. Also know that it is still probably going to terrify you. Do it anyway and you'll not regret it!

The Flavor Challenge

The second challenge we faced was flavor. Traditionally preserved foods taste different than foods we're used to. Their flavors are powerful, complex, interesting, different, and they take some getting used to. I happened to be in the first trimester of pregnancy when our first sauerkraut was ready. I had a little bit and thought it was delicious, then hormones hit and I couldn't even be in the same house with the jar. Sadness. Don't worry, Burton happily sacrificed and ate all of that great nutrition. I have since gone through other pregnancies in the presence of sauerkraut without any problems, so I think it was just the adjustment. The same adjustment happens with cheese (try out some really well aged artisan cheeses to get prepared), bread (full rich and delicious, not squishy Wonderbread), yogurt (after awhile commercial yogurt will taste like sugar gel), pickles (not the quintessential sweet gherkins you're used to), etc.

Don't worry, your taste buds will adjust, and the taste buds of your children will adjust. Now we just feel a little apprehensive about bringing food to potlucks because we think it's delicious, but we're not entirely sure how it'll taste to everyone else.

The Balance Challenge

The third and final challenge is balance related. Our bodies are masters at maintaining balance, and they do it with whatever they have available. If we feed our bodies terrible food, they manage to generate a semblance of equilibrium, which is why our country has continued to function despite our current diet. Problems show up in chronic illness, mental problems, behavioral problems, etc., but really the body does a remarkable job of balancing. When you change the input, even for the better, the balance must shift, and that can be uncomfortable. Introducing highly nutrient dense foods, like traditionally preserved food products are, can throw your body for a loop. Whenever we introduced a new food I would literally feel loopy for awhile as my body adjusted to the new norm. But it did adjust and the results are great: we are more healthy, have more energy, etc., etc.

You will also discover that when you let your body adjust to a higher, more vibrant level of health and nutrition, foods you could eat before with relative impunity, you will be able to eat no longer. I used to love Snickers bars, but now they give me great stomach distress, an awful sugar rush, and they don't even taste satisfying, just sugary. Sigh!

So, know that the transition to a healthier system may be uncomfortable and it comes at a price, but also know that it is totally worth it. The ability to eat Snickers bars is certainly not comparable to the tasty, healthy, vibrant life we now enjoy!

There they are, the three unexpected but common challenges you'll face when you start preserving your own food. They are not insurmountable obstacles, but they are very, very real and will take some time and persistence to overcome. Don't worry, you can do it, and in the end you will be very, very glad you did!

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