active: 1 hr 15 min
total: 4 hrs
“Everything old is new again.”
In the world of food trends, this has always been true: just like your mom’s bellbottom jeans, which once seemed so dated but which experienced a resurgence in popularity in the ‘90s, dishes once considered passé have come back with a vengeance: think of fondue (currently on the menu at the popular Manhattan restaurant ABC Cocina); the classic cocktail craze that’s sweeping the entire nation and pickles.
Yes, pickles: considered by Jews an iconic Jewish food. A few years ago, chefs, cooks and farmers like Rick Fields (of Rick’s Picks fame) and Joe and Bob McClure (of the well-known McClure’s Pickles) started trying to produce expertly made pickled cucumbers – a product that for years had been relegated to refrigerated supermarket shelves.
Their efforts were the first clue that an industry-wide obsession with fermentation was about to take hold in earnest. These days, restaurants all over the country list house-pickled-this and house-pickled-that on their menus: at Lower East Side trattoria ‘inoteca, the roasted chicken is flavored with pickled mustard seeds, and miso-pickled anchovies are a popular starter at San Francisco’s Bar Agricole.
But the overwhelming importance of fermentation to the human diet supersedes any kind of fad, and is the reason Sandor Katz, a self-named “fermentation revivalist” and author of the 2012 book The Art of Fermentation, disputes the idea that fermented foods can be called “trendy.”
“I challenge this idea of fermentation as a fad,” Katz told me in a recent interview. “Yes, more people are trying it in their home kitchens. Yes, more chefs are serving it on their menus,” he said. “But the highest delicacies of every culture have always been products of fermentation,” he underscored, citing bread, cheese, coffee, wine and beer — foods that are major components of many diets worldwide.
Fermentation, Katz said, is the world’s most ancient and most important method of food preservation. There’s a reason why pickled herring is so important to Eastern Europeans; why kimchi is so vital to Koreans; why wine, beer and bread are essential to the diets of, well, just about everyone on earth. That reason is survival: fermentation takes these ingredients – fish, cabbage, barley and wheat – and, by applying heat, salt, bacteria or a combination thereof, extends their life and allows them to be consumed year-round. Fermentation, of course, is a hugely important part of Jewish cuisine: think of our love of items such as sauerkraut, pickled beef tongue, and pickled beets, not to mention the dills and sweet-and-sours we’ve just gotta have next to our towering sandwiches of pastrami and corned beef.
Still, though, Katz acknowledged that there’s been a definite resurgence of interest in fermented foods. He sees it as part and parcel of a renewed interest in local, seasonal foods.
“People want to be closer to the source of their food,” he said.
Katz added that while the rise of packaged, ready-to-eat foods in the 1950s and ’60s led people to believe that natural bacteria were somehow dangerous to their diet, home cooks are now approaching fermentation with a greater understanding of nature and a smaller measure of fear.
“For a generation or two, people became more distanced from food production and food preparation,” he said. “But now, people are getting excited about food again. They’re playing around in the kitchen, taking this ancient process and adding their own contemporary twist.”
The upcoming holiday, Katz said, makes him think of one particular, essential Eastern European fermented food: sauerkraut. This traditional preparation of aged salted cabbage makes a wonderful side dish for the holiday table, and one that is ripe for a modern twist. In response to Katz’s suggestion, I developed a recipe for a sauerkraut-braised brisket, that, taking seasonality into account, adds the last of the summer’s apricots to the pan for a sweet-sour main dish that will make a fine centerpiece for your Rosh Hashanah table.
Lauren Rothman was born, raised and still resides in Brooklyn, New York. Her fondest food memories are of Passovers spent at her Grandma Laura’s table, slurping the best chicken noodle soup with knaydelach and unraveling stuffed cabbage to eat just the filling, please. You can read more of her work on Serious Eats and follow her on Twitter @Lochina186.