Absence of Fermented Food From the Thoughts of a Foodie

A diagnosis of stomach cancer and the need for radical surgery led a writer named Anna Stoessinger to plan a series of meals before surgery.  She and her husband care enormously about food:

My husband and I have been known to spend our rent money on the tasting menu at Jean Georges, our savings on caviar or wagyu tartare. We plan our vacations around food — the province of China known for its chicken feet, the village in Turkey that grows the sweetest figs, the town in northwest France with the very best raclette.

Yet in her two-page article she doesn’t mention fermented food even once. (Leaving aside a mention of cheese.) Here are some foods she does mention:

  • roast duck, crostini and rich fish stews
  • roast chicken with leeks
  • roadside cheeseburgers, bonito with ginger sauce, hazelnut gelato
  • peanut butter and jelly doughnuts, ginger ice cream, sashimi, grilled porterhouse, wild blueberries
  • candy
  • foie gras and fig torchon
  • butter-poached smoked lobster
  • passion fruit coulis
  • butter-seared scallops
  • wild boar terrine and Guinness vegetable soup with rosemary whipped cream
  • apple and cinnamon tarte tartin

Of the thousands of fermented foods, eaten daily by people all over the world from time immemorial, nothing. To me, it’s like she’s had a stroke and has spatial neglect. She is unaware of half the visual field but doesn’t notice anything wrong. The absence of fermented foods from her article reflects the larger near-total absence of fermented foods in American restaurants (both high and low), supermarkets, cookbooks, newspapers, and health advice.

I no longer use cookbooks. I rarely use spices. I make the food I cook taste good by adding fermented foods — for example, miso or yogurt or stinky tofu or fermented bean paste. The result is much tastier than almost anything I can get in restaurants (if I say so myself) and no doubt much healthier.

Ms. Stoessinger’s article reads like a series of boasts: look how much I know and care about food. I think that’s part of the problem: You can’t boast about fermented food. It doesn’t require expensive skilled preparation to taste delicious. You can’t impress guests with fermented food, you just serve it. A bowl of miso soup: big deal. The bacteria made it delicious, not you. So fermented food can’t be a high-end product. Nor can it be a low-end mass-produced product because it takes too long to make, is hard to standardize, and is “objectionable” (e.g., stinky tofu). The growth of our modern food economy has pushed it to the margins, with very bad consequences for our health.

11 Replies to “Absence of Fermented Food From the Thoughts of a Foodie”

  1. Are you sure fermented foods can’t be high-end or impressive?! Wine, cheese…? I used to live in Korea, and a restaurant’s reputation could be made or ruined by the quality of it’s various kimchi. The fermented skate is a very special delicacy (like Iceland’s Hákarl), and also one of the worst things I’ve ever tried in my life. I live in Japan now, and in Kyoto especially, the humble pickle has definitely been raised to an art form. Certain mountain villages are as famous for their pickles as certain Turkish ones are for their sweet figs.

    On a side note, it’s always the mountainous regions in Japan and Korea that are famous for their pickled foods. I always assumed this was because the colder winters meant they needed foods to keep, but I’ve been wondering lately if it’s not equally because of limited access to fresh seafood, which fermented foods could compensate for somewhat nutritionally.

  2. seth writes: “Nor can it be a low-end mass-produced product because it takes too long to make, is hard to standardize, and is “objectionable” (e.g., stinky tofu). The growth of our modern food economy has pushed it to the margins, with very bad consequences for our health.”

    but don’t they?–cheese, pickles, beer, yogurt–all fermented and mass-produced.

    one thing that really puzzles me is, why would stuff that smells objectionable be good for us, and indeed taste good? very odd–just going on a certain evolutionary logic, wouldn’t we be wired to want to avoid stuff that stinks? but then we eat it and like it. very odd. maybe the shortage of food in our ancestral environment made us less picky about smells and we made some happy discoveries.

    1. good question, Mike, why would stuff that smells objectionable be good for us? Perhaps a large part of the (mild) aversion is cultural, lack of exposure to strong smells and a belief that bacteria are bad. In ancient times there was plenty of exposure to strong smells and the concept of bacteria didn’t exist.

  3. I’ve also been making my food taste good by adding ferments – lamb meatballs, for example, with a sauce made by adding homemade goat yogurt and a squeeze of lemon to the pan juices. Fermented lemonade with a hint of nutmeg, either drunk on it’s own or transformed into gelatin and served with fermented cream. So, so simple and tasty!

    A lost art, really… if people understood how easy it is to ferment your own foods, why would they buy sour cream, sauerkraut etc from the store? And as to the mass-produced thing… @mike kenny many foods like pickles that were traditionally fermented are now just pickled, with vinegar etc creating that sour taste we love so much, as opposed to being rammed in a big barrel and left to the whims of bacteria.

  4. Intriguing point, Seth! I spoke (on the NYT site) to her mourning over her perceived benefit of spontaneity and abandon in approaching food.

    From the list, it seems as if she is going quite a bit for mouth feel.

    Your assertion that you rarely use spices is interesting, too. I learned how to make yogurt, and eat it almost daily. But I add cocoa power, cayenne, ginger, cinnamon and pumpkin pie spices to it. I also heavily add spices and herbs to protein and vegetable dishes. That seems to add to the satiety factor in my case.

  5. “Ms. Stoessinger’s article reads like a series of boasts: look how much I know and care about food. I think that’s part of the problem: You can’t boast about fermented food.”

    I think you just proved yourself wrong…

  6. This reminds me of a childhood trade between me, supplying a fermented drink made with liquorice (I can’t remember the recipe), and a neighbour, supplying ginger beer made with a “ginger beer plant”. I have no idea why these were viewed as childish tastes.

  7. Re the “smells bad but good for us” thing: An intriguing point!

    I feel that our relationship to the smell & flavor of fermented food is complex. The initial reaction—“this is stinky”—can be accounted for as a useful aversion to garbage or rotten food. As humans evolved, an aversion to foodborne bacteria may have been quite useful, e.g. avoiding salmonella could have been more immediately advantageous than cultivating stomach cultures.

    In my experience, most children can’t tell fermented food from rotten food. But we learn: it’s normal for adults to have a taste for wine, veined cheese, pickles, etc. I love gorgonzola cheese, and absolutely hated it when I was a kid, but I can still understand exactly why it smells like garbage to someone without a taste for it.

    Isn’t it possible that the mechanisms that tell us “this is bad; don’t eat it” can be retrained when it’s to our advantage. They can be taught to “make exceptions.” Other instincts can be modified: for instance, contact lens wearers have trained themselves to suppress their blinking instinct when they’re putting in their lenses. They “make an exception,” but leave the blinking instinct otherwise intact.

  8. Nothing like the natural process of fermentation to liven up the taste buds! I’ve actually had some experience with this recently at a local Indian place. It was some kind of fermented peanut, can’t remember it for the life of me though.

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