For the modern capitalist consumer, it's easy to feel as though you have no control over what you put in your body. Most of the food we eat is produced by a global system in which the average vegetable travels thousands of kilometres to our plates, a system governed by international trade agreements that privilege mass monocultures grown with the help of cheap labour, pesticides and fossil fuels. Only buying organic, locally grown ingredients is a better choice from an environmental and health standpoint, but total commitment to this diet remains a luxury available only to the wealthy. Food from farmer's markets and organic specialty stores is much more expensive, and telling someone who struggles to make ends meet that the "moral" choice is spending twice as much on organic apples and carrots is, well, totally arrogant.
This blog will explore problems with our current food system while thinking about financially viable solutions.
What's my first solution? Make sauerkraut.
Now, I'm not suggesting that a jar of sour cabbage is going to fix our broken industrial food system or bring absolute health to everyone who eats it. But if you're looking to do one thing to take control of what you eat, to in some small way assert sovereignty over your diet in the face of a powerful and destructive global system from which you cannot possibly extricate yourself without massive personal sacrifice, then perhaps you should try making some sauerkraut.
Homemade sauerkraut is good for you.
Maybe you've had this pickled German condiment shovelled unceremoniously onto your plate at Thanksgiving or nestled a few strands of it atop a roadside Frankfurter. Sauerkraut is traditionally a fermented food, which means that it's transformed by friendly lactic acid bacteria that both preserve it and render it deliciously sour. Until the relatively recent invention of canning and refrigeration, fermentation was how humans preserved most of our food. It's how cheese, yoghurt, miso, and (importantly!) beer came into being. But since Louis Pasteur discovered that heating foods to a certain temperature killed some harmful bacteria and rendered food safe, most foods that would typically be fermented have been pasteurized, a process that kills both good and bad bugs.
Most of the bugs in live-culture foods are really good for us, in ways that science is just beginning to understand. Fermentation pre-digests foods, making more nutrients available. It also kills pathogens and leads to the formation of new micro-nutrients . Finally, consuming the lactic acid bacteria in fermented foods is good for your microbiome, the 100-trillion strong community of bacteria that resides in your intestines. The health and diversity of the mircobiome is now thought to impact human health in profound and unexpected ways. Thanks to the modern diet and antibiotics, the average human microbiome is a lot less diverse than it used to be. In the words of fermentation king Sandor Katz, "lactic acid bacteria in live-culture foods increase the spectrums of genes available to our intestinal consortia," a.k.a. diverse bacteria gut parties are undoubtedly the way to go.
Cabbage is really, really cheap.
You can ferment all sorts of vegetables, but cabbage is definitely the most economical. When I made my most recent batch of kraut, I bought a massive red cabbage at the grocery store for 98 cents per pound. Now, this cabbage was not local. It came from the town of Edinburgh, Texas, and so definitely travelled farther than necessary to reach my kitchen counter. In an ideal world I would have purchased this brassica at the farmer's market, but this world is not perfect.
One way that you can compromise on owning your food is to buy some things at the grocery store for less money, and then invest in the more important stuff at the farmer's market. Every year, the Environmental Working Group puts out the Dirty Dozen/Clean 15, which lists the 12 fruits and vegetables that contain the most pesticide residue and the 15 that are safe to eat non-organic. Cabbage has made the Clean 15 list for the last several years because it doesn't require a lot of pesticides to grow successfully (Napa cabbage excepted). So even though you won't win any points for food miles by purchasing your cabbage from the grocery store, you can at least be assured that you won't increase your toxic load by buying conventional.
Finally, it's really, really easy.
Salt, to taste
1 large jar or fermentation crock
1. Chop cabbage as desired. Small, thin strips will ferment more quickly, while larger pieces will stay crunchy for longer.
2. Place cabbage in a bowl and mix in salt to taste. Start with ½ teaspoon per pound and add from there. Salt slows down fermentation, so the more you add, the more slowly your sauerkraut will ferment.
3. Pound, squeeze and crush the cabbage to release as much liquid as possible. Doing this breaks down the cell walls in the cabbage, releasing water. You should have a fair amount of liquid at the bottom of the bowl by the time you're done this step.
4. Pack salted cabbage firmly into your fermentation crock or jar. Ideally, you want the cabbage to be submerged underneath a layer of its own liquid, because any exposed pieces will be susceptible to mould. The kraut may not be submerged right away, but it will continue to release liquid over time, so keep checking and pressing throughout the day. You can also weigh the kraut down using a ramekin or plastic bag filled with water.
5. Leave on your counter, out of direct sunlight, for a week. Don't worry if you see mould growing on top – simply scrape it off. Most moulds that grow on top of sauerkraut are safe to ingest since the environment is highly acidic and will kill off any nasty pathogens that might want to take up residence.
6. Taste after a week. If the kraut is sour enough for your liking, place it in the fridge to cease fermentation. If you'd like a more intense flavour, leave it out, tasting every two days or so, until you're satisfied.
Enjoy as a condiment for sandwiches, burgers and tacos, on the side with sausages or eggs, or with a spoon!
 According to Katz, "in cabbage fermentation, phytochemicals known as glucosinolates are broken down into compounds include isothio-cyanates and indole-3-carbinol," both powerful anticarcinogens (25). For more information, see Katz's book The Art of Fermentation, chapter 2.
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