Tag Archives: fermentation

On Cabbages

By Alison K. Smith

James John Howard Gregory, Cabbages: how to grow them (Salem, Mass.: Observer steam print, 1878), p. 59. https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages.

In late January 1868, a short article appeared in the Vladimir Provincial News, the local newspaper for a region near Moscow, signed by the provincial medical inspector Aliakrinskii. In it, he warned of a particular local threat to public health:

Due to last summer’s crop failure of cabbage, many do not have it preserved for cabbage soup, which is the major daily food of the peasants in this province. And due to the lack of cabbage soup, as people are used to it, if another sort of sour food is not substituted for it, scurvy may appear.

This was a major problem for a Russian province in the mid-nineteenth century. Aliakrinskii was right—nearly every account of Russian peasant foodways in these northern regions mentioned the centrality of cabbage, and particularly preserved (fermented) cabbage. Shchi, cabbage soup, was the most quintessentially Russian food. In response to a criticism of cabbage as a food, the Russian medical author Ia. S. Chistovich exclaimed “And sour or fermented cabbage? What could replace it for the Russian people?” as a note to his 1852 translation of A. Becquerel’s treatise on hygiene.

Aliakrinskii, though, was concerned not out of a fear of famine (cabbage soup was important, but grains were the major food source) but out of a fear of scurvy. No one yet knew exactly what caused scurvy, but in Russian medical circles, everyone believed that fermented cabbage (not plain cabbage) was one of the things that stopped it. And so, Aliakrinskii gave a series of short recipes (basically, recipes that peasants might be able to make) for substitutes that would, he claimed, stop scurvy’s progress.

To avoid that, the provincial government advises to substitute for cabbage soup as a hot dish a gruel of some sort of grain or a potato soup, adding to either while it is cooking cut up pickles and pickle brine, so the taste of that gruel or soup is a little sour; it is also good to add pepper and a bay leaf; and for a cold dish tyurya is recommended, that is, kvass with rye bread crumbs, pepper, and grated or ground horseradish; or kvass with chopped up salted cucumbers, adding to that onion and horseradish, or grated radish; or tolokno, of oat flour dissolved in kvass. And when there are beets in storage, then from there prepare Ukrainian buraki: for that put cut up beets in a tub, pour in water and, putting in there a bit of sour dough, let it ferment; then, having cut up the fermented beets finely, cook them with pepper and a bay leaf. To drink in every family there should be good kvass. When spring and summer come, it will be useful to make a hot dish like cabbage soup out of sorrel, and from beet greens that have been boiled and then cut up fine and mixed with kvass, adding in onion and horseradish, you get the cold dish called botvin’e. It is also useful in spring and summer to eat green onions, both garden ones and those that grow wild in low-lying meadows; for those one should first cut them up and pound them in a wooden mortar, and then mix them with kvass. (VGV (27 January 1868)).

The assumption in these recipes is that the thing that stopped scurvy was the particular sourness of fermented cabbage—not the cabbage itself, despite the fact that it is actually a good source of vitamin C. All of these recipes take what would otherwise be bland foods (gruel, potato soup, breadcrumbs, even beets) and add sourness to them. Sometimes that sourness comes from another fermented food—the kvass (the favorite lightly fermented drink of Russia) that featured in almost every recipe—or by adding fermentation—the instructions to ferment beets—or by adding pickles and pickle brine, probably the sourest option. They also mostly add other sharp, strong, almost spicy flavors: pepper, horseradish, onion, radish. This echoes other moments in which Russian culinary or medical writers associated a taste for such strong flavors with a native Russian healthiness—in 1841, in an article “And More on Food” in the journal The Economist, an anonymous Russian author claimed that “of the Russians, only the milksops [nezhenki] do not eat onions . . . our great-grandfathers did not know medicinal mixtures at all, and all because they were able to live, eat, and drink better than us, and also, how they loved onion, garlic, radish, pepper, and such foods!”






Rotten or Fermented?: Disgusting Cross-Cultural Foods in Early America

By Carla Cevasco

In Autumn 1764, the English missionary Samuel Kirkland was dispatched to a Seneca Indian village in western New York, where a Seneca family adopted him, as was common practice. A hard winter followed, and the family shared their increasingly scanty food supplies with Kirkland. When food ran low in early 1765, Kirkland traded one of his shirts to an Indian outside the family, receiving four cornmeal cakes in return. So great was his hunger, “At first sight I thought I could devour them all at one meal,” but he vomited up the first cake he ate.[1] He kept the remaining cakes until they began to mold, then offered them to his adoptive nieces and nephews, who ate them without hesitation. The hungry children could stomach what Kirkland could not. It is unclear why the cornmeal cakes so disagreed with Kirkland. Perhaps they were already moldering by the time he purchased them, or, as he noted, his digestive system was sensitive after months of near-starvation. Regardless, the fact that the cakes had begun to spoil did not deter the Seneca children from eating them. The Seneca also ate other foods that Kirkland considered rotten: as Kirkland’s sister-in-law cut up maggot-infested bear meat to feed to the family, she whispered to her husband Tekânadie that she feared “their brother white man could not eat of it.”[2]

Brown Bear, Etching by James Tookey after Julius Caesar Ibbetson, 1796 Image Credit: Wellcome Library
Brown Bear, Etching by James Tookey after Julius Caesar Ibbetson, 1796.
Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

From captivity narratives and missionary accounts, it is clear that Indians routinely and without digestive upset ate foods that the English thought of as rotten or spoiled. Of course, according to the anthropologist Sidney Mintz, rottenness is “culturally specific”—one culture’s rotten, inedible food is another’s fermented, edible food. For example, Icelandic people prize their fermented shark delicacy, hákarl, while Anthony Bourdain has called it “the single worst thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.” (Full disclosure: the closest I’ve gotten to hákarl is Brennivin, the so-called “Black Death” schnapps that is meant to accompany the shark—it is also unspeakably foul.) In light of the cultural specificity of fermentation, it is less clear whether Indians ate these “rotten” foods only when they had no other options, or whether they sometimes desired the potent flavors that fermentation produces.

Joseph Johnson, a Mohegan missionary, wrote in February 1768 that the Oneida (who lived east of the Seneca) kept “rotten fish” from the previous fall “to Season their Samps,” or corn soups.[3] While Johnson seemed repulsed by this practice, the Oneida sought out the taste of fermented fish: “rottener the better they Say as it will Season more broth.”[4] This pungent condiment added variety and flavor to an otherwise repetitive winter diet of corn. As Mintz has also argued, many indigenous cultures rely on “core” staple grains for the bulk of their caloric intake, and then add nutritional value, flavor, and variety with the use of condiments, or “fringe” foods.[5] Where Johnson and the English saw rottenness, the Oneida saw fermentation.

 A hind and a stag of the family of Red-Deer and a Fallow-deer, Wood Engraving after Thomas Bewick. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
A hind and a stag of the family of Red-Deer and a Fallow-deer, Wood Engraving after Thomas Bewick.
Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Of course, English people of the pre-refrigeration era also ate spoiled meat. Recipe books abounded with household hints for camouflaging flesh that had passed its prime. Hannah Glasse instructed cooks that if a joint of venison “stinks, or is musty,” one must rinse it multiple times with water and milk, then “rub it all over with beaten Ginger” and hang it to dry (10). Gervase Markham offered a formula for spoiled venison, that required the cook to boil “a strong brine” with a combination of “strong Ale,” wine vinegar, and salt, to let this mixture cool, and to soak the venison in it overnight (113). Next, the cook would remove the meat from the brine, “presse it well,” then “parboyle it, and season it with Pepper and Salt,” before roasting. These preparations of burying, boiling, washing, and salting to counteract or mask spoiled meat also had their counterparts in Indian cuisine: Samuel Kirkland’s Seneca sister-in-law stewed rancid bear meat and served it with “half a spoonful of salt on one side.”[6]

Since discovering Kirkland’s journal, I’ve been fascinated by the cultural specificity of rotten or fermented food. This specificity is based not just on taste, but also presumably on which bacteria different people’s bodies are accustomed to and will tolerate. I am curious to know if other scholars have found similar cross-cultural examples from the early modern period.

[1] Samuel Kirkland, The Journals of Samuel Kirkland, 18th-Century Missionary to the Iroquois, Government Agent, Father of Hamilton College, ed. Walter Pilkington (Clinton, New York: Hamilton College, 1980), 22.

[2] Ibid, 30.

[3] Joseph Johnson to Eleazar Wheelock, February 10, 1768, The Letters of Eleazar Wheelock’s Indians, ed. James Dow McCallum (Brattleboro, VT: Stephen Daye Press, 1932), 128.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Sidney Mintz, “The Anthropology of Food: Core and Fringe in Diet,” India International Centre Quarterly 12, no. 2, Food Culture (June 1985): 193-204.

[6] Kirkland, Journals, 30.

A Medieval Russian Hangover Cure

By Darra Goldstein

Olearius' text
Olearius’ text
(Wiki Images)

In 1635 the German scholar Adam Olearius (1599-1671) set out on a journey through Russia, down the Volga and across the Caspian Sea to Persia, part of an embassy sponsored by Frederick III, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, who hoped to negotiate an overland route for the silk trade. Tsar Mikhail I had granted permission to travel through Muscovy, and Olearius later wrote a lively account of his travels,  offering commentary on the lands and their people, their mores and habits. [1]  He devoted several pages to the Russian love of drink:

“The vice of drunkenness is prevalent among this people in all classes, both secular and ecclesiastical, high and low, men and women, young and old. To see them lying here and there in the streets, wallowing in filth, is so common that no notice is taken of it…None of them anywhere, anytime,or under any circumstance lets pass any opportunity to have a draught or a drinking bout” (Baron, p. 143).

Olearius went on to note how Russians dealt with alcohol’s aftereffects by preparing a dish called pokhmel’e, which takes its name from the Russian word for “hangover”:

“The Russians prepare a special dish when they have a hangover or feel uncomfortable. They cut cold baked lamb into small pieces, like cubes, but thinner and broader, mix them with peppers and cucumbers similarly cut,[2] and pour over them a mixture of equal parts of vinegar and cucumber juice. They eat this with a spoon and afterwards a drink tastes good again” (p. 156).

When I share this recipe with my students, their reaction is generally “Ewwww!” But just think about it: savory roast lamb, pungent pepper and crisp cucumber mixed into a kind of salamagundi with a sharp, sour tang the Russians love. Olearius did not share this appreciation for hearty foods. Noting that “They are not accustomed to tender dishes and dainty morsels” (p. 155), he damned the Russian delight in pungent alliums:

“They generally prepare their food with garlic and onion, so all their rooms and houses, including the sumptuous chambers of the Grand Prince’s place in the Kremlin, give off an odor offensive to us Germans. So do the Russians themselves (as one notices in speaking to them), and all the places they frequent even a little” (pp. 156-157).

Adam Olearius
Adam Olearius
(Wellcome Library)

Yet even as Olearius disdained the lingering smells, he recognized the wisdom of Russia’s homeopathic cures: “In general, people in Russia are healthy and long-lived. They are rarely sick, but if someone is confined to bed, the best cure among the common people, even if there is a high fever, is vodka and garlic” (p. 162).

Although seventeenth-century Russians did not understand the science of metabolism, they certainly knew what made them feel good. The dish pokhmel’e is a case in point. The high protein content of the lamb surely boosted energy, while copious amounts of pepper would stimulate the stomach’s secretion of hydrochloric acid, thereby aiding digestion and easing the upset so common in hangover sufferers. Most crucial to the recipe, however, is the brine (rassol) that results from the traditional Russian method for making pickles. Cucumbers are brined in a salt solution, which initiates malolactic fermentation, a process with many health benefits that the Russian peasantry instinctively understood when insisting on something sour with each meal. Thanks to its high proportion of electrolytes, pickle brine can reduce hangover symptoms by mitigating the dehydration caused by alcoholic overindulgence.

Russian Boyars
Russian Boyars

The malolactic fermentation of traditional Russian pickle making also creates what we today call “probiotics”—microorganisms beneficial to the digestive system. These microorganisms were the focus of research by Russian biologist Ilya Mechnikov, whose work led to a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1908. Could Mechnikov’s interest in the properties of lactic acid and its effect on the gut have been stimulated by the culture in which he lived?

Pickle juice gained modern fame in 2000, when the Philadelphia Eagles football team won handily over the Dallas Cowboys in blistering heat after drinking pickle juice before the game—no Eagles player suffered the crippling muscle cramps that benched many Cowboys. As for hangovers, it has taken the West nearly four hundred years to catch up with the remedies Olearius described. Only recently has The Pickleback become popular in bars: a shot of whiskey followed by a shot of pickle juice. In this trendy drink we can perhaps see a modern version of the pokhmel’e the Russians understood long ago.

[1] Offt begehrte Beschreibung der newen orientalischen Rejse (Schleswig, 1647). The book was soon translated into several languages and appeared in an expanded version in 1656 (Vermehrte newe Beschreibung der muscowitischen und persischen Reyse). John Davies of Kidwelly made the first English translation: The Voyages & Travels of the Ambassadors from the Duke of Holstein, to the Great Duke of Muscovy and the King of Persia (London, 1662). The Russian portion of the journey appears in a modern English translation by Samuel H. Baron: The Travels of Olearius in Seventeenth-century Russia (Stanford UP, 1967).

[2] The original German is translated into Russian as igral’nye kosti or “dice,” a finer degree of chopping than cubes. “Peppers” should appear here in the singular, as “pepper” (Russian perets), in reference to the aromatic spice. Bell peppers, a New World plant, arrived in Russian in the late sixteenth century, most likely via Constantinople, but they did not become widespread for at least another century. Thus the passage in English should more properly read: “…mix them with cucumbers similarly cut and pepper…”.