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History of Fermented Foods  RSS feed

 
Chris Kott
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Hi Wardeh,
Thanks so much for spending the time to chat with us. I was just wondering about how far back fermented foods go. I mean, would fermented foods have come around by accident and the necessity of consuming food that had already begun to "turn?" I would guess that as a new food, people would have first had the same reaction as kids do to, say, pickles or sauerkraut. I guess I mean to suggest that fermented foods do not always appear palatable at first bite, and would it have been necessity that would have made them go on past the second and third bites and so on?
-CK
 
Chris Kott
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Hi again,

I just had another history question: would fermented foods have come out of alcohol production, or is alcohol production something of a refinement that happened after people had already started eating fermented food? Is one chicken and the other egg, or (and this third, while possible, I personally think unlikely) did alcohol and fermented foods come about independently of each other?

-CK
 
Wardeh Harmon
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Chris, good questions.

You've got nomads making spontaneous cheese in an animal stomach (or so legend goes).

You've got workers on the Great Wall packing up vegetables in crocks and discovering them fermented (again, a legend).

Egyptians left dough out and found it soured. (this was both alcoholic and lactic acid fermentation)

Grains left out in the rain sprouted and the converted sugars fed organisms which turned the mixture in alcohol.

These are all legends from the beginning of civilization and they seem to be accidents, which inspired the people to put them to use in the future for many purposes -- noticed health changes, preservation, good taste, etc.

Interesting to think about whether the people needed to try it a few times to like it. I really don't know. I would suspect that their tastes were less narrow than ours tend to be and I think they probably liked the foods right off the bat. Who knows, though. What do you think?
 
Chris Kott
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Thanks, Wardeh. My opinion on the first taste question is mixed. I tend to think about my first experiences as a child with such things as pickles, which I didn't like, along with sauerkraut, though it was the polish version, and as such introduced in a cultural context it was accepted as a staple, and so I didn't give it any thought. Then there was sour cream, which again features heavily in polish cuisine, and yogourt, which, in all its various flavoured forms, was always one of the easier things with which to interest an otherwise disinterested kid. And then there is the case of buttermilk, which my grandmother swore by, and to this day I still can't stand. My inclination is to think that early experimentation with fermented foods were likely borne of desperation and lack of other food. I think that once people started to keep their foodstuffs a little longer letting them ferment at the end, someone likely stumbled upon the fact that, with proper storage, fermentation can be used to store the surplus of food that would otherwise spoil before it could be eaten, and so would not be bothered with. I think it reasonable to assume that fermented food caught on because it allowed for the longer-term storage of surpluses of food, making survival easier. I would guess that the health benefits of fermented food would have been largely overlooked; I think fermented food would have started as a survival food, a way to keep food long enough so that people didn't starve to death before the first greens of spring became available. In light of the fact that it would already have been keeping them from starvation, I think they would have stopped looking for other benefits at that point.
The cross-cultural common threads, though, culinarily speaking, are a puzzle. Would fermented food been a choice of travellers, and that the travels of normal people that didn't make it into the records spread the idea of pickled cabbage?

-CK
 
Chris Kott
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I just thought of another observation, a point in favour of the alcohol first theory. There are many different varieties of many different species of fruit that stay on the tree or vine or cane or whatever long past ripeness, to ferment within their own skins. I think it reasonable to suggest the possibility that pre-agrarian hunter-gatherer societies may have been able to make the leap easily enough from eating fermented fruit off the vine, likely getting intoxicated without any prior exposure to alcohol, to gathering said fruit for later consumption. It follows from there, especially if the fermented fruit were being stored in skins, that the anaerobic conditions' effect on the fermentation might even have been noticed and capitalised upon. What do you think, Wardeh?
-CK
 
John Polk
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I find it interesting that the northern Europeans created saurkraut, while the Koreans made basically the same thing with their kimchee. Two widely separated cultures determining that an easily grown plant could be fermented, and stored for winter use.

 
Wardeh Harmon
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Chris Kott wrote:I just thought of another observation, a point in favour of the alcohol first theory. There are many different varieties of many different species of fruit that stay on the tree or vine or cane or whatever long past ripeness, to ferment within their own skins. I think it reasonable to suggest the possibility that pre-agrarian hunter-gatherer societies may have been able to make the leap easily enough from eating fermented fruit off the vine, likely getting intoxicated without any prior exposure to alcohol, to gathering said fruit for later consumption. It follows from there, especially if the fermented fruit were being stored in skins, that the anaerobic conditions' effect on the fermentation might even have been noticed and capitalised upon. What do you think, Wardeh?
-CK


Definitely!

People have discovered their honey fermented the same way. Though honey is hard to ferment, if it gets watered down enough, it will.
 
Wardeh Harmon
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John Polk wrote:I find it interesting that the northern Europeans created saurkraut, while the Koreans made basically the same thing with their kimchee. Two widely separated cultures determining that an easily grown plant could be fermented, and stored for winter use.



Yes! I love this.
 
Wardeh Harmon
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Chris Kott wrote:Thanks, Wardeh. My opinion on the first taste question is mixed. I tend to think about my first experiences as a child with such things as pickles, which I didn't like, along with sauerkraut, though it was the polish version, and as such introduced in a cultural context it was accepted as a staple, and so I didn't give it any thought. Then there was sour cream, which again features heavily in polish cuisine, and yogourt, which, in all its various flavoured forms, was always one of the easier things with which to interest an otherwise disinterested kid. And then there is the case of buttermilk, which my grandmother swore by, and to this day I still can't stand. My inclination is to think that early experimentation with fermented foods were likely borne of desperation and lack of other food. I think that once people started to keep their foodstuffs a little longer letting them ferment at the end, someone likely stumbled upon the fact that, with proper storage, fermentation can be used to store the surplus of food that would otherwise spoil before it could be eaten, and so would not be bothered with. I think it reasonable to assume that fermented food caught on because it allowed for the longer-term storage of surpluses of food, making survival easier. I would guess that the health benefits of fermented food would have been largely overlooked; I think fermented food would have started as a survival food, a way to keep food long enough so that people didn't starve to death before the first greens of spring became available. In light of the fact that it would already have been keeping them from starvation, I think they would have stopped looking for other benefits at that point.
The cross-cultural common threads, though, culinarily speaking, are a puzzle. Would fermented food been a choice of travellers, and that the travels of normal people that didn't make it into the records spread the idea of pickled cabbage?

-CK


I agree that the storage issue would have been huge for these people. I think the healthfulness of these foods would not have gone unnoticed and was probably made a priority, though. Fermented and sacred foods were often reserved for the young or others with increased need for nutrition (like conception and pregnancy).
 
Chris Kott
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That's interesting. I hadn't considered spiritual significance. I don't think Poles consider kapusta any kind of literal soup for the soul, nor germans and sauerkraut. This gap in my awareness might be due to the fact that in areas with shorter growing seasons, the fact that you could preserve the health-sustaining quick-growing crop like cabbage and keep it almost indefinitely while those that didn't, starved, any extra health benefits in that particular saved-from-starvation situation might have been overshadowed by the fleeing spectre of death, and that fermented food would have been given spiritual significance, perhaps not for the health benefits you mention, but the more tangible, measureable benefits of a stable food supply.

I don't mean for a second to suggest that the health benefits of fermented food are anything but what you claim, I'm just pointing to a cross-cultural example that achieved multicultural significance with different tastes and names likely for the fact that it saved people from starvation.

What do you think? Or is pickled cabbage a bad example to work with?

-CK
 
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