Fermented Foods: A Culture of Healing
Currently many of us are discovering that our diet creates an environment in our bodies for health or illness to thrive. We are learning that certain foods can stress and damage our digestive systems, and that in order to fully recover we may need to change not only our diet, but also our entire dietary lifestyle. These changes can be extremely challenging on all levels and can impact our relationships and social lives. After a 20-year period of illness and learning how to successfully alter my diet, I pleased to report I am the healthiest I have ever been.
Our lifelong relationship with many foods makes it difficult to permanently omit some of them from our diet. These are the foods of our cultures, our families, our peer groups and our memories that nourish us emotionally, as well as nutritionally. It takes time to create a new relationship with food. We cannot will ourselves to like, enjoy or desire unfamiliar foods. We may need time to get used to and appreciate unfamiliar tastes and textures. As we alter our diets it is essential that we are mindful, gentle and patient with ourselves throughout the entire process.
I had struggled with poor health after giving birth 25 years ago. In those early years I had continuous colds, chronic sinus and yeast infections, asthma, fatigue and symptoms involving every bodily system. It took me six years to find a naturopathic doctor who recognized that I had systemic candida. He set me on a rigorous treatment of diet change and yeast killing supplements. Progress was slow and intermittent with many setbacks. Sometimes it was hard to stay hopeful about recovering. I spent a lot of time exhausted on the couch and learned to develop new levels of patience with my slowly healing body. Deepening my capacity for patience was an unexpected and valuable gift that came out of this particular life lesson.
Over the next ten years I was able to heal most of my symptoms, however I still had to carefully monitor my activities to avoid getting exhausted or sick. Seeing how altering my diet contributed to my health, I continued to look for ways that food might take me to the next levels of wellness.
One day, I found a book claiming that old-fashioned sourdough rye bread could rebuild the entire digestive system while cleaning out the arteries! This was my first step into the world of fermented foods and traditional cooking techniques. The sourdough starter recipe included a long fermentation period: daily feedings for seven days and 12-24 hours of rising. The enhanced digestibility and healing properties were said to come from the seven days of fermentation.
With some practice I was able to make wonderfully rich and substantial bread at a cost far below retail prices. After eating it for a while I noticed a steadiness in my health, although I still had some unresolved symptoms.
Then I read that lacto-fermented sauerkraut was good for people with unresolving intestinal issues. The process of lacto-fermentation creates lactobacillus, enzymes and vitamins which, when consumed, becomes instantly available to the body. Lacto-fermenting vegetables is an ancient salt brine technique of vegetable preservation. The recipe simply called for vegetables, salt and water fermented in a container for three weeks. I decided to give it a try. After the 3 weeks I tried a bite and was startled at the taste. It was simultaneously sweet, sour and salty. I wasn’t sure if I liked it enough to eat more of it. Fifteen minutes later my body told me that I needed to eat more of that stuff and to eat it now! I listened to my body and ate some more. It was as if my intestinal system was coming alive.
In the following weeks my energy level jumped a few more notches and my digestive issues seemed to improve. Making my own sauerkraut cost much less than store bought and I could control the amount of salt. I could also experiment with different vegetables for interesting combinations.
I found an online chat group of fellow fermenters and tried to learn as much as I could. One chatter suggested I try homemade kombucha tea for overall immune building. Kombucha is another fermented product that produces lactobacillus, enzymes and vitamins. She sent me an impressive compilation of all the illnesses people claimed the kombucha helped them recover from. The list included illnesses from every bodily system.
I bought a kombucha culture, which looked like a shiny pancake. I followed the recipe and watched the unusual fermentation process through the glass jar. I was not quite sure that I could bring myself to drink the liquid but when the tea was ready, about 9 days after the start of fermentation, I bravely had a sip. It was light and pleasant tasting. Then I had the odd sensation that it was gently burbling through my intestines. A few hours later my body seemed to be craving more and I started drinking small amounts a few times a day. It seemed to clear the sinuses nicely and again, my energy level jumped. My intestines seemed a bit better, as well. This wonderful drink also cost very little to make on a regular basis.
Eating Curds and Whey
About this time I heard about kefir and water kefir. I made the milk kefir for my family, having already eliminated most dairy products as part of the candida treatment. This was the easiest to make of all the fermented foods so far. You put the little kefir grains in a jar, pour milk on top, cover with a cloth and let it sit on the counter for 36 hours. Done. Again, the fermenting process allows lactobacillus and enzymes to grow, improving the nutrition and digestibility of the milk. This kefir has a sour taste and can be used plain on hot cereal or other grains. It can also be sweetened with fruit, honey, agave or stevia and used like a thin yogurt for sauces, desserts, and salad dressings. I also learned to make it into cheese by straining it through cheesecloth. The cheese making process brings to mind the old nursery rhyme, “Little Miss Muffet,” and her curds and whey. When the kefir drains through the cloth, the remaining cheese caught in the cloth is called curds. The water left in the bottom of the bowl is called whey. The cheese is a robustly sour cream cheese and is great on toast. The whey is a supremely potent liquid, full of lactobacillus, enzymes and vitamins with the addition of minerals. It is good for drinking, cooking, baking and soaking grains and beans.
Water kefir is another culture that creates lactobacillus, enzymes and vitamins and makes a nice dairy-free drink. I have read about people sweetening it and using it in place of sodas but never tried it myself, needing to stay away from sweets. I mainly use it in soaking water for grains and beans, which is another old-fashioned cooking technique I learned on this journey.
Soaking fosters the production of enzymes and vitamins, thereby increasing digestibility. I began soaking my grains before cooking, but didn’t notice any differences in taste or digestibility. One day I didn’t have enough time to soak and simply cooked the rice. It was then I noticed the rice didn’t seem as smooth in my stomach as it had been when I had soaked them.
Most of us know about soaking beans for increased digestibility, but adding 2-4 tablespoons of kefir, kefir whey or water kefir boosts the fermenting power and can bring the flatulence factor way down, a benefit probably welcomed by all involved. Soaking beans for 24 hours also allows the beans to quadruple their size, increasing the amount of available servings while bringing the cost per serving down to about 8 cents. Properly prepared beans are highly nutritious, tasty, and economical.
Good-bye to Gluten
My health continued to improve but I still had those remaining symptoms. I consulted a new holistic doctor about these symptoms. She ordered various tests and blood work and when the test results were back she gently told me I was sensitive to dairy and eggs, and I should completely eliminate them from my diet at least for a while, but possibly forever. She then told me I was also gluten intolerant.
This piece was extremely distressing to me having spent a year perfecting my sourdough rye bread. I loved making this bread. I loved creating the starter and watching it grow into an aromatic sponge over its seven-day growing period. I loved the malty aroma and the way butter seeped down through the pores onto the plate. I even bought a grain mill so I could grind my own rye berries. I was in a bit of shock about it all, but given my previous success around healing with food I had no hesitation about changing my diet one more time.
My doctor had given me this news one afternoon and I decided to have one last dairy and gluten-filled dinner. That evening I toasted a generous slab of sourdough rye and slathered it with butter. I ate slowly, relishing and savoring the taste and sensation of this marvelous ancestral bread. When I was finished I said goodbye and moved forward.
The next day I eliminated gluten, dairy and eggs from my diet. After 48 hours the remaining symptoms disappeared! I vacillated between great happiness to have found the root cause of my long time illness and grieving that I might never eat gluten again. No more toasted bagel and cream cheese, no more holiday cookies, no more slices of pizza…
Over the next few weeks I was unprepared to find myself moving through some of the recognized phases of grief: shock, grief, anger, bargaining and acceptance. I worked my way through it and then found myself in a new phase that I call resolution and declaration. I resolved that despite my restricted diet I would continue eating beautiful and lovingly prepared food. Then I declared that I would create gluten-free sourdough breads that could be made easily and was well within the parameters of my diet.
I experimented for a year with many failures but with a little help from my online chatters I was able to make some palatable nutritious breads.
Without the gluten and other problematic foods the tempo of my healing increased significantly.
Recovering is an incredible blessing for me after this very long road back to health. Sometimes I am still astonished that I am “back to normal” and that I have enough energy to do so many things in a day and still be alert in the evening. I am deeply grateful to have my energy, to be highly productive, and to be fully and happily engaged with life.