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A view of the world (with cheese). January 28, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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“Eeeewww, Ben, listen to this!!!”

Silence Dogood was reading the “Review” section of The Wall Street Journal with more than her usual enthusiasm. She’d discovered a review of the world’s most disgusting foods, and was determined to share them with our friend Ben, doubtless on the (correct) assumption that there would be no requests for breakfast forthcoming after the dramatic reading.

The review was actually an excerpt of a book on the nature of disgust (That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion by Rachel Herz, Norton, 2012). And the excerpt focused on fermented foods, since they tend to be regional, locally beloved but greeted by outsiders with everything from astonishment through horror to outright nausea.

Ms. Herz had come up with some stellar examples, too: A Sardinian cheese that’s eaten while still crawling with thousands of maggots (if the maggots have died, the cheese is considered too rotten to be safe to eat). An Icelandic shark that’s killed, gutted, and buried in a sand-covered pit to decompose for two to five months, then cut in strips and dried. Natto, a popular Japanese breakfast food that she describes as “a stringy, sticky, slimy, chunky fermented soybean dish… [that] smells like the marriage of ammonia and a tire fire.” She mentions others in passing, including gravlax (fermented raw salmon), chorizo (fermented, cured uncooked pork sausage), kimchee (Korea’s sauerkraut equivalent), and, of course, fried grasshoppers. (She refrained from adding those other popular delicacies, grubs, ants, and ant eggs to the list.)

Smell, taste and texture typically combine to make us back away from fermented foods, which are really just foods that have rotted to a specific point under the action of specific microorganisms that give them their characteristic odor, taste, and appearance. They are, in our friend Ben’s opinion, always an acquired taste, but one that is culturally encouraged from an early age. Take sauerkraut, which is eaten with relish all over this part of Pennsylvania, which was settled principally by Germans. Having never encountered this traditional Pennsylvania Dutch delicacy while growing up in the South, our friend Ben and Silence have still never been able to get close enough to it to try it. Phew!!!

And then there’s cheese. Our friend Ben’s prankster uncle actually caused a sibling’s visiting friend to pass out by sneaking up behind him and shoving a piece of Limburger cheese under his nose. (Or so family legend goes.) As a child, I learned to love the extremely sharp, flaky, pale gold Cheddar my grandfather loved to eat with sliced apples because I loved my grandfather, not because I was drawn to the pungent smell of the cheese.

And what about all those ripe, oozing, mold-encrusted, reeking cheeses, the best known being Brie and Camembert, that we all love to smear on slices of crusty baguette and eat with relish, accompanied by a glass of red wine and an assortment of fruit or olives? (Bread and wine being two other famous fermented foods.) Or the yummy blue and gorgonzola cheeses, shot through with tendrils of mold, that add so much to salads, pastas, omelettes, and Silence’s famous Endive Boats?

Yes, our friend Ben can see why cheese is viewed with suspicion and disgust by cultures where it isn’t normally consumed. Not all cheese reeks, of course, but it strikes me that the milder the flavor, the more plastic the texture, and that’s a cause for suspicion in and of itself. (Pass the string cheese, please.)

Mind you, I also know why fermented foods hold such a tenacious place in our cultures, and why they’re still revered and even enjoyed when the reason for their existence no longer matters. In the bad old days, when having enough to eat ranked right up there with fire and shelter as one of the only things that really mattered, fermentation—along with drying and curing (typically by brining)—was one of the few ways people could keep food for the seasons of scarcity, rather than having to eat it all immediately.

Unless you lived in the far North, refrigeration wasn’t an option. The absence of sugar made jellying and jamming impossible. And canning was an undreamed option until Louis Pasteur came along.

To have food—any food—was wealth, was luxury. Who cared what it looked and smelled like? The desperately-needed calories from alcoholic beverages (fermented grains and fruits), rendered fat, and grubs, the minerals and protein in foods like tempeh, yogurt, and cheese, and the residual vitamins in foods like kimchee and sauerkraut, kept people alive and comparatively healthy until the season of planting and harvest returned.

Silence and I think the preservation of these fermented food traditions is a very good thing. Year-round abundance and readily available food, refrigeration and canning, are all very recent phenomena. Burgeoning world populations, shrinking resources, and natural disasters, not to mention longterm nightmares like desertification, could return us to the days when knowing how to dry and cure and ferment food means the difference between eating and starving.  

Which brings our friend Ben back to the reason I actually wanted to write this post (which I’d planned even before Silence discovered the Wall Street Journal piece, which you can read at WSJ.com, “You Eat That?”). It was a photograph of Earth from space.

When I turned on my computer earlier in the week, the Yahoo newspage announced that there were phenomenal new photographs of earth shot from space, “Earth as you’ve never seen it before!” Eagerly, I clicked the link to see these photos, and encountered an archive of general photos, not the new ones of Earth. Luddite that I am, I never was able to get to those photos. But I could see the original photo, which happened to be of North America, all too clearly. 

The photo showed, in brilliant full color, a brown desert continent, with a tiny fringe of green along each coast. Mind you, it is winter, and perhaps the photos were taken in winter. But even so, all I could think about was my first transcontinental flight, to attend a horticulture conference on the West Coast.

I grew up on the verdant East Coast, where lush greenery predominates until autumn colors glow and then winter drains all the colors away. Okay, it’s not the rainforest, but plants abound and water is plentiful. And I’d grown up taking all this for granted.

Yes, I’d read about how desertification, the greedy creep of desert across formerly green, fertile landscapes, was an international phenomenon; how the clearcutting of trees had radically changed landscapes from Tibet to the Scottish Highlands; how out-of-control population growth was threatening water supplies worldwide. But I’d never thought any of this applied to America, the Breadbasket of the World, until I took that flight.

I always choose a window seat when flying, because I love to see the living map of the land spread out beneath me during the day, and the patterns of lights illuminating the landscape at night. But that trip, I made a horrific discovery that forever changed my worldview. Not that long after the plane took off, the landscape turned brown. And it stayed brown, stayed brown virtually until the plane touched down on the California coast. In some states, I could see unnatural green circles, powered by huge irrigation machines, but it was obvious that the machines were the only reason for this apparent lushness. And where, I wondered, was all that water coming from?

My flight back simply reinforced my impression. What I saw then wasn’t quite as appalling as the tiny green fringes shown in the new satellite photos, but it was enough to open my eyes: I wept with relief when the plane landed back in verdant Pennsylvania. Never again have I taken abundance for granted; I know that we only have it on loan, and only a tiny percent of us, at that.

What to do? Well, one option is to explore the global cuisine that our modern world has made available to us. Since Silence is a vegetarian, I don’t have to contemplate the prospect of being served dried rotted shark or fermented raw salmon or sausage made from raw pork, or, say, maggot-infested cheese or grubs. But she’s a fan of Sandor Katz’s seminal book, Raw Fermentation, so kimchee or (gasp) sauerkraut could be in our future. We already eat yogurt, tofu, and miso, and I know Silence is trying to work more tempeh into our diet. I’m not sure we’re ready for natto, or Limburger, for that matter. I still think you should be able to get close enough to food to want to eat it. But while there’s still time, embracing all the options the world has to offer may help us all survive the changes that may come.

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