Editor’s note: OPB’s video series “Superabundant” explores the stories behind the foods of the Pacific Northwest. Now we’re taking the same guiding principles to a new platform: Email. We’ve brought on food writer Heather Arndt Anderson, a Portland-based culinary historian and botanist, to highlight different aspects of the region’s food ecosystem every week. This week she examines the ways in which Oregon has become an epicenter for the fermentation revolution.
Once the harvest season winds down, it’s time for our tiniest helpers to get to work turning fruit into booze and vinegar, soybeans into miso and tempeh, cabbage into kraut and kimchi, and milk into yogurt and crème fraîche. So many of our foods rely on fermentation — the process of using microbes to transform what we eat. What was America’s first commercially produced kombucha? Read on to find out!
Small bites: America puts land management back into Native hands, the chilly future of Portland’s most famous ice cream, and a new way of paying respect to pei-pei
Freshly picked morsels from the Pacific Northwest food universe:
Umatilla Tribes’ National Parks Service director is taking a Native approach to his new gig.
B. “Toastie” Oaster recently reported for High Country News that Chuck Sams, a Cayuse and Walla Walla man enrolled in the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, plans to take a different approach to his new job as director of the National Parks Service, to which he was appointed last year. It will be a decidedly Native one, with innovative plans to involve Tribes in land stewardship. Indigenous Oregonians have been making real headway in becoming guardians of Oregon waters over recent years, and now they’re leading the way on a national scale as well.
Salt & Straw might up and leave.
Fans of blue cheese ice cream, time to fret: Salt & Straw CEO and co-founder Kim Malek has had enough. Citing ongoing crime and other public safety concerns around their Southeast Portland headquarters (including both an RV fire and an employee being held up at gunpoint while trying to enter the building — both in the past few weeks), Malek has made her plea to City Officials to clean up the streets or she’ll have no choice but to look for a new home for the business.
At last: deaf, queer, and Latinx-owned Pah!
In late September, Portland got its first spot where American Sign Language (ASL) is literally on the menu. As OPB’s Crystal Ligori reports, new Southeast Portland pub grub spot Pah! (ASL slang for “finally” or “success”) offers not only a space where the Deaf community can feel right at home, but shares Deaf culture with the hearing as well. Customers who don’t know ASL speak their order into an iPad speech-to-text translator, but the menu items are all named after Deaf slang so even the hearing can pick up a little lingo when ordering their Kissfist (cheeseburger).
Food preservation for a new generation
It’s late fall. The harvest is in the rearview, and with the colder temperatures and shorter days, life’s vibrations slow down to a lower frequency. To the untrained eye, the impatient eye, it might seem like not a lot is going on, but if you sit still long enough, you might notice things quietly bubbling below the surface. Even when life appears to have completely stilled, microbes are going about the steady business of altering the world around them.
Humans have long employed microbes to accomplish tasks that our hands and tools cannot; specifically, for altering the properties of our foods. Culturing dairy like yogurt and cheese is a year-round affair, but most fermentation techniques traditionally served the purpose of preserving food through the lean times of winter. Fermentation not only extends the shelf life of foods, but it improves the flavor and nutritional value as well.
It might seem like fermentation is suddenly enjoying a moment in Oregon — we’ve got Fermenter, two fermentation festivals (the Portland one is still on hiatus but Ashland’s Brine, Brew, and Barrel is slated to return in January 2023) and pretty much every Buy Nothing group in the state is filled with folks trying to offload excess sourdough mother and kefir grains. Even if DIY ferments aren’t your cup of kombucha, Oregonians can choose locally made Jorinji Miso, Wanpaku Natto, Choi’s Kimchi and Oregon Brineworks pickles and kraut. But our knack for funky ferments is anything but a flash in the pan.
History is a real crock
A decade ago, “we can pickle that” became a Portlandia trope, but preserving food is nothing new. In 1995, Portland middle school science teacher Robert Deering founded Oocha Brew — the country’s first commercially produced kombucha. It was rose-flavored and delightfully effervescent, but it was difficult to halt the fermentation and keep it nonalcoholic, plus no one had really heard of kombucha. The funky fungal swill hadn’t been seen much outside hippie households and was kind of a hard sell to the general public. The product was pulled from markets just three years later, but eventually people caught on, applied symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (scoby for short) to tea, and now there are at least a dozen Oregon brands to choose from.
But let’s go back even further. Ten millennia ago, our region’s first inhabitants preserved foods much like humans did all over the world’s northern climes: roots and berries were dried and tightly packed into baskets, fish were smoked and hung like tinsel from longhouse rafters, and an interesting delicacy was stored long-term in grass-lined pits in the ground. Chinook olives, as they came to be called by white people, were acorns pickled in human urine. At the end of the four- or five-month curing process, the acorns were black and tender, the bitter tannins mellowed. Like any other pickle recipe, each family’s batch had its own unique terroir and piquancy. While it might sound alarming to our modern sensibilities, it’s worth noting that urine has a long history as a food preservative; it’s traditionally used to extend the shelf life of Kenyan sour milk by inhibiting the bacteria that cause spoilage, and ammonia is FDA approved for the emulsified poultry — aka “pink slime” — used in the chicken nuggets. Another alkaline substance, sodium hydroxide (lye) is used to both debitter black olives as they cure and to get that golden-brown shine on pretzels.
By the time pioneers began to arrive in the 1840s, many brought their tools and methods of preservation with them. There were salt barrels and glazed clay crocks filled lovingly with pickles and fruit preserves, kept in dark, cool cellars and holes in the ground. When Portland was beginning its transformation from a muddy trading outpost to a destination for settlers and their families in the 1850s, a few potters set up shop in the area, including Chevalier Richardson, who made stoneware jam jars and butter churns in Damascus until the spring of 1854, when his neighbors began to notice his demeanor changing from one of joviality to a descent into violence. He raved that his drinking water and creek were being poisoned, and was eventually arrested in Hillsboro for threatening his neighbor and killing the man’s steer. After a few months in the clink he was deemed “legally insane” — the unfortunate result of years spent working with one’s hand drenched in lead glazes. After he was released he wandered off the map, never to be heard from again.
Electric pickle acid test
In contrast to preservation using bases like ammonia or lye, lactic acid fermentation, or lacto-fermentation, is an active process that relies on Lactobacillus plantarum — the friendly bacteria that live in the caves where cheeses are aged, the onggi where kimchi is ripened and even on human skin. (If you don’t believe us, take a deep whiff of a belly button sometime and note the uncanny aromatic resemblance to a fine Roquefort.) Lactobacillus survive in brine up to a certain salinity (around 8% being the upper limit), consuming carbohydrates like glucose, sucrose and lactose and producing lactate as a waste product. Lactate turns to lactic acid in solutions like pickle brine or the natural juices in vegetables, which reduces the pH of the food and inhibits the growth of virulent microbes like Salmonella enterica and Clostridium botulinum (the bacterium that causes botulism). Oh, and it makes food taste really good.
If you want to get started preserving foods but don’t know where to begin, winter is the perfect time. Fermentation happens much more slowly at cool temperatures, for one thing, but if you aren’t quite ready for pickling your own hot sauce you can always start by dehydrating fruit overnight in a low oven before moving on to cheffy hoshigaki projects. It’ll warm up the house and make it smell wonderful.
If you’re ready to take the next step, we recommend checking out books by Southern Oregon’s own Kirsten and Christopher Shockey, who offer online classes and books on fermenting pickles and hot sauce; soy foods like miso, natto and tempeh; fruit scrap vinegars and cider. Cheese and cultured dairy lovers can check out Urban Cheesecraft home cheesemaking kits, online classes and books by founder Claudia Lucero. (Note: Lucero’s latest book, “Cooking with Whey,” includes a recipe for whey flatbread by Superabundant newsletter writer Heather Arndt Anderson.)
Recipe: Kimchi jigae (kimchi stew)
The best thing about fermented foods is that they continue to get more sour and funky as they age. However, this can sometimes impact the texture of stuff like pickles and kimchi. You can always puree a very sour pickle and dehydrate the slurry to make pickle salt, but when your kimchi becomes too ripe, make jigae! Makes 4 servings
- 6 cups water
- 15 grams (about 1/2 cup) dried anchovies
- 1 piece of kombu seaweed (kelp), about 3 cm by 5 cm
- 3 dried shiitake mushrooms
- 6 cups kimchi (older/riper kimchi is more traditional)
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- ¼ cup of mirin (sweet rice wine)
- 1 tbsp doenjang1 tbsp gochujang
- 4 scallions, sliced thinly
- Add-ons: 1 carton firm tofu, sliced; cooked beef or pork, sliced thinly; prawns, scallops, or canned tuna; 4 eggs
- Make the anchovy stock by bringing the water to the boil, adding the anchovies, kombu, and shiitake, and then simmering on medium heat for ten minutes. Strain and return to the pot to simmer over medium-high heat (and/or heat the meat broth, if using).
- Strain the kimchi juice into the stock, slice the kimchi into shreds, then add it to the stock along with the sesame oil, mirin, doenjang and gochujang. Simmer for five minutes. After the stew has simmered for five minutes, taste, adjust salt as necessary and add your add-ons (except the egg). Simmer for another five minutes, or until everything is warmed through. When everything is bubbly, carefully crack in the eggs and gently poach them for one minute.
- Divide the stew into four servings (taking care not to break the yolks), and then top each bowl with a generous pinch of scallions. Serve with bowls of steamed rice, and pass around sesame oil, doenjang, and/or gochujang for extra umami and flavor.