As the modern American food system has grown over the past hundred years, the making of fermented foods has radically dwindled.

That’s in part due to the increasing availability of vinegar during the middle of the last century as an efficient preservative for both home and commercially pickled foods.

But from a wellness standpoint, the bacteria in fermented foods can provide a missing nutritional ingredient that was much more prevalent in the American diet during generations past.

Fermented foods can help balance stomach acids and provide a probiotic infusion to help keep digestion and associated plumbing functioning regular and without hiccups, so to speak. Some fermented vegetables are even promoted as a way to increase pancreatic function for people with diabetes.

A world-renowned fermented-food expert, Sandor Katz lives in Cannon County. Sometimes dubbed “Sandorkraut” by his fans, Katz describes himself as a “fermentation revivalist.”

“Wild Fermentation,” first published in 2003, is considered an essential masterwork of the 21st century healthy-foods movement.
“Fermented foods and drinks are quite alive with flavor and nutrition,” Katz wrote in the book’s introduction. “Their flavors tend to be strong and pronounced. Think of stinky aged cheeses, tangy sauerkraut, rich earthy miso, smooth sublime wines. Though not everyone loves every flavor of fermentation, humans have always appreciated the unique compelling flavors resulting from the transformative power of microscopic bacteria and fungi.”

Hannah Tidman and John Parker own a small company in Cannon County called Short Mountain Cultures that makes fermented products made with locally-sourced, organic produce. They specialize in producing tempeh, a fermented bean and grain product, and they also offer komboucha, kvass, kimchi, sauerkraut and fermented hot sauce.

“So many people come in here, smell the sauerkraut, and it reminds them of their grandmother’s kitchen,” said Tidman. “It’s neat to be part of that memory – especially for a process that has almost been lost in our society, but that is so recent that people still remember the smells and the tastes.”

They’ll soon be the first Tennessee producer of miso, said Tidman, who noted that the journey from operating under Tennessee’s cottage food laws to a commercially inspected facility wasn’t easy. Short Mountain Cultures is the only state producer of many of its products, so approved methods had to be developed for the first time here in Tennessee. The couple developed processes for fermenting foods that comply with modernized food safety requirements while preserving the living, beneficial bacteria.

Fermenting foods at home is simple and can be done without buying special equipment. All it takes is salt, food, and a container.

To make sauerkraut, for example, you just dice up cabbage, add salt, and pack it tightly in container such as a mason jar. As the salt extracts water from the cabbage, it usually develops into a nice salt brine, setting up the perfect environment for the lactobacillus to do its important work. Sauerkraut takes a few weeks to completely ferment, but it is safe to taste it along the way.

“The process of fermenting foods – to preserve them and to make them more digestible and more nutritious –is as old as humanity,” wrote healthy-foods writer and activist Sally Fallon Morell in the Forward to Katz’s book.

“Unfortunately, fermented foods have largely disappeared from the Western diet, much to the detriment of our health and economy.”