Nance Klehm on Bacteria, Digestion and Old-Time Kitchen Folk Magic (Arthur, 2008)

“WEEDEATER” column
by Nance Klehm

illustration by Megan McGinley
from Arthur Magazine No. 32 (Dec 2008)

Breaking It Down: Bacteria, Digestion and Old-Time Kitchen Folk Magic

There are three fundamentals that guide this time of descent into northern-hemisphere darkness. The winter season is one of decline and decomposition, activity below ground and general shadowiness. The fundamentals that guide us are:

Everything comes into this world hungry.
Everything wants to be digested.
Everything flows towards soil.

Everything comes into this world hungry.
Bacteria are the living structure assisting all life forms including ourselves. They are the primary alchemists transforming structures of life into other structures. Bacteria shall from hereon be known as ‘beasties.’

All matter is constantly, biochemically altering as enzymes already present in an organism break down from within, and microorganisms, namely beasties (but sometimes fungi too) settle in to eat and excrete, transforming a pear on your counter, a pile of leaves on the sidewalk, or an animal corpse into a lovely pile of biological goo or soil on the spot where the pear/leaves/corpse formerly rested. It is the end of the line in one way, but the beginning of another too. In other words, the snake eats her own tail. It’s nature’s nature.

Beasties make milk into cheese, fruit juice into vinegar and wine, vegetables into pickles, beans into miso. Fermentation is basically making a habitat in which beneficial bacteria and/or fungi can set up shop, eat and excrete until they run out of their food source, or you deem it time to stop them because the wine or cheese or pickles are ready. Shoot, without these beasties it would be difficult to throw a party.

Everything wants to be digested.
Demonstration No. 1: Take a slightly bruised fruit, or peelings of fruit (not a gorgeous piece of fruit—save that for eating) and place it in a glass jar. Add sugar. Screw on the top and shake it a bit. The mixture needs to breathe, so remove the lid and place a rag over the jar and secure it with a rubber band around the ring of the jar. Place in a dark, room-temperature space so the beasties can eat in peace. After ten days, taste the mixture. If you like it, strain out the fruit and put in the fridge, which will slow the fermentation process.

You have just made unfiltered pro-biotic fruit-scrap vinegar.

Securing and processing food for storage used to consist of simple, sometimes labor-intensive, but entirely petrochemical-free processes: slow evaporation, smoking, fermenting, and preserving in oil/vinegar/honey/salt/alcohol or in-the-ground storage. These low-techie but completely safe methods were used extensively until the mid 19th century, when kitchen folk magic was displaced by pasteurization, the process that fueled modern germ theory. This paradigm shift saved lives, but it also contributed to our general fear of soil, our bodies and our bodies’ waste. And pasteurization, with its requisite application of high heat, kills the good beasties that help keep our raw food safe and healthy. We gotta keep our internal gardens of beasties thriving! Eat… Excrete… Eat… Excrete…

Demonstration No. 2: Chop veggies, wild greens, roots, or whatever you want to pickle. Make a brine with non-chlorinated water and sea salt. Brine should be nearly saturated with salt, just like ocean water. Toss the denser material (i.e. roots, garlic cloves) into the brine and and swirl it around a bit. Drain the veggies but save the brine. Mix the pre-brined veggies and less dense material (i.e. greens). Pack a glass jar with your mix and pour the brine over it, submerging all material. Work out trapped bubbles with a stick. Now fill a small bag with extra brine and use as a water bladder: that is, place the brine-filled bag on top of the vegetable material to submerge it under the brine in the jar. Leave the jar open for at least three days to allow the beasties to eat. Taste, then let the beasties continue to eat for a stronger flavor, or if it’s ready, put the jar in a cool place like that 38-degree box called a refrigerator and slow their process down.

Since August Wilhem von Hoffman discovered formaldehyde in 1867, it’s remained the choice of human embalmers. Formaldehyde put an end to something called the “Exploding Casket Syndrome” that was afflicting Union troops during the long, hot train ride back to their families in the North. Formaldehyde is a far cry from the older embalmers’ choices of spices/salt/herbs for human pickling. As bodies decompose (because the bacteria does get into those caskets eventually), formaldehyde leaks into the groundwater and you can guess the rest. Lucky for Europeans that the EU last year banned its use. Good to know that embalming is not required by law in the United States. There’s no need to rob food from the living beasties.

Everything flows towards soil.

Categories: "Weedeater" column by Nance Klehm, Arthur No. 32 (web-only, Dec 2008) | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2023: I publish an email newsletter called LANDLINE = Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca.

3 thoughts on “Nance Klehm on Bacteria, Digestion and Old-Time Kitchen Folk Magic (Arthur, 2008)

  1. Pingback: MAGPIE - Arthur Magazine Blog » ARTHUR 32 IS ONLINE-ONLY

  2. Pingback: Nance Klehm on swine flu hysteria, Four Thieves Vinegar, organic anti-virals and flu foes | ARTHUR MAGAZINE - WE FOUND THE OTHERS

  3. Pingback: ARTHUR 32 IS ONLINE-ONLY | Arthur Magazine

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