Tuesday, February 26, 2013

on pickles and sauerkraut

I started reading about wellness and using food for healing more than a decade ago with the books of Dr. Andrew Weil. Lots of what he said made sense to me, although I wasn't a big fan of all his supplement pushing (especially since he sells supplements with his name on them). And one thing really, really didn't sit right with me. He said you should avoid pickles of all kinds. He said they're devoid of nutrients and I think he said they contain a carcinogen.

I am a big pickle fan. A sandwich just isn't a sandwich without sliced pickles in it. When I was pregnant with youngest, all I wanted to eat for the first several months were turkey sandwiches with cheese and pickles. Of course, this made for lots of jokes, and my coworkers even gave me a jar of Vlasic pickles (which I heartily enjoyed). It converted me from my former Bick's loyalty to Vlasic. Although I have a new brand now, Bubbies.

I've always been of the mind that when a body is reasonably well, it knows what it needs. I usually trust my cravings. Sometimes I crave chocolate or chicken and sometimes I crave salad, or Brussels sprouts or coleslaw. If other animals can successfully choose their own food, then surely we can too. (Of course, having a severely malnourished toddler has somewhat disillusioned me. But I still think it's a sound concept.)

So when Dr. Weil said to avoid pickles, he lost me. Don't get me wrong. I still think there's lots of good advice in his books and they're readable as hell, but I likes me some pickles. And I just really felt that they couldn't be so bad as to recommend eliminating them completely. Surely there had to be something good in pickles. Maybe it just hadn't been discovered yet.

Last fall I finally got my hands on a copy of Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. While I do think this book is a great reference book and I do plan to buy it, I did struggle with some of what Sally Fallon says in it. I think that if you're going to challenge conventional ideas on any topic by criticizing the studies that led to those ideas, you need to be very precise in your criticisms and really break it down. You can't just say a study was wrong by trotting out two other studies without going into what differed between all the studies. It may be that I was reading too fast and missed important details; maybe her criticism is actually complete. But I didn't see it. The book remains valuable, however, and I have since found the detailed criticisms I needed online.

Back to pickles. Pickles are traditionally just vegetables mixed with salt and fermented. They didn't used to be made with vinegar the way they are most commonly now. The fermentation not only supplies friendly bacteria to your gut, but is also creates enzymes that make many of the vegetable's nutrients more digestible. Apparently Captain Cook brought 60 barrels of sauerkraut on his trip around the world, and his whole crew avoided scurvy for something like 17 months at sea. Aha! I knew there was a reason pickles are good!

Around the time that I was reading Nourishing Traditions, my friend started experimenting with homemade sauerkraut. I couldn't believe the flavour - so delicious and surprisingly complex. And when he offered me half his crock for a big batch of the stuff, I jumped at the chance. I was way too scared to try it myself so it was great to have my friend pick the recipe and do the measuring. I just contributed a few cabbages and got to watch. And I have been happily munching on sauerkraut ever since. I don't have it every day, but I have it often, and I feel good eating it. Maybe this summer I can try fermenting some beets and dill pickles.

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