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Sauerkraut: Going with your gut

Posted Mar 17 2011 12:00am
I’ve always been fascinated by energy medicine, the healing tradition that suggests every disease has specific emotional issues behind it. For example, spinal and joint problems could signal your unconscious belief that you lack support in your life. Cardiovascular disease may reflect your difficulties in expressing love and intimacy. And so on.

All right, this is something of an oversimplification. Truthfully, your health is a product of thousands of different variables, from your mental state to your sleep patterns to your heredity to your diet. But it’s still useful to look at your illness in a metaphorical way, especially if you have symptoms that are really mysterious and hard to get rid of.

After all, your body can’t speak English. The only tools it has to communicate with you are these wordless aches and pains and rashes and noises.

Speaking of noises, consider your digestive system (which you might only do when it’s giving you a hard time). When you eat, you are essentially taking a foreign substance into your body. Your body has to identify the item as useful or not, break it down, process it, and absorb it into its own cells and tissues. The food goes from being “other” to being part of you. So digestion, in a way, is all about assimilating the outside world.

Metaphorically speaking, if you have digestive problems, you are finding something about your world tough to swallow.

Sauerkraut is not a food that was part of my diet growing up, but possibly it was, or some version of it, for my eastern European ancestors. If you look at traditional cuisines, many of them include fermented or pickled foods, like yogurt, kefir, miso, and kimchee. Fermenting was one way ancient people preserved food before refrigeration was invented.

What keeps lacto-fermented foods from spoiling are friendly bacteria, which make things inhospitable for the nasty ones. When you eat these foods, you’re populating your digestive tract with good bacteria.

Why is this important? Because your gut has its own ecosystem, or to employ another metaphor, it’s like a garden. If you have a lot of healthy plants growing in your garden, the weeds get crowded out and can’t flourish. When you regularly send healthy bacteria down into your digestive system, the bad bacteria have a harder time taking over.

Bad bacteria are undesirable because, as they feed and thrive and multiply, they produce toxic waste products, one of which is gas. This causes bloating, cramping, stomach aches, and other unmistakable symptoms of indigestion.

It helps a lot if you don’t encourage the bad bacteria by feeding them foods they love, like sugar, but I’ll talk about that in another post.

How to make your own sauerkraut

I chose red cabbage because it looked nicer and fresher at the store than the green variety, but either one works fine. I followed the sauerkraut recipe from the Wild Fermentation website (an excellent resource -- visit the site for complete instructions).

You’ll need
2 medium heads cabbage
1-2 tablespoons sea salt
a stoneware crock or deep stoneware bowl

The procedure could hardly be simpler. All you do is shred the cabbage (a food processor comes in handy for this), put the cabbage into a big bowl, sprinkle it with a tablespoon or two of sea salt, and mix. The classic whole-foods cookbook recommends crushing the cabbage with a meat mallet to encourage it to release its juices, so I used a blunt-ended rolling pin and pounded away.

Transfer the cabbage and its juice into your stoneware container (I used a baked bean crock) and pack it down hard. Put a plate on top. Squish the plate down until the brine rises up over it. Then set a weight on the plate -- such as a clean glass jar filled with water and capped -- and throw a clean dishtowel over the whole thing to keep dust out.

Set the crock in a cool place for several days. It will bubble and foam a bit as the bacteria work. Just as with bread baking, the cooler the ambient temperature, the longer fermentation will take, and the more complex the flavor. My batch resided in our chilly pantry for close to two weeks, but in a warmer environment it might be finished in three days.

Scoop your sauerkraut into glass jars and place in your refrigerator, where it will be good for several months. I’ve been eating a little of it every day, and it seems to help keep my stomach calm and happy. Just as fermented foods have done for ancient civilizations the world over.
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