Fermented Foods in the Old West
The health benefits of fermented foods are being touted everywhere these days. And, yes. I’m on the fermented foods bandwagon, too. As I write this, I have a glass of home-brewed kombucha sitting next to me. (What’s kombucha, you ask? Kombucha is an “ancient fermented tea beverage” that has a natural effervescence (like bubbly carbonation) that is full of probiotics, antioxidants, B vitamins and so much more.)
So, what’s all the hype? Fermented foods are good for the gut, aid digestion, increase the nutrient value of many foods, and … have been a reliable way to preserve food for centuries. Fermented foods are certainly not a new concept. Virtually all civilizations have had fermented foods as a part of their diet and culture. And not all fermented foods have their origins in other countries.
According to researchers at the Weston A Price Foundation, most of the Native American Indian tribes had at least one fermented food specialty.
The Cherokee “bread” consisted of nixtamal wrapped in corn leaves and allowed to ferment for two weeks. Before you turn your nose up at this, you should be aware that this process increases the nutrient absorption, makes the corn easier to digest … and is similar to the process for masa that is used to create the ultimate comfort food – tamales. Mmmm.
English explorer, fur trader, naturalist and author Samuel Hearne describes a fermented dish consumed by the Chippewaya and Cree: “The most remarkable dish among them. . . is blood mixed with the half-digested food which is found in the caribou’s stomach, and boiled up with a sufficient quantity of water to make it of the consistence of pease-pottage. Some fat and scraps of tender flesh are also shred small and boiled with it. To render this dish more palatable, they have a method of mixing the blood with the contents of the stomach in the paunch itself, and hanging it up in the heat and smoke of the fire for several days; which puts the whole mass into a state of fermentation, which gives it such an agreeable acid taste, that were it not for prejudice, it might be eaten by those who have the nicest palates.” (Um, if you say so. But then again, salami is a fermented meat. And I haven’t ever turned my nose up at salami.)
In the Southwest, a drink called chichi was made with little balls of corn dough which the women chewed and added to water to produce a delicious, sour, fizzy fermented drink. (Sounds a little like kombucha – but instead of scoby, it has saliva as the fermentation catalyst. Ick.)
I’m not going to lie. The thought of those ladies sitting around, pre-chewing corn dough to make chichi makes me shudder. I appreciate the effort. I really do. I’m just not sure I’d be able to drink it. Ever. Even if it is tasty and good for me. Although, just looking at the kombucha scoby made me shudder at first too.
Homesteaders and settlers brought their own versions of fermented foods along with them when they arrived in western Colorado. Cabbage was turned into sauerkraut and enjoyed throughout the cold winter months, adding much needed nutrients and healthy probiotics to their diets. Have you ever noticed how many different recipes there are for pickles? Pickling was a reliable way to preserve food before refrigeration was available. Along with the preservation of the food itself, pickling can provide numerous healthy side benefits. From the vinegar used to make pickles, to sourdough bread, yogurt, salami, and cheese; these fermented old friends are worthy of a little applause.
According to experts, pickles alone – the non-heat processed variety – could help us live a healthier, happier life. And they tell me fermented foods can provide us with a healthier gut, possible help controlling weight gain and appetite, decreased allergy symptoms, inflammation relief, protection against microbial infections, improved pediatric health and development, possible cancer risk reduction, improved mental health, as well as better absorption of nutrients.