Winter 1997, San Fransisco, 3:30 am.
The early morning hours are always dark and always cold, arrestingly cold in the enormous coolers of Veritable Vegetable, an organic produce wholesaler in the warehouse district of east San Francisco. I am staring at a wall of cabbage boxes. I will spend the next hour—shivering and dodging hand-trucks and forklifts marauding about—contemplating quality. The patient and gracious sales rep has set out eight boxes for me to inspect. I will caress, squeeze, cut, and chew on one cabbage out of each box. I am searching. I am hoping. The cabbage should be firm and dense. They should be sweet with a subtle undertone of bitter and spice. They should have a small core extending an inch or two up through the center. If the cabbage I try is not representative of the rest of the boxes, that will suck. If I get the cabbage home and Alex disagrees with my assessment, that will suck. There may not be any that will do. If not, I will go home empty handed. We will not be making sauerkraut today.
Thankfully a memory.
Eventually, we received seed catalogs from growers like Reeds and Johnny’s, as well as from various heirloom seed-savers exchanges, and Alex would spend late nights pouring over them. We selected promising cultivars and had the seeds sent to Tim Mueller at Riverdog Farm, who grew them out for us. Cabbages sold as “Kraut Cabbage” are no good for us. These varietals are not only dense, which is good, but they are dry, which is not. Selected for their ability to withstand long periods of cold storage, they are intended, presumably, to be shredded and water brined. We want them as close to harvest time as possible. They must have a high moisture content in order to create a proper brine when salted. Density is directly related to our yield. If the cabbage is too young or is bolting, the heads will be loose and ill-formed. There are practical considerations for the farmer as well. In the main, folks don’t want to buy huge cabbage. “What do I do with all of that?” The cabbage must, of course, grow well in the farm’s micro-climate and must have a cost effective yield. So it’s not all up to us. This is collaboration. It took years of trial and error to find what works for us and our farmer partners. That said, we are year-round sauerkraut makers and we must make the best out of the inevitable fluctuations in cabbage shape, size, weight, density, moisture content, sweetness, sulfuric-ness, and latent bacterial profiles. Yes, no doubt we spend our work in quest of perfection. The whole body tingles when something is, as we say, “textbook.” Funny that: which textbook would that be? And yes, sometimes things are just OK.
We are asked if we teach classes. We don’t. There are many reasons for this, chief among them is that not everyone sees themselves as educators. We don’t. We find it difficult to speak generally about the process. Fermentation is aflame at the moment and there are workshops galore to teach the basics. There are many great books out there. At the Top of the List, of course, are the two, now essential books, by Sandor Katz: Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation. Sandor is a fearless enthusiast. He does a brilliant job of demystifying the processes of fermentation and sets the proper tone of calm curiosity. Our approach is at once identical to Sandor’s and the exact opposite.
Fermentation happens. This is no bumper sticker quip. It does. It is here: in us, on us, and all around us. From life’s true beginning ’til it ends. So despite my tendency to wax poetic about the wonder of alchemy, there is nothing out of the ordinary happening here. It is a point of fact that, if asked about salt amounts, Sandor may say that he can’t answer that. “In most ferments, including vegetables, salting can be done to taste, without any need for measuring.” The amount of salt doesn’t really matter. It will ferment. You will get a sour. You will have pickles. Alex, if asked the same question, will also say that she can’t tell you. For the exact opposite reason. It matters too much. I know we often come across as being coy, evasive, or protective of trade secrets, but there are so many things to weigh and consider before the salt and sweat. The vegetable type, the time of year, the location of the farm, the maturity of the vegetable, the moisture content, the varietal, the cut of the vegetable, the intended fermenting time. It all matters. and matters very much. To us. It is important to acknowledge that we are really advocating for the same thing: cultivating intuition. Intuition cannot be taught or bought. It can only be earned through work and attention.