Through Giving Gardens at Yad Ezra, we recently held a workshop on lacto-fermentation, with guest educator Hong Gwi-Seok. Our aim was to give participants the confidence and inspiration to make their own pickles at home.
We wanted to share the scientific processes and nutritional benefits of fermented foods, as well as discuss the cultural origins and symbolism of Jewish and Korean pickles. Gwi-Seok wanted to call it “Fermentation for the Soul,” a name that adequately expresses the deep connection we both feel to the act of making pickles at home. To better explain this connection, I shared the following personal story with our participants:
When I was young I didn’t care for pickles. We always had a big jar of kosher dills in the fridge. They were a staple in my mother’s kitchen, and in her mother’s and in her mother’s before her. My sisters would fight over the last pickle in the jar, and I didn’t get it. They smelled weird and had a shocking acidity that didn’t appeal to my buttered-noodle-loving pallet.
The summer before beginning my time here at Yad Ezra, I worked for a summer on a Jewish farm, which also made pickles, called Adamah in the Berkshire Mountains. I visited my mom before leaving. We said goodbye and shared sentiments that many anxious Jewish mothers say when her child goes off to travel- “be safe, watch out for yourself,” etc. Surprised at her concern, I responded, “Mom, I’m just going to farm with some Jews!” She hugged me and sighed, “Oh honey… Jews don’t farm!”
I arrived at Adamah and learned that Jews do, in fact, farm and have a rich history in agriculture. Our traditions, teachings, and holidays are often based on what’s happening in the environment around us. At Adamah I lived and breathed these Jewish cycles of time- praying communally each morning, observing Shabbat each week, and Rosh Chodesh each month.
Our group would work daily in the fields, harvesting cucumbers, beets, and cabbages. In a kitchen aptly named the “Cultural Center” we would process these vegetables- chopping them up and adding them to large barrels of brine containing salt, spices, and eventually lactobacilli- the bacterial culture that fermented our pickles.
We ate meals communally, and each plate was graced with various pickled foods- sauerkraut, dilly beans, kosher dills, etc. We fermented the fresh goat milk we collected each morning, introducing bacterial cultures to yield yogurt, chevre, or cream cheese. We had a batch of ginger beer bubbling on top of the fridge and funky, fizzy food experiments in jars on the shelf.
As I continued my time there, my appetite for fermented foods and Jewish wisdom grew together. As the pickles bubbled in their brine at the Cultural Center, I soaked up the Jewish and environmental teachings around me. This process ignited within me a transformation that I bring home, preserved, to Detroit. And I get to share a piece of that with you now.