Judging from the first canning-equipment display I’ve ever seen at my local health-food store, home canning is undergoing a revival. Let us not forget, though, that long before Ball and Kerr were churning out jars, food preservation was a common practice. Traditional cultures all over the world preserved much of the food needed for the winter through lactic-acid fermentation. Sauerkraut, kimchi, grape leaves, cucumbers, turnips, green tomatoes, peppers, corn, and many, many more vegetables were commonly preserved through this process.
Of all methods of preserving, lacto-fermentation is the most magical. At its simplest, it is just vegetables and salt. This provides the right conditions for nature to take its course. The salt slows the decomposition of the vegetables briefly until the sugars in the vegetables are broken down by friendly lactobacilli and converted into lactic acid to preserve the vegetables for many months.
Thinking about real, lacto-fermented pickles makes my mouth water. There is no substitute for their complex and nuanced taste. I was born into sweet pickle territory, however, and grew up on bread and butters and apple cider vinegar-y okra pickles. Though delicious as well, that’s not what I am talking about here. Here we are talking about the artisanal crafted, slightly unpredictable, real thing.
My first encounter with real, garlicky, brined pickles was at the all-you-can-eat pickle bars of Jewish delis. Since then, my love of pickles has led me on pickle eating field trips to the Russian community of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where they serve massive slabs of whole pickled watermelon, to Japan, where I ate pickled umeboshi plum, daikon radish and burdock root for breakfast alongside bowls of rice and miso soup. I’ve also discovered some hidden fermenting traditions in my own region as well, such as the Appalachian tradition of pickling whole ears of corn on the cob, which has roots in Native American food ways, and the grape leaf pickles found around Winston-Salem, N.C., most likely connected to the Moravian settlement there.