Botany Professor Suzanne Morse says that American culture has become “microphobic,” and it’s hard to disagree. Handwash reminders and tiny bottles of hand sanitizer seem to be cropping up everywhere, even our local health food stores. That’s why Suzanne teaches a course on fermented and cultured foods. “It’s my way of teaching microbiology,” she says with a wink, but it’s also her way of eatingmicrobiology—and sharing its fruits.
This winter Suzanne and her students have traveled the length of New England visiting places like the South River Miso Company, an artisan miso company that has produced “hand crafted, wood fired, certified organic miso for over thirty years according to a centuries-old, Japanese farmhouse tradition.” Back in Bar Harbor, students have applied their field and lab learning to countless experiments in fermentation. That smell of rotting cabbage on Cottage Street? It’s just somebody’s homework: another batch of kimchi, the ancient Korean banchan (or side dish) of fermented vegetables, and it’s not rotting. It’s coming to life.
Grass Silage Display
Today the class has gathered in Take-a-Break, COA’s bustling dining hall, to present some of its culinary experiments. Booths and tables are loaded with fresh sourdough bread (made four ways), fizzing kombucha (in six flavors) and dozens of other cultured and fermented treats. The broad variety of the display speaks to the experimental—and experiential—nature of the course. At one table you can sample yogurt made with milk boiled at different temperatures, and at another, kimchi made with or without fish sauce, green chilies, or Brussels sprouts.
Suddenly the distinction between kitchen and laboratory seems very hazy indeed.
Suzanne tells me she had students make one batch of sauerkraut barehanded because “experts have speculated that the famous sauerkraut-making families in Europe have a favorable chemical makeup for culturing food. Something about the enzymes on their hands.” The experiment proved inconclusive: barehanded and gloved batches tasted about the same, “though one batch did taste a bit different,” notes Suzanne with a laugh. Talking to her, I get the sense that we should be braver about our food, the life force that sustains us.
Looking around, though, I can see that microphobia is hard to shake off. Visitors to the tempeh booth turn sallow at the sight of chickpeas and soybeans encased in spiderwebby mold. First-year student Hannah Miller won’t let them off easily, though, and offers to fry up the relatively friendlier-looking soybean cakes. It’s not that these look tastier than the chickpea cakes; they just look more like the tempeh we’re used to seeing in plastic wrapping, in stores. But Hannah’s tempeh is lovely and mild, much fresher tasting than the store-bought variety, and soon she is asked for a bite of the eccentrically knobby chickpea cake.
At a nearby table, graduate student Matthew Doyle Olson is talking about the connection between yogurt and stress. A peer-reviewed study has shown that eaters of properly cultured yogurt are less anxious than eaters of the fake stuff. “It has to do with the brain/gut connection,” says Doyle Olson. The what? “It’s still sort of a mystery.” He smiles. More research is coming. In the meantime, “it just seems to work.”
And that’s what today’s fair is about. Food that works. It’s nearly the end of term; by now most of Suzanne’s students know why fermented and cultured foods work, and how. They’re food scientists in the making. But underlying all this science—the microbiology explained on a dozen presentation boards—is a more fundamental mystery: life. Taking a bite of my sourdough biscuit, poised to trigger a complex chain of metabolic events, I’m happy to know this mystery is in the hands of human ecologists.
For them, I realize, kitchen and laboratory converge with temple. A biscuit has never tasted so good.