“A soul is but the last bubble of a long fermentation in the world.” George Santayana
On that sunniest and warmest Saturday yet of 2023—almost spring—Louise White and her daughter-in-law, Amie Oliver, showed up to our house with two suitcases on wheels—full of supplies. They hauled up the stairs an assortment of crocks, tall jars from the feed-store, and bags of thrice-washed and pre-chopped cabbage from the restaurant supply store. Louise had purchased pounds of ginger and a sack of green onions bigger than I’d ever seen—from H-Mart.
Over the course of the next few hours we would make sauerkraut, eat a lovely lunch of dosas, curry, and rice prepped by Louise—and then onto the kimchi-creation.
For the morning sauerkraut-making, we cheated. Those bags of pre-chopped saved us from the need to sharpen our knives just yet. The only “work” for this fermented white cabbage was to measure and massage.
Each of us had our separate bowl. We used a digital kitchen scale and weighed out the cabbage, tossed in the pre-sliced bag of carrots, a bit of radicchio, and three-plus teaspoons salt. We used our hands to squeeze and toss—until a brine filled the bottom of each bowl—and would eventually cover the kraut when jarred.
Making sauerkraut is easy: cabbage, salt, and water–though we tossed in some extras. The brine is the brew and likes about 2% salt to 98% water (a heaping teaspoon of sea salt to a cup of filtered water if ever you need to add more liquid.) The trick to fermentation is keeping the veggies submerged under the brine so mold won’t grow. I learned the hard way!
Next came lunch, and I learned about making dosas—a next fermentation project. I had no idea these pancakes require allowing the rice and dal to ferment. Along with these traditionally South India pancakes and curry, a pickled chutney and yogurt accompanied the meal.
One of the wonderful things about sharing time with Louise is her love of cooking—and sharing! We can go hours talking about nutrition and making meals. It fascinates me that after raising a family and cooking fifty-plus years for her husband, she still enjoys serving people through cuisine she creates.
We didn’t plan for how we’d proceed after lunch, but I began reading the kimchi recipe aloud as Louise prepped the ginger. Soon she was onto peeling garlic, and we passed the bag of carrots, a pile of daikon radish, and those green onions to Amie who sat at the kitchen table—her chopping post. She used an impressive mandolin that made the root-veggies into matchsticks! I’d never seen such a tool!
Making the paste became my part of the project, and soon I was counting cloves of garlic, rounds of ginger, and teaspoons of fish sauce. I invited Amie and Louise to choose how many tablespoons of Gochujang chili powder they wanted in their paste. Separately I ground these ingredients in our mini-food processor.
Louise moved on to the task of chopping Napa cabbage, and our timing worked out just right. As they filled each bowl with the veggies, I scooped out the chili paste. Soon they slipped on gloves and began massaging the paste into the cabbage. When the last batch was ready, I joined them at the kitchen table and worked on my own mixing and mashing.
Louise, the oldest of five sisters, said this was the sort of thing she had been doing with her family for years. Fermenting together on this end-of-winter day, she said, felt like coming full circle with daughters and friends. The day was full of generosity, patience, and story—in the spirit of creating better bacteria for our guts!
The day felt all about family—near and far, natural and chosen. I had just sent flowers to my father who was fighting a bout of pneumonia. Terresa, Louise’s daughter, had taken her Pops to 1000 Acres outside of Portland where they walked their dogs. These days Steve with dementia seldom wants to be without his wife, Louise. But he journeyed with his daughter who visits him often. She then stopped by to see us and snapped some photos.
When I fell asleep that evening—exhausted by the amazing day—the scent of Gochujang paste filled my nostrils. I hoped our Airbnb guests asleep in the studio apartment downstairs would enjoy these strong flavors in circulation.
Such a fun day! Thank you to all! And tonight I’ll jar up the kimchi, find room in the cooler, and perhaps share some with friends.
Photographs courtesy of Terresa White, Ludger Wöhrmann, and Louise White.