The Difference Between Rotten, How to Eat Raw Liver (and Other Fascinating Articles This Week)

November 30, 2010

Dear Family,

“How easy and delightful life might be if we could do this, if when we had attained the position we wished, we might rest on our oars and watch the ripples on the stream of life.”

--Laura Ingalls Wilder, “Little House in the Ozarks: The Rediscovered Writings”


Classes are in full-swing, here at Sara University. Some of my graduate courses, like “Healing the whole family,” and “Starting to Learn Who Your Child _Really_ Is,” and “Organ Meats 101,” are not part of any major I ever thought I'd pursue with such passion.

But there you go. I am nothing if not passionate, these days!

And lucky you--you get to read my Term Papers each week...


Here are a couple of articles from an interesting blog that Jeff and I have recently discovered:

Are saturated fats terrible? Check out “The Nocebo Effect: When Good Fat Turns 'Bad',' and let me know what you think.…

I'm planning to read: “Is an All-Meat Diet Healthy or Dangerous?”…


Fascinating stuff--in MIT's Technology Review :

“Earlier this summer, scientists reported the success of an unusual medical transplant; a woman with a life-threatening Clostridium difficile infection was treated, and apparently cured, with an injection of some of her healthy husband's gut bacteria. Researchers are now exploring the effects of this type of transplant in greater detail. They hope to eventually treat a wide range of ailments--from bowel diseases to obesity, diabetes to depression--by manipulating the bacteria that live in the human gut.
“The microbes that inhabit our digestive tract, skin, mouth, and other body parts--known collectively as the human microbiome--play a key role in human health, influencing metabolism, immune function, and more. (Each of us contains roughly 10 times as many microbial cells as human ones.)”
“[Researchers] are studying microbe transplants in rodents with the hope of more effectively applying the approach to people. In a paper published last week [late August 2010] in the journal Genome Research, the researchers demonstrated that they could successfully transplant the entire microbial community of one healthy rat's digestive system into another's. After three months, the recipient's microbiome more closely resembled the donor's, though the two microbiomes were not identical.
“They also reported that antibiotics, which they had hoped would make the colonization easier, actually impeded growth. Animals treated with the drugs prior to the transplant ended up with a less diverse microbiome, which also had less resemblance to the donor's. Though the finding needs to be confirmed in people, it suggests that antibiotics might be counterproductive in the transplantation process...”


Do you wonder what I do in my free time, when I'm not cooking for or feeding my children?

I'm figuring out how to eat raw liver:

I'm learning what the heck to do with some of the most nutrient-dense parts of the animal:…

I'm reading non-stop:…

Epilepsy article

At least four people e-mailed me to tell me about this article in the New York Times, which describes a newly-rediscovered, high-fat diet that is often more effective than drugs to in controlling epilepsy. I beg to differ with the author's opinion, and mainstream conventional wisdom, that the saturated fat content in this diet is dangerous. Doctors also “don't know” how it works; I'd like to point them toward some theories having a lot less to do with genetics and a lot more to do with gut flora (check out Natasha Campbell-McBride's lecture where she talks about epilepsy:… , and scroll down about halfway).


Just finished “Wild Fermentation,” by Sandor “Sandorkraut” Elix Katz. Short, to-the-point, humorous, and filled with recipes. What's not to like?

One point I took home is that, when it comes to food, “rotten” is a relative term--and it is a product more of cultural tradition than food safety.

From the forward, by Sally Fallon: “The taste for fermented foods is usually an acquired taste. Few of us can imagine eating fermented tofu crawling with worms, which is relished in parts of Japan; or bubbly sorghum beer, smelling like the contents of your stomach, which is downed by the gallons in parts of Africa. But then, few Africans or Asians can enjoy the odiferous chunks of rotten milk (called cheese) that are so pleasing to Western palates. To those who have grown up with fermented foods, they offer the most sublime of eating experiences--and there are many that will appeal to Western tastes even without a long period of accustomization.”

“The science and art of fermentation is, in fact, the basis of human culture: without culturing, there is no culture. Nations that still consume cultured foods, such as France with its wine and cheese, and Japan with its pickles and miso, are recognized as nations that have culture. Culture begins at the farm, not in the opera house, and binds a people to a land and its artisans.”

What I'm learning to love about fermentation is that, as Katz writes, it “is everywhere, always. It is an everyday miracle, the path of least resistance. Microscopic bacteria and fungi (encompassing yeasts and molds) are in every breath we take and every bite we eat. Try--as many do--to eradicate them with antibacterial soaps, antifungal creams, and antibiotic drugs, there is no escaping them. They are ubiquitous agents of transformation, feasting upon decaying matter, constantly shifting dynamic life forces from one miraculous and horrible creation to the next.”

“A _fetish_, according to Webster's, is anything 'supposed to possess magical powers' and thereby worthy of 'special devotion.' Fermentation is magical and mystical, and I am deeply devoted to it. I have indulged this arcane fetish (and been indulged). This book is the result...”

Katz touches upon all the ways the fermentation impacts human health and activity (historic, domestic, and economic):

“One major benefit of fermentation is that it preserves food. Fermentation organisms produce alcohol, lactic acid, and acetic acid, all 'bio-preservatives' that retain nutrients and prevent spoilage... Fermentation not only preserves nutrients, it breaks them down into more easily digestible forms. Soybeans are a good example. This extraordinarily protein-rich food is largely indigestible without fermentation. Fermentation breaks down the soybeans' complex protein into readily digestible amino acids, giving us traditional Asian foods such as miso, tempeh, and tamari (soy sauce), which have become staples in contemporary Western vegetarian cuisine.

“Milk, too, is difficult for many people to digest. Lactobacilli (a type of bacteria present in fermented dairy products and many other types of ferments) transform lactose, the milk sugar that so many humans cannot tolerate, into easier-to-digest lactic acid. Likewise, wheat that has undergone fermentation is easier to digest than unfermented wheat. A study in the journal _Nutritional Health_ compared unfermented and fermented versions of a mix of barley, lentils, milk powder, and tomato pulp and found that 'starch digestibility almost doubled in the fermented mixture.' According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which actively promotes fermentation as a critical source of nutrients worldwide, fermentation improves the bioavailability of minerals present in food. Bill Mollison, author of the Permaculture Book of Ferment and Human Nutirition, calls the action of fermenting foods 'a form of pre-digestion.'”

“Fermentation also creates new nutrients. As they go through their life cycles, microbial cultures create B vitamins, including folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, and biotin...Lactobacilli create omega-3 fatty acids... Fermentation also removes toxins from foods. This is vividly illustrated by the case of cassava, an enormous tuber native to the tropical regions of the Americas that has also become a staple food in equatorial regions of Africa and Asia. Certain varieties of cassava contain high levels of cyanide and are poisonous until they have undergone a soaking fermentation. The fermentation process eliminates the cyanide, rendering the cassava edible and nutritious.”

I'm impressed by how wisdom gained through Darwinian processes has been lost to us in only a few generations. We in the western world tend to immediately try to take shortcuts. All my cookbooks say to prepare millet by quickly simmering for less than an hour, for example. And yet, traditional African millet preparation requires a 5-day soaking/sieving/fermentation period. I'm starting to learn how much we lose, when modern humans translate ancient traditions while discarding any pieces that seem like a waste of time.

Most importantly: if it's possible to cook millet in half an hour, _why_ have people spent the last many thousands of years using a five-day millet-cooking technique? It's unlikely that people anywhere would simply want to make extra work for themselves without good reasons.

Katz continues to write about the benefits of fermented foods. “Not all food toxins are as dramatic as cyanide. All grains contain a compound called phytic acid, which can block absorption of zinc, calcium, iron, magnesium, and other minerals and lead to mineral deficiencies. Fermenting grains by soaking them before cooking neutralizes phytic acid, rendering the grain far more nutritious. Nitrites, prussic acid, oxalic acid, nitrosamines, and glucosides are some other potentially toxic chemicals found in foods that can be reduced or eliminated by fermentation.”

Then, of course, there are the social ramifications of diet: “As eighteen-letter words go, I like the word ecoimmunonutrition. It recognizes that an organism's immune function occurs in the context of an ecology, an ecosystem of different microbial cultures, and that it is possible to build and develop that cultural ecology in oneself through diet...”

“Our culture is terrified of germs and obsessed with hygiene. The more we glean about disease-causing viruses, bacteria, and other microorganisms, the more we fear exposure to all forms of microscopic life. Every new sensationalized killer microbe gives us more reason to defend ourselves with vigilance.

But the boom in antibacterial soap sales are not doing much good, and are potentially quite dangerous: “The antibacterial compounds in these soaps, most commonly triclosan, kill the more susceptible bacteria but not the heartier ones. 'These resistant microbes may include bacteria...that were unable to gain a foothold previously and are now able to thrive, thanks to the destruction of competing microbes,' says Dr. Stuart Levy, director of the Tufts Universit Center for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance. Your skin, your orifices, and the surfaces of your home are all covered with microorganisms that help protect you (and themselves) from potentially harmful organisms that you both encounter. Constantly assaulting the bacteria on, in, and around you with antibacterial compounds weakens one line of defense your body uses against disease organisms.

“Microorganisms not only protect us by competing with potentially dangerous organisms, they teach the immune system how to function. 'The immune system organizes itself through experience, just like the brain,' says Dr. Irun R. Cohen of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. A growing number of researchers are finding evidence to support what is known as 'the hygiene hypothesis,' which attributes the dramatic rise in prevalence of asthma and other allergies to _lack_ of exposure to diverse microorganisms found in soil and untreated water. 'The cleaner we live...the more likely we'll get asthma and allergies,' states Dr. David Rosenstreich, director of Allergy and Immunology at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York.”

“Well-informed hygiene is very important, but it is impossible to avoid exposure to microbes. They are everywhere.”

“...I firmly believe...that microbial warfare is not a sustainable practice. 'Bacteria are no germs but the germinators--and the fabric--of all life on Earth,' writes Stephen Harrod Buhner in the _The Lost Language of Plants._ 'In declaring war on them we declared war on the underlying living structure of the planet--on all life-forms we can see--on ourselves.'

“Health and homeostasis require that humans coexist with microorganisms. Bacteria-counting scientists have quantified this simple fact, estimating that each person's body is host to a bacterial population in excess of 100 trillion, and noting that 'the interactions of these colonizing microbes with the host are nothing if not complex.' Humans and all other forms of life evolved from and with these organisms, and we cannot live without them. 'Nature appears to maximize mutual cooperation and mutual coordination of goals,' wrote ethobotanist Terence McKenna. 'To be indispensable to the organisms with which one shares an environment--that is the strategy that ensures successful breeding and continued survival.'

“Inside our bodies, most dramatically in the gut, prokaryotes absorb genetic information that informs our function as organisms; they are an integral part of our sentient experience. 'We eat and thus we know.'... Humans are in mutually beneficial and mutually dependent relationships with these and many different microbes. We are symbiotic, inextricably woven together, in a complex pattern far beyond our capacity to comprehend completely.”

And of course, the fun part: “By eating a variety of live fermented foods, you promote diversity among microbial cultures in your body. Biodiversity is increasingly recognized as critical to the survival of larger-scale ecosystems....”

“...Biodiversity is just as important at the micro level. Call it micro-biodiversity. Your body is an ecosystem that can function most effectively when populated by diverse species of microorganisms. Sure, you can buy 'probiotic' nutritional supplements containing specific selected bacteria that promote healthy digestion. But by fermenting food and drinks with wild microorganisms present in your home environment, you become more interconnected with the life forces of the world around you. Your environment becomes you, as you invite the microbial populations you share the Earth with to enter your diet and your intestinal ecology.”

(I love this stuff!)

“Personally, I'm not so included to reduce the secret of long life and good health to any one product or practice. Life consists of multiple variables, and every life is unique. But very clearly fermentation has contributed to the longevity and well-being of humanity as a whole. The methods of fermentation are many and varied; it is practice on every content, in thousands of different ways...”

(Hey Dad: “A honey wine called mead is generally regarded as the most ancient fermented pleasure.”)

“Other forms of fermentation seem to have developed in tandem with the domestication of plants and animals, as human cultures evolved. It is no accident that the word culture has such broad connotation. It derives form the Latin colere, 'to cultivate.' Fermentation cultures are cultivated no less than the 'socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought' that constitute the dictionary's first definition of culture. The various cultures are inextricably intertwined.

“Nomadic herding peoples domesticated various animals--yaks, horses, camels, sheep, goats, cattle--and by observing how milk soured, learned to culture it and curdle it in order to extend its usefulness. Whether by chance or intention, raw unpasteurized milk not drunk quickly ferments. Lactobacilli convert lactose to lactic acid, which sours and eventually causes milk to separate, curds from whey, into more stable and storable dairy products.

“Eventually, people developed techniques for the cultivation of cereal grains. Grain porridges or doughs inevitably ferment. Mix flour (or any form of any grain) with water and it will attract yeast and bacteria that ferment it. Bread and beer both are born of grain fermentation, and historians debate which came first. The conventional wisdom is that humans settled into grain agriculture as a means of producing reliable, storable foodstuffs. 'Are we to believe that the foundations of Western civilization were laid by an ill-fed people living in a perpetual state of partial intoxication?' asked botanist Paul Manglesdorf in a symposium on this question organized by the journal _American Anthropologist._ But an alternative hypothesis presents a cultural paradox: Is it not possible that beer provided a more compelling incentive than mere food for well-fed migratory peoples to settle? Either way, fermentation is part of the story. Grain fermentation techniques evolved together with grain agriculture.”


I often forget that research is built upon that which has been discovered and questioned before our time. Katz writes, “...Scientists were earnestly trying to elucidate the spontaneous generation of mice as late as the seventeenth century, when Jean Baptista van Helmont reported that 'if one presses a dirty shirt into the opening of a vessel containing grains of wheat, the ferment from the dirty shirt does not modify the smell of the grain but gives rise to the transmutation of the wheat into mice after about twenty-one days.' He also had a recipe for creating scorpions by carving a hole into a brick, filling it with dried basil, and placing it in the full sun.

“As van Helmont was generating mice from wheat and dirty shirts, a Dutchman, Anton van Leeuwenoek, developed the microscope and first observed microorganisms in 1674.

“'I now saw very plainly that these were little eels, or worms, lying all huddled up together and wriggling; just as if you saw, with the naked eye, a whole tubful of very little eels and water, with the eels a-squirming among one another: and the whole water seemed to be alive with these multifarious animalcules. This was for me, among all the marvels that I have discovered in nature, the most marvelous of all; and I must say, for my part, that no more pleasant sight has ever yet come before my eye than these many thousands of living creatures, seen all alive in a little drop of water, moving among one another, each several creatures having its own proper motion...'

“Meanwhile, French philosopher Rene Descartes had expounded his revolutionary view that all natural phenomena could be reduced to mechanical processes. Descartes ushered in a period of scientific inquiry focused on describing natural processes by causal mechanisms. Chemistry flourished in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and a sort of chemical reductionism came into vogue, which held that all physiological processes were ultimately reducible to a series of chemical reactions. Chemists of this period dismissed the idea that fermentation was caused by living organisms as 'retrograde.'”

I often tend to think that in order to do something, I need to understand it. But maybe this leads to reductionism, because people have obviously been masterfully skilled for thousands of years while doing work that they couldn't begin to understand at the time.

“Enter Louis Pasteur, a French chemist who turned his attention to fermentation processes at the behest of a Lille industrialist, a beetroot alcohol manufacturer whose factory was experiencing inconsistent results and whose son was enrolled in Pasteur's class at the university. Pasteur's methodical study of beetroot fermentation quickly convinced him that fermentation was a biological process. His first study on fermentation, Memoire sur la ferentation appelee lactique, was published in April 1857: 'Fermentation is a correlative of life and of the production of globules, rather than of their death or putrefaction.'”

“The advent of microbiology gave rise to a sort of colonial outlook toward microorganisms, that they, like other elements of nature and other human cultures, must be dominated and exploited. One book that expresses this attitude especially poignantly is _Bacteria in Relation to Country Life,_ published in 1908, midway between Pasteur's research and the development of antibiotic drugs.

“'The deepening current of human existence now forces us to study the bacteria and other microorganisms. In so far as they are dangerous to our health and happiness we must learn to defend ourselves; we must learn to destroy them or to render them harmless. In so far as they are beneficial, we must learn to control them and to make their activities widely useful to human society.'

“Homo sapiens prone to feeling overly confident of our superiority and ability to dominate would do well to ponder a small bit of wisdom attributed to Louis Pasteur himself: 'It's the microbes that will have the last word.'”


Katz also discusses the ways that fermentation has been inextricably tied to world economies, ever since world economies began. Coffee, tea, and chocolate are three of the most important cash crops in the world. All involve fermentation. “The enormity of the economic and cultural changes wrought to the entire world by the mass production and global trade of chocolate, coffee, and tea cannot be overstated. These stimulants, recognized today as addictive substances, were 'the ideal drugs for the Industrial Revolution,' according to ethnobotanist Terence McKenna. 'They provided an energy lift, enabling people to keep working at the repetitious tasks that demanded concentration. Indeed, the tea and coffee break is the only drug ritual that has never been criticized by those who profit from the modern industrial state.'

“The other related commodity that rounds out the picture is sugar. Chocolate, coffee, and tea all made their appearance in England almost simultaneously, around 1650. Though all three fermented stimulants had been consumed as unsweetened, bitter beverages in their original cultural contexts, Europe married them to sugar and they became that important new mass commodity's marketing partner. This was the birth of marketing, the first instance of the manufacture of mass demand for a hitherto obscure commodity. Today there appears to be no end to the products consumers can be convinced we cannot live without, but there was a beginning.

“'The fashion for these hot drinks became a potent factor in the surge in sugar demand,' notes historian Henry Hobhouse in his book 'Seeds of Change.' Between the years 1700 and 1800, per capita sugar consumption in Britain increased more than fourfold, from an average of 4 pounds a year to 18 pounds. 'Sugar surrendered its place as luxury and rarity and became the first mass-produced exotic necessity of a proletarian working class,' writes Sidney W. Mintz in Sweetness and Power. Average people used more and more sugar, and desired more of it than they could afford, while 'producing, shipping, refining, and taxing sugar became proportionately more effective sources of power for the powerful.' Chocolate, coffee, and tea consumption increased similarly.”

“ was the sugar trade that established the systematic global racism of African slavery. As innovations in the refinement of sugar yielded a whiter and whiter product, the system of its production dehumanized people on the basis of dark skin. In symbol and in flesh and blood, sugar gave birth to the racist world order. Sugar and its associated fermented stimulant commodities also gave birth to colonial rule on a global scale.

“It does not make any kind of sense for the people (or the land) of any place to grow massive quantities of stimulants for export rather than nutritious food for local consumption. It only happens by the exercise of force and the alienation of people from the land. Initially this was accomplished through slavery and direct colonial administration. In our time, the primary mode of domination has shifted to subtler instruments of global capital such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, Third World debt, transnational corporations (a more descriptive name than multinational, I think, because these behemoths have come to transcend and supersede nations), and the World Trade Organization. If the people who work the fields had any measure of control over the land they worked, they would be growing food to eat, not luxury stimulants for people on other continents.

“'The first sweetened cup of hot tea to be drunk by an English worker was a significant historical event, because it prefigured the transformation of an entire society, a total remaking of its economic and social basis,' writes Mintz. 'We must struggle to understand fully the consequences of that and kindred events, for upon them erected an entirely different conception of the relationship between producers and consumers, of the meaning of work, of the definition of self, of the nature of things. What commodities are, and what commodities mean, would thereafter be forever different.'

“...Globalized markets amount to cultural decadence. Decadence (from the word 'decay') is unsustainability: behavior likely to contribute to biological or social decline or collapse.”

But it's not all bad! Fermentation offers hope: “In our urbanized society, the vast majority of people are completely cut off from the process of growing food, and even from the raw products of agriculture. Most Americans are used to buying and eating food that has already been processed in a factory. 'Both eater and eaten are thus in exile from biological reality,' writes Wendell Berry. 'And the result is a kind of solitude, unprecedented in human experience, in which the eater may think of eating as first a purely commercial transaction between him and a supplier, and then as a purely appetitive transaction between him and his food.'

'The time has come to reclaim the stolen harvest,' writes Indian activist Vandana Shiva, 'and celebrate the growing and giving of good food as the highest gift and the most revolutionary act.'”

“...Our mantra certainly holds true in the realm of fermentation, and I repeat it often. 'Our perfection lies in our imperfection.' If your desire is for perfectly uniform, predictable food, this is the wrong book for you. If you are willing to collaborate with tiny beings with somewhat capricious habits and vast transformative powers, read on...


Okay, enough book reviewing...