“Well, should we just give up then?”

If only I had a dollar for every time I have heard this, always from well-meaning people. It is all too common if you talk about climate change, constraints on energy and mineral resources, or the erosion of social cohesion in our complex and overpopulated world. In other words, it is common if you insist on bringing reality into the conversation.

Our faith that progress is an arrow pointed ever upwards is a hard one to let go of—and we think of our save-the-planet work the same way—ever upwards, the best it has ever been, unquestionable.

But I say if what you are doing doesn’t work, it may be that you don’t need to do it Bigger! Faster! and Harder!

Maybe it just doesn’t work.
Maybe we need to do something different.

So the next response, “You want us to live in caves.” Obviously. Because different equals caves.

I don’t want to live in a cave. In fact, I want to live in a Jetsonian future in which our wondrous technology has liberated us from work while eliminating environmental impact, allowing us to truly find our place in the ecosphere alongside the splendiferous flora and fauna from tiny to titanic. I could be free to pursue something I am actually good at, like designing things.

But if you can stick with reality long enough, you start to realize that living in caves is a plausible, if undesirable outcome, whereas the likelihood of a Jetsonian utopia is that small speck you see disappearing over the horizon.

To review, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is higher than it has been for millions of years, and we are well past the Paris Agreement target of 350 parts per million. Anybody who can bear to look at a chart of the global energy mix can see that renewables are not going to replace fossil fuels, even if we do have the resources, energy and social will to divert significant portions of our focus to windmills and solar panels. Which we don’t.

Add on to this an evergrowing population, many of whom are quite rightly pissed off at the level of exploitation their people and resources have experienced. They would like a piece of the pie, and are getting more aggressive about taking it.

Meanwhile, perhaps thanks to climate chaos, the breadbaskets of agriculture are facing persistent drought, while simultaneously being constrained by suburbia.

Our fragmentation of the biosphere is doing plants and animals no good as extinction rates are reaching asteroid-impact levels.

 

Living in a cave starts to seem like a pretty reasonable response. So should we just give up, then?

No. Giving up is not reasonable. But my father quotes an old hippie saying, “When what you’re doing isn’t working, try anything else.”

And I agree, though I think we can narrow “anything” down quite a bit.

There are three practical things I always suggest—walkable communities, well-insulated homes, and local food.

Our future is going to be much less fossil-fueled, either because we actually choose to stop killing ourselves with oil, or because the disruptions to the ecosphere—the primary source of wealth—finally impact the economy so drastically that we end up in a Greatest Recession. Either way, that is going to mean colder homes and fewer cars.

This will also impact the ridiculously energy-intensive industrialized agriculture system we have now, with huge satellite-controlled tractors, trucks, planes, and climate-controlled storage warehouses.

 

To those three practical things I would add a fourth activity, less palatable for the solutions-oriented crowd—grieving.

Grieving is a skill we have ostracized in North America, and yet there may be no skill that will be in more demand. Foreshadowed by the images coming from drought-torn Syria, the famine building in Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen, or by nations slowly disappearing beneath rising sea level, we will see a lot of death and loss.

Extreme weather is becoming more common even here in North America, with events that already sound positively apocalyptic. Again, people will die. Homes and memories will be lost, livelihoods destroyed.

And that is just if it doesn’t get any worse.

Despite our best attempts to banish unpleasantness we actually do have faint memories of how to grieve for those people and places we love. I think the worst pain we may face will be from our loss of progress, our loss of the promise that the future will keep getting better.

There is no brighter future.

It is enough to make you wonder if you have done anything worthwhile with your life; and that question does not feel good for anybody.

Anyhow, there is plenty to do, and none of it requires living in caves.

 

There is one more consideration I would like to ask you to keep in the front of your mind. We don’t have a lot of time, and we have fewer resources.

It would be really great if we didn’t waste them. 

So, I like to think about failure. There is an example I heard once—it was a joke actually, from a time when internet memes were shared as email footers.

It said, “When an escalator breaks down, you still have stairs.”

An escalator is failsafe; it fails-safe. It fails-useful.

Compare this to an elevator. An elevator fails-dangerous—it is useless, maybe even a deathtrap.

As we become ever more frantic to fix the predicaments we have created, we will grasp on ever more wild-eyed schemes.

So how will they fail?

 

The failure of one small farm among thousands is not severe, whereas the failure of GMO crops could impact millions of tonnes of food. The whizbang vertical farms will pour millions of dollars down the drain when they fail. Globalized food systems require multiple systems to not fail—finance, legal, shipping, maybe refrigeration.

An elevator becomes a useless box. But without an elevator, our glittering towers also become useless boxes since few people can climb above four or five floors. Imagine a time of cascading failure, and think of all the concrete, steel and glass wasting away in the sky. Think of all the carbon embedded in all that material, all of the lives spent building these sparkling follies.

As failures cascade, we will weep to see our electric cars immobilized, the asphalt cracking from age on roads travelled mostly by people walking and riding bikes. So much steel, so much aluminum. So many batteries and computer chips. The breakdown of our Space Age fantasy of electric cars will strand incredible assets and waste the embedded energy and labour.

Yet a walkable community remains walkable.

If the heater in a super-insulated house fails, you are still warm.

When your bean crop withers, step to the next row and console yourself with a fresh carrot.

 

Maybe I will offer one more bit of advice for our sunset years. Again, not mine, but not an email footer either. It comes from my friend J.B. MacKinnon, who counselled me, “Drink enough Scotch, but not too much.”

 

 

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I sometimes find myself making negative comments about vertical farming. This happened again today, and the facebook friend to whom I responded replied very openly with, “Well, what then? Green belts?”

So rather than continue my terse and impatient crypticism on social media, I will try to respond comprehensively. My analysis, as with all analyses, rests on a few assumptions:

Our planet is finite, and receives no new inputs important to human timeframes, except for sunshine.

Since the planet is finite, everything on it is also bounded. Nothing can grow forever, and nothing can be extracted forever.

Please note that I said extracted, which is different than harvested. We extract nonrenewable resources, like oil, coal, copper and iron. We harvest renewable resources, like apples, wheat, chickens and salmon.

We can harvest extractively. So, if we catch too many salmon, the salmon cannot renew. This causes depletion, extirpation and extinction. But if we harvest less than can be renewed, that harvest is sustainable.

For all that people like to justify their behaviour by throwing their hands in the air and saying, “But what does sustainable even mean anyway?” it has a very simple meaning. It means, able-to-be-sustained. That means essentially forever, which to humans is probably 1000 or 10,000 or 100,000 years. Whatever.

That nothing can be extracted forever is basic math. Even if our planet was made of solid gold, we could only extract a maximum of one planet’s worth of gold from it.

But nothing is solid, gold, or anything else. Everything is mixed up with other things: coal is mixed with rock, fish are mixed with ocean.

Being practical, we like to start with extracting the richest, most concentrated deposits of a resource, whether that is coal, copper or whales.

We start with the easiest, and then we make some specialized tools which help us really increase productivity—so then we roar through the easy stuff, and start working on harder stuff and that slows us down a little. And then we slow down a lot. This is Peaking; the most famous example is Peak Oil. This is not a theory, it is math.

The shorthand for this in our daily life is the 80/20 rule. 80% of the work gets done with 20% of the effort—and the last 20% of the work takes 80% of the effort. That is nice, but it really is probably more like the first 40% takes 10% of the effort and the last 60% takes 90% of the effort—except the last one or five or ten percent is actually just impossible for us to extract no matter what we try.

So, if we have a field of potatoes and the desire for a plate of french fries, we can easily dig a few spuds by hand and we don’t care if we miss a few. But if want to maximize our profits by harvesting as many of our potatoes as possible, the 80/20 rule begins to bite. It seldom makes sense to pay humans to harvest 100% of the tubers; the payback on finding the last few—or the last many—is just not worth the labour costs.

Faced with the high cost of labour it seems to make sense to build a potato harvesting robot. An automated—or lightly supervised—machine can outowork humans, and never asks for holidays or a raise. So that is great. We harvest more spuds and waste less food. We “spare” humans the toil of harvesting.

But at what cost?

The machine runs on oil, a non-renewable resource. It is made of steel, and aluminum, and copper, and fabulously rare minerals, all non-renewable. Furthermore, all of those materials were extracted with machines that run on oil, were refined in coal furnaces, and manufactured with more oil or coal.

And all the extraction, refining and manufacturing machines were made of materials extracted with oil, refined with coal, and manufactured with coal or oil. It is like a terribly polluting—and unsustainable—M.C. Escher drawing.

If something is unsustainable, well that means it is unable to be sustained. All we have left to discuss is the date of the funeral. To be fair, the funeral may be years, decades, or centuries in the future—but if you see a black suit or dress on sale, you might want to snap it up…because if you use non-renewables at any rate, they will eventually effectively disappear.

Lastly, I want to mention the principle of bankruptcy. If you spend more than you make, you go out of business. If a coyote spends more calories chasing rabbits than it earns when it catches rabbits, it starves to death. If a plant transpires more water through its leaves than it collects through its roots it wilts, and can die.

And if it takes more energy to drill for oil than you get out of the oil, you stop drilling.

The Beverly Hillbillies could spend one barrel of oil energy and extract 100 barrels of oil for sale—this is the magic of fossil fuels, they are fantastically concentrated. One gallon of gas contains the energy of something like two weeks of human labour.

But of course we burned through that pretty fast, and more recent drilling is closer to a 30:1 ratio. The oilsands are as low as 3:1—that one barrel of energy nets only two more.

Some biofuels may even be negative, they use more energy than is extracted. They exist, like industrial potatoes, thanks only to a massive, historical and onging subsidy of oil energy. Without the built industrial infrastructure and overseas resource wars, they would wither away.

And the same goes for our green darlings, solar, wind, tidal, et c. They are all harvested with machines of non-renewable materials mined, refined and manufactured with oil and coal. They are not able to be sustained.

So maybe I can talk about vertical farms now.

The notion is that dense cities can grow some of their food and cut down food-miles, the impact of transporting foodstuffs from field to plate. Secondly, by growing up perhaps we can avoid growing out, and thereby leave more land for other creatures. And thirdly, by hermetically sealing out insects, the use of pesticides can be hopefully eliminated.

Well, local eater though I am, I know food miles are not the greatest impact of food, by far. About 4% of the impact of your food lies in transporting it to your plate.

And what does the remaking of a farm on the vertical plane cost?

Farming benefits from rain for the plant, and the blessed sunshine, and the sweet soils, full of worms and bugs and bacteria and fungi, all of which add fertility.

Vertical farms build a concrete box to keep all that away, and so they must replace it all with lights and pumps and synthesized chemicals. Mined, refined and manufactured. And then after the manufacturing, the lights and pumps must be operated with power generated from coal, gas, hydro and nuclear. And those power plants are mined, refined and manufactured…

So everything that nature gives for free, a vertical farm excludes and replaces with an expensive, non-renewable, unable-to-be-sustained system that relies on subsidies from resources kept affordable thanks to foreign wars. In no way do they produce as much energy as they consume. And so, ultimately, they are destined for starvation.

Now, there are a few things that consume more than they produce which we continue to subsidize—babies spring to mind—so maybe we could choose to subsidize vertical farms because we like fresh lettuce, and want space for wildlife.

Maybe, But they do run on non-renewable materials and energy, and nobody who knows anything about manufacturing thinks that is going to change anytime soon, or that it is necessarily possible at all. I don’t find the idea of long-term energy subsidies for vertical farms to be very credible.

The use of non-renewables is not-able-to-be-sustained. And the use of renewables to grow food is, well, farming. As in fields. With sun and rain.

Well, what then? Well, this is not a problem that can be fixed, it is a predicament to be carried.

The question itself contains the perspective of Empire. Everything must bend to us, everything must work out for us, our way of life is not negotiable. We have upwards of seven billion souls on this planet, and they all want iPhones, therefore we need vertical farms.

History shows that empires cannot escape the math of bankruptcy, and so far they have all fallen. The only way out of this without confronting our desires to continue our highly subsidized life of ease and privilege is to seek a Higher Power—a miracle is needed.

For the rationalist problem solvers among us, that higher power is usually science and technology.

For example, if somebody develops a nuclear reactor that can run on pocket lint, we will be essentially liberated from constraints on our energy use. Realistically, that does nothing about the many other non-renewables except increase the length of time we can scratch around in the dust for crumbs. But most-importantly, it is a hell of a way to plan for the future. We are literally saying, “We don’t want to deal with reality, so we are going to continue doing whatever we want, and trust an angel will bring us a miracle.”

This church points to past innovations as proof we will science our way out of this jam. This ignores history. Various forms of fossil fuels, for example, have been known for millennia—they just weren’t seen to be useful. Many centuries later, given a huge untapped resource, well-known and lying around in plain sight, we did develop the massive burning of oil products that finally docked the whaling fleet.

Now, if they hadn’t developed petroleum products, we would have stopped using whale oil anyway for the simple lack of whales. That is the math. Whales were in steep decline before the first oil well was drilled.

But what we don’t have today is a massive store of concentrated energy, lying around in plain sight. We do have several kinds of very diffuse energy: nuclear, solar, wind, etc. Because of the energy, materials and infrastructure required to concentrate that diffuse energy, these have a much lower Energy Return on the Energy Invested than a nice barrel of oil.

This means there is less surplus. If your investment returns 7% instead of 5%, you have more surplus and you can do more things. If you have less surplus, you can do fewer things. So, in a world of diminishing returns on our energy investments, in a world in which we have and will continue to have less energy to spend, why would we build a box to keep nature’s free services away from our plants, only to replace those very things with energy-hungry lights and machines?

This is not able-to-be-sustained. And so it will not be sustained. That is the math.

Now, in the short term, we may get caught up in the Green Fever, and slap vertical farms in some parkades and vacant lots. It is a short-sighted sort of math, but it is good-hearted.

For myself, I am interested in longer-term thinking. I am not interested in advocating for systems like vertical farms, which will consume enormous amounts of concrete, steel, copper and plastic, and will eventually go out of business. Why would we sink precious resources into a system that cannot be sustained?

There is real, important and durable work, sustainable work, that needs to be done. If we want to increase the food grown in cities, start replacing decorative street trees with fruit and nut trees. Advocate for systems that manage our food scraps with chickens instead of with diesel trucks and loaders. Support your peri-urban farmers for your tender greens, and ask your grocer to contract with local farmers. Start thinking about what is able to be sustained. Think about what we can have, not what we want to have.

About a century ago, New York City received most of its food from within seven miles. So yes, cities need green belts. This is a durable model that has worked for humanity over the long term. Most importantly, traditional intensive farms can produce more food than they require to operate. They can be sustainable.

Ours is far from the first civilization to face the fact that our systems cannot grow forever—nothing can. Vertical farms are the answer to the wrong question. The question is not how many technologies we can deploy to resist change, no matter what cost to ourselves and the ecosphere. The question how do we live joyfully within our fair share of this planet.

***EDIT*** This just in from Salon. There are some actual studies with actual numbers in this article. Conclusion? Vertical “farming” is a giant energy loser.

http://www.salon.com/2016/02/17/enough_with_the_vertical_farming_partner/

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sauerkrautMaking ‘kraut is incredibly easy to do, and you will be richly rewarded for your few minutes of work. If you have never made sauerkraut before, feel free to skip down to the instructions. This super easy method requires almost no equipment, and eliminates the need for anything expensive like fancy crocks or airlock lids. In fact, you can find the inexpensive jars you need at hardware stores, kitchen shops and thrift stores.

But if you have made sauerkraut before, you—like me—have probably been doing it wrong. I am going to tell you of my journey on the sauerkraut road, complete with all the links you need to truly suck the oxygen out of a dinner party.  Or, you can just trust me and skip to the instructions too. Really, there are 2,500 words between you and the instructions, so feel free to skip. You can always come back later when you want to geek out.

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I was not raised with sauerkraut, but I was raised with my mother’s admiration for strong Eastern European women who came to the Okanagan via the prairies. My mother swears that out of the few things these women could bring from the Old Country, they packed their sauerkraut stones. These were stones that were smooth and flattish and round—sized just to fit in a crock to hold the vegetables under the brine.

When I am learning new skills I like to think about how to use less energy, so a big crock of sauerkraut that preserves fall vegetables without boiling water canning or freezing is very attractive. But, not being raised with sauerkraut means I don’t easily incorporate it into my diet. I don’t eat it straight from the jar. Though it is delicious, I seldom make sauerkraut soup.

And so I have always ended up with a lot of ‘kraut that is getting less appetizing—soft and funky smelling. I have canned sauerkraut, but that kills the living probiotics that so many people need.  Indeed, trying to get some probiotic-rich food into Carmen’s digestive tract was part of the motivation to make ‘kraut in the first place.

Making ‘kraut in a crock is also a big hassle, unlike the method I am going to share with you. With a crock, you must keep up with a daily schedule of skimming scum and occasional bits of floating cabbage of the top of your brine. If you go away for a couple of days you can easily return to a thick mat of blue mould, which despite what Sandor Katz says, I find discomfiting.

Fermenting in a crock adds to the burdens of the Small and Delicious Life. I often feel like I have a thousand tiny tasks—jobs that only need a little time, but at the right time—feeding the rabbits, watering the garden, feeding the sourdough starter, skimming the sauerkraut, doing one of the many steps of making a loaf of bread, shepherding some step of cider or beer fermentation, turning the wheels of Brie that are moulding in the cellar. All these little tasks can leave me feeling kind of panicked that I might forget something important.

So finding a new technique that totally eliminates a small, daily task is pretty freaking fantastic. In fact, I honestly think this method is truly transformative. It may not be the Gutenberg printing press, but it is right up there—but I am not quite ready to give you the instructions just yet. First I am going to tell you about an internet wormhole I fell down.

When I say internet wormhole, I usually picture the sort of 1980s computer graphics used to represent black holes—a sort of funnel through the space/time continuum. This wormhole was not at all like that. The sauerkraut wormhole was much more like a hole made by earthworms, sort of damp, dark, twisty, and narrow. And long. I think I crawled through that hole for well over a year, trying to grasp what was being revealed to me.

The first clue was this page on Open and Closed Ferments. This article has everything I love in my gurus: a bit of a mind-boggle, a no-bullshit tone, an attempt to present the full picture, and an honest wish for success regardless of whether you buy their product.

But I got stuck on this article for quite a while. I had no idea there were open or closed ferments. When I first read this I don’t think I had ever made alcohol. I certainly had not looked up the definition of fermentation.

Fermentation in food processing is the conversion of carbohydrates to alcohols and carbon dioxide or organic acids using yeasts, bacteria, or a combination thereof, under anaerobic conditions. Fermentation usually implies that the action of microorganisms is desirable. The science of fermentation is also known as zymology or zymurgy.

So fermentation converts sugars to acid or alcohol and gas under anaerobic conditions. There are many strains of bacteria and yeast that create different combinations of acid, alcohol or gas under different conditions, which is how we get the large variety of fermented food and drink.

  • Fermentation converts the carbs in wheat to acid and gas, which gives you the sour in sourdough and the bubbles that leaven the bread. Predigesting the carbs is why many gluten-sensitive people can eat sourdough.
  • Fermentation makes the alcohol and bubbles in our beer and cider. Both beer and cider are flat, not fizzy, after fermentation. Just like wine all the gas escaped through the airlock of the fermenter. To get the bubbles in beer, cider and champagne, a small amount of sugar is added before the bottle is sealed. The yeast eats that sugar and produces a small amount more alcohol and the gas that is now trapped in our carbonated drink.
  • Fermentation makes the acid that turns milk into yogourt.
  • Fermentation helps keep cured sausages safe to eat. When you make salami, you add a bacterial culture and a bit of sugar. The bacteria eat the sugar and produce acid, which drops the pH of the meat below the level needed for pathogenic bacteria to reproduce. So, it is creepy to make cured salami because you have links of raw meat hanging in your kitchen at room temperature for several days, but that creates the acid needed to keep the meat safe over its long curing time.
  • And fermentation makes our pickled cabbage and other vegetables safe to eat. The bacteria present on the foods digest the sugars stored as carbohydrates in the cabbage and convert it to acid and gas. This is the vinegar tang of pickled foods.

So, understanding that would have made my wormhole a lot shorter. It is still interesting to see the definition says fermentation happens under anaerobic conditions—without oxygen. How does that fit with “Open fermenting (where the surface of the fermenting liquid is exposed to the air) is the traditional means of fermenting kraut, pickles, wild yeast, and many other pickled or cured items.”

Well, the traditional method may not be the “best” method, if by best you mean consistent or safe, to reduce food waste and maximize storage. It may be the best method if by best you mean interesting flavours, such as are created in sour beers that are fermented in systems that deliberately maximize the amount of wild yeasts that get blown into the the open vat.

For me, I am interested in consistent and safe. I don’t want to waste hard-grown food, and I don’t want to make my family sick. And, it is a real bonus to reduce the workload.

The next turn in the wormhole was The Science Behind Sauerkraut Fermentation, on Lea Harris’ Nourishing Treasures site. That website is far longer and more informative than this Gilgamesh I am writing, but I still couldn’t quite wrap my brain around what it was telling me. If you have gotten this far, you might enjoy reading it, too.

Fortunately, somewhere in this wormhole I accumulated enough experience making fermented foods that I started to grasp the theory, even without knowing the definition of fermentation. But as is often the way, it wasn’t accumulated knowledge that changed behaviour. It was that I was dissatisfied with the big crock of mouldering old ‘kraut, and with canning ‘kraut and killing its probiotics. I finally had the brain flash that I could eat local food all year ‘round, preserve using no energy, and make small enough batches of ‘kraut that none would go to waste.

I just went to my farmer’s market and bought six cabbages, five of which I put in the root cellar. The sixth I made into ‘kraut, using the method I am going to teach you. A month later, I did another cabbage, and so on. Cabbage keeps very well, and this method worked out just swimmingly.

Did you miss that? I think it is earth-shaking. Unless your family eats great volumes of sauerkraut, stop making big crocks of it. You can store the cabbage in your cellar and always have fresh ‘kraut ready for you.

So, I had my conversion experience but had not yet experienced the miracles. I did not trust Lea, despite her extensive and literally microscopic experiment with different fermentation containers.

So, first I did the lowest-rent version, a mason jar ferment. I made ‘kraut as per usual, and crammed it into a jar, with some sort of weight on top. Every day or so I would slowly loosen the jar ring and vent a little gas out so the jar did not explode.

That worked just fine. Venting the jar was easier than skimming scum, and the ‘kraut was good. But venting the jar was still a thing I had to remember to do, and the consequences of forgetting could be very messy.

Next I drilled a hole in the lid of a mason jar and stuck an airlock from our cider-making into it. Also good ‘kraut, though the airlock is tall, and my homemade lid was sub-par. This is basically what many of the commercial sauerkraut airlock systems are—just a two dollar airlock in a hole drilled in the lid of a jar.

Then I happened to find a thin sheet of silicone rubber at the Japanese Dollar Store; I think it was intended to be a baking mat. I cut a silicone disc slightly smaller than the jar ring, and punched a small hole in the centre of my jar lid with a nail. Then I stuffed the jar full of salted cabbage, weighted it down, screwed the lid and ring on, and simply set my silicone disc on top. Again, great ‘kraut.

Parallel to these various experiments were experiments in weighting the ‘kraut. In my crock I used a glass disc—a microwave turntable platter I found at the thrift shop. In the jars I settled on a leaf of cabbage to hold the shredded ‘kraut down, itself held down by a jam jar, or a half-size jam jar, that was pushed down by the lid of the jar.

I also thought I may have invented a new thing—I tried a ziploc baggie of glass marbles.  You can stuff them into any size or shape of jar. But, I try to avoid plastic near my food, and I could never figure out how to make this awesome. Still, a handful of large marbles, what we called Cobs when I was a kid, might work.

These weights and airlocks were a lot of fiddling. And all this time the solution had been on Lea’s page. So here it is. Here is the secret.

Ferment in Fido Jar.

That is all, you are done, no fiddling. The internet hive mind says you should stick with European quality when you buy jars, no cheap mass-market crap. Even at Euro pricing, a two-litre Fido jar is only ten dollars at my local hardware store, and I regularly see Le Parfait jars in the thrift shop for a couple of bucks. The gasket seal allows gas to vent before the jar breaks.

Furthermore, Lea theorizes the gasket makes life easy in other ways. An airlock keeps the jar at atmospheric pressure. When the pressure inside the jar is greater than the pressure of the atmosphere, it bubbles out and everything is equalized. However, the Fido jar is a little pressurized, which assures oxygen stays out of the jar—really preserving the anaerobic environment.

This means you don’t even need a weight for your ‘kraut—it doesn’t matter if cabbage floats or sticks up out of the brine. Could it get any easier? When using the last of my root-cellared cabbage, which has lost moisture over the winter, I have added brine to make sure there was enough liquid, but even that may have been unnecessary.

 

sauerkraut scales

Lea’s article on the science behind sauerkraut brings out a very important point: Sauerkraut is fermented by a succession of bacteria. There are three main bacteria that thrive in different conditions over the course of the fermentation. Off the top of my head, those conditions would be acidity, salt concentration, and temperature.

The acid we want to pickle our vegetables is a waste product for the bacteria, they eat the sugars in the vegetables and produce lactic acid and carbon dioxide as waste. The first generation of bacteria barely acidify the brine before they are poisoned by their own wastes. The second generation takes over and does the bulk of the acidifying before they too are poisoned by increasing acidity. The third generation finishes the job up by bringing the sauerkraut up to a safe level of about 2.5% acidity.

Accuracy matters because the salt concentration is an important part of making sauerkraut. Too little salt and you may allow spoilage bacteria to proliferate, too much salt and you won’t allow the sauerkraut bacteria to proliferate. If you don’t mix the salt in thoroughly, you can get pink yeast, which while it won’t hurt you, is considered a flaw. Do not used iodized salt, as it can make your brine cloudy. Use pure canning salt or kosher salt.

I am always weighing small amounts of things—hops, priming sugar, pink salt—so I bought a digital scale that is allegedly accurate to one-tenth of a gram. I say allegedly because how would I know? Even the global standard kilogram, which is kept in a triple vacuum, is losing weight.

Plus, this scale only costs seven dollars on eBay. To make myself feel better, I also bought a calibration weight on eBay. Using a scale is important because the grain size and grain shape of salt can really change how much a teaspoon of each brand of salt weighs. So, spend ten bucks and get a scale and weight.

But, for you Canadians who want to use a measuring spoon, one level teaspoon of Windsor Coarse Salt for Canning and Pickling weighs 5.5 grams. One level teaspoon of Diamond Crystal Pure and Natural Kosher Salt weighs 3.1 grams. The difference in weight between those two teaspoons of salt is why you should buy a scale.

So here we go.

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How to make sauerkraut the easiest and cheapest way possible.

sauerkraut prep

I use the two litre Fido jar. This costs about ten dollars new.

I find that a medium cabbage, about 7” in diameter, weighs about one kilogram and nicely fills a two litre jar.

Weigh your cabbage, on your kitchen scale or at the store when you buy it.

Now weigh out 2.5% of the cabbage weight in salt. So, if your cabbage is one kilogram, you need 25 grams of salt.

Cut the cabbage in half, then into quarters. Please be very careful about this. The worst knife injury I have ever seen was a chef slicing a giant block of cheese. His hand slid down the back of the knife and over the point of the blade, cutting him very, very badly.

Cut the core out of each quarter. You can grate this and add it to the ‘kraut.

Slice one quarter of the cabbage into long ribbons. I use an OXO Mandoline I got on Craigslist for $20, set for ⅛” thick. Traditional cabbage slicers are big wooden affairs with huge blades. Different people like different thicknesses.

In a large bowl, sprinkle one quarter of your salt on the sliced quarter cabbage. Toss the cabbage and make some effort to get the salt evenly distributed in order to avoid the pink yeast. Massage the salted cabbage enthusiastically to begin bringing the juice out.

Stuff the salted cabbage in the Fido jar and tamp it down. I use a wooden stomper from my food mill. You could use a rolling pin, or a potato masher, or your fists. You want it to be very, very tightly packed. This helps all the cabbage get in the jar and starts releasing juices from cabbage.

A delicious option is to thinly slice one garlic clove and scatter it over the surface of the cabbage.

Repeat with the other three quarters—slice, toss with one-quarter of the salt, pack tightly in the jar and sprinkle with a clove of garlic or other spices.

This should take you twenty minutes or so. Then you just close the lid on the Fido jar and clean your knife.

 

Now, theoretically, you do not need to open the jar for the next six to eight weeks. However, over the next 24 hours I tamp the cabbage a few more times to help it release juices. If the brine has not covered the cabbage by the next day, mix a teaspoon of salt in a cup of water until dissolved and add enough to get an inch or so over your cabbage.

Put the jar in a cupboard in your kitchen so light does not degrade the nutrients. Do not put your ‘kraut in a cool place, the succession of bacteria need to be warm. In the first week the gas being generated from fermentation will vent out the Fido gasket and can bring some brine with it. I put my jar in a dish to catch any overflow.

Now wait for four to eight weeks. In our mild climate, we like about six weeks. Once you have opened your jar of delicious sauerkraut, store it in the refrigerator.

 

I am sure your first bites will thoroughly convert you to this easy and effective method. Go ahead and buy another jar or two, and check out the Fido Fermentation facebook page for more ideas. Remember, Fido jars hold more pressure than airlock fermenting systems, so steer clear of those unless you want to fiddle with weights to hold your vegetables under the brine. Masontops has a kickstarter up for a one-piece vented silicone lid for canning jars. They say, like Fido jars, the Pickle Pipe holds some pressure, so I will be watching this with great interest.

Kimchi anyone? Sauerruben?

 

 

 

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My best loaf yet.

P1060028The slices of bread on my sandwich were not loaf-shaped, they were round—perfectly round—and it was bursting with alfalfa sprouts. Eaten by a young boy with long, wavy hair and often-repaired glasses, this circular sandwich was part of a pretty alien picture in my small-town elementary school.

Mom was baking whole wheat bread in large apple juice tins at that time, which made cylindrical loaves. I think my mother still worries about the many forms of trauma I suffered, but I feel reasonably well adjusted. It didn’t kill me, therefore…

I used a bread machine for a while. I made no-knead bread for a while. I never really got serious about regular bread, because all the kneading seemed like too much work.

But, recently Carmen has been feeling bloated after eating bread. Bread activist Andrew Whitely fingers modern additives that allow very fast rising times for the recent increase in gluten intolerance and celiac disease.

Bread made with all these enzymes and additives can go from a bag of flour to the back of a delivery truck in less than four hours, whereas bread that is traditionally leavened with sourdough can take a day or more. In that time, bacteria can make wheat proteins more digestible for many people.

This article about Whitely blew my mind, so I decided to try making sourdough bread. I have now made a loaf I consider good enough to post here. Like no-knead bread, this loaf requires a cast-iron dutch oven or combo cooker for baking. Or, as I use, a pyrex bowl with a glass lid.

We had eaten some very, very delicious bread, baked by Andrew Plotsky who made the very beautiful Anatomy of Thrift videos. Andrew said the book Tartine Bread was the oracle of wisdom, so I requested it from library. Since it was a bit of a wait I got busy on my sourdough starter.

Sourdough starter is another one of those things that has the ring of the impossible. It feels like only people who are much tougher and smarter—sharpshooters who know esoteric knots—could possibly make sourdough. My parents have a sourdough and it requires feeding with all-purpose flour, sugar and milk—which seems terribly fussy and not conducive to the Small and Delicious Life. But, it turns out wheat is covered with bacteria, and sourdough grows itself. The process is easy, though, like most of my projects, it takes a little time at the right time. I followed these instructions.

So, I have a nice starter, which I stabilized and now keep in the fridge. I feed it only whole wheat flour and water, and everything seems fine; if it dies, I will just make another one.

I did a bunch of research and really enjoyed Exorphin Junkie and the Northwest Sourdough Bakers Forum. Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Bread Every Day is also a lovely book with lots of ideas for shaping loaves, and slightly different information about what is going on in sourdough.

Finally, Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread came from the library. It is indeed a fantastic book, full of romantic stories of bakeries in France and odes to sourdough. The many recipes for things to do with bread made me salivate. But it does not have a 100% whole wheat recipe. Exorphin Junkie suggests following the standard recipe but substituting whole wheat flour, so that is what I did—and then I spent a few weeks futzing around with how much water to add.

If you are serious about sourdough, I would suggest you read the book. But, Martha Stewart has a reasonable synopsis of the technique you can compare to my mongrelized methods. Make the sourdough as above, and start paying attention to Martha at Step 6.

As a side note, when I was a kid we had a flour mill, and to this day, I love the nutty flavour of pancakes made with freshly-ground wheat. Several years ago I found a used Mill-Rite to grind the British Columbia Hard Red Wheat I get from our local bulk food store. The Mill-Rites are true grist mills famous for their slow grind—I think my millstones turn at 45 rpm. This keeps the flour cool during grinding, which, according to the internet wisdom, means nutrients are not destroyed by the heat of grinding.

Before I get to the recipe, I want to mention one more thing I learned—Baker’s Percentages, which make scaling recipes up or down quite easy. In this recipe method, the weight of the flour is always called 100% and everything else is relative to that; your recipe will total 190% or 220% or whatever. I will give both absolute weight and baker’s percentages here.

First, feed up your starter. I like to add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of flour and half that amount of water to my starter the night before, then leave it out on the counter overnight. I may change that slightly, because this beautiful loaf was made with starter that I fed in the morning and waited until it had risen—around noon—before I started the steps below.

100 grams starter
450 grams room temperature water
500 grams freshly ground hard red whole wheat flour
10 grams salt (2 tsp)
50 grams water (2 oz.)

or:
20% starter
90% water
100% WW flour
2% salt
10% water

Mix 100 grams of starter into 450 grams of water, then add 500 grams of flour. Combine until the flour is wetted, then cover and leave for 45 minutes to one hour.
Feed the started by adding 1/4 cup flour and 1/8 cup water, then put it back in the fridge.

After an hour, add 10 grams salt to 50 grams water and stir until dissolved. Add to the dough and squinch everything through your fingers until it is combined. Cover and let sit for 45 minutes to one hour.

Begin gently developing the dough by folding it every half hour. Wet your fingers and slide your hand under the dough, then lift it up, and let it stretch back down to the bowl. Turn the bowl 90 degrees and repeat twice more. Cover and let sit.

Repeat this stretching and folding every half hour for three or four hours.

Turn the dough out onto a cutting board and flour the top. Begin forming it into a ball, kind of rolling it on the board between your cupped hands while tucking the bottom under with your little fingers. You want the top of the ball to be smooth and tight, but not so tight it rips. Flour, cover with a teatowel, and let rest for 30 minutes.

Repeat. After the ball has rested again, line a bowl with the tea towel and flour the towel heavily. Use a dough scraper to make sure the ball is not stuck to the cutting board, then, using the scraper, lift the ball and place it upside down in the bowl. Flour the dough a bit more, then fold the towel over the top and put in the fridge overnight.

The next morning, pull the bowl out of the fridge and let it warm up for a couple of hours. Preheat the oven and your dutch oven to 450°. When it is hot, flour the dutch oven and dump the dough into it, as gently as possible under the circumstances.

Using a razor blade, slash the top of the dough in a square. It is ideal if the blade is flat, so the cuts go in sideways, not down, but don’t burn yourself on your dutch oven.

Put the lid back on, and bake everything for 20 minutes. Then take the lid off and bake for 25 more minutes.

Cool on a rack and give it a bit of time before slicing.

So, this is not hard, and does not take a lot of time in total, but it does take a little time at the right time. This works for us right now, but may not always; Tartine Bread goes into some detail about how to shift the schedule of the bread to suit your timeline.

This bread—100% whole wheat leavened with sourdough—is what I call Next Level Shit. Just as with making fermented and dried Salami Milano, and Parmesan cheese, this bread feels like a major accomplishment. It is delicious and moist, not at all dense, and just as Chad Robertson promises, it keeps very well. It will sit for a week on the countertop without going mouldy. And, Carmen feels good after eating it.

UPDATE:

IMG_0001Every loaf I have made since gets better, and this loaf is the best, with delightful ears and a nice holiness. It was made with BC Red Fife wheat, and took almost two days from feeding the starter to baking—again, just a little time, at the right time. I fed the starter at night and kept it in the fridge, then mixed the dough about noon the next day. I developed the dough all day, then let it rise in the fridge overnight. I took it out about noon the next day and let it rise until dinner, when I baked it off to accompany a delightful chicken-rice soup.

Changing to Red Fife left me with a very wet dough, so I added a little more flour in the development folds, but fortunately I had recently watched this video on high-hydration doughs.

I also enjoyed this video on developing the gluten sheath outside dough balls. There is so much to learn for the Small and Delicious Life, so much knowledge we have lost—knowledge that used to be as water to fish.

Miscellaneous trivia about the Ten Percent World:

My dear friend J.B. MacKinnon is officially on his book tour for The Once and Future World.

I encourage you—I insist—to buy many copies for holiday gifts. Write the Colbert Report and ask to have him on as a guest. But mostly you should read it and love it.

I will link to some reviews to do greater justice, but I want to talk about the 10% world and wheat. James coined the phrase to describe how much of nature we have left—even in the most wild and abundant places there is only about 10% of the historic abundance. He prescribes we remember, reconnect and rewild.

As always, James sees things more from nature, and I see things more from craft; we are always trying to peer into the mysterious and wonderful world the other inhabits. And here, I am gleefully appropriating his phrase for craft.

While traveling this summer, we spent a very lovely few days outside Amsterdam in a town called Laren. Laren has many, many houses with thatched roofs. They are more expensive upfront, but also the most durable, and are very insulating. And insanely beautiful.

Laren, the NetherlandsBut, I learned the modern wheat varieties, which are bred to have short stalks so as to devote more energy to the grain rather than the stem, are no good for thatching—the Dutch must now import wheat straw for their thatching.

So, a beautiful ecosystem of food and shelter, recycling, manual skills of field and home has been disrupted by the drive for better yield and higher profits by agribusiness. A 10% world indeed.

 

Review of The Once and Future World in the Chicago Tribune

Review of The Once and Future World in Harper’s Online

Review of The Once and Future World in the Globe and Mail

Review of The Once and Future World in the National Post

Great quote from the National Post interview: “Nature may not be what it was,” he writes, “but it isn’t simply gone. It’s waiting.”

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I don’t want salvation.

I watched a deer die this week. It took about ninety seconds, which is a lot longer than I hope for, and the deer fought hard to live. The shock, pain and fear it was experiencing as it struggled against the death spreading from the bullet wound in its chest was not pleasant to watch, but I didn’t turn away.

That was Thursday.

On Wednesday, the Archdruid releases his regular post, and this week he clarified his thoughts on a rising ecological sensibility. I found this paragraph to be particularly resonant:

It’s one thing to proclaim salvation from nature, history, and the human condition to those who want that salvation but no longer believe that the ideology you’re offering can provide it. It’s quite another to [proclaim salvation] to people who no longer want the salvation you’re offering—people for whom nature, history, and the human condition aren’t a trap to escape, as they have been for most people in the western world for the last two millennia, but a reality to embrace in delight and wonder.

This quote draws heavily on a topic Greer has been exploring recently, the Civil Religion of Progress, in which, he argues, Progress has pretty much been swapped point-for-point for God in the Judeo-Christian framework.

If I can paraphrase—Life is Hard. It is uncertain: you never know when your crops will fail, your company will downsize, or the river will flood. There is interpersonal pain: first as a child, then as a teenager going through high school, then trying to find your way as an adult, then coping with the realities of adult and romantic relationships, then death of friends, family and yourself. There is lots of hard work: school and training, the grind in the fields or the office, the maintenance of hearth and home, cooking and cleaning.

So step right up. Who wants salvation?!? We got a lovely god promising eternal life in heaven, reunited with your loved ones and with not a scrap of work to do. We got machines that will eliminate toil and kitchens that will clean themselves and food heated with just the press of a button. We got rocketships to take us off this damn dustball.

And especially, if you are sick or dying or aching with worry for a loved one, we have God’s Plan, or modern medicine, and funeral homes so you don’t need to touch the dead, and hearses so you don’t need to carry the weight of the casket, and backhoes to dump the dirt back in the hole.

So, the goals are the same—salvation from pain and toil—but the ideologies used to achieve those goals are different, theism or progress.

But what if you don’t want to be saved from pain and toil? What if you don’t want to escape the human condition?

I have come to think the desire for salvation from toil is a very big problem. Instead, I am trying to learn to love the work of providing for myself and my family. I don’t mean going to an office and making money to pay someone to do everything for me, I mean growing the food for our table, grinding the grains and baking the bread, brewing the cider. It is repetitive and difficult and capricious, but it feels very real.

Regarding salvation from pain, I have been influenced by Stephen Jenkinson, another wise, bearded man. From The Star:

Formerly a director of children’s grief and palliative care at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, and assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Family and Community Medicine, Jenkinson now makes a living running workshops on care of the dying, dealing with grief, and what he calls deep living.

“Death isn’t something that happens to you. It’s something you do. You get to choose the manner in which you die: the quality of it, the nature of it.”

The National Film Board produced a film about Jenkinson, Griefwalker, which we watched at one of his talks. I don’t remember the film well, as it was sandwiched between several hours of mind-blowing oratory about death and the meaning of words. You can watch it on the NFB website.

And that brings me back to the deer. As Jenkinson says, “We don’t have to like death, who would? But we do have to befriend it.”

I think there is meaning in killing what you eat. Our rabbit tastes all the richer stewed with the difficulty of taking their lives. It is not just the flavour of meat and vegetables, it tastes like connection to the ecosphere. It tastes like I am a little closer to knowing my position on the food chain.

So that deer had the worst two minutes of its life in front of me. Then I helped gut it, and a couple of days later we skinned it and butchered it into various cuts for freezing. But that night we ate the tenderloin, which is cut from inside the haunches, alongside the spine. Carmen pan-roasted it in cast iron, then cut it into medallions and served it with a sauce of jus and chantrelle mushrooms, which came from the same forest as the deer, abundant after the recent rain.

My eyes welled up as I took the first bite. I believe our world would be healthier if we saw ourselves as part of nature, not above it—but abstract thoughts like that are made up of many little specifics, and I felt bad for taking that deer’s life.

I felt bad. I hurt—but I don’t need saving from the human condition.

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