Pickle Power

Ask Mark Stogsdill what he does for a living and this is what you'd hear: "I'm the creator of tiny universes. I put together elements of life, then let time run its course." And here I thought he was just the pickle guy.

Stogsdill, owner of Happy Pantry, a purveyor of pickled and fermented foods, began his "wild trip" of fermenting foods three years ago after losing his job and gaining a bellyache: "I was having stomach issues. I started [eating fermented foods] and they went away. And my wife used to have terrible allergies, and now they're gone. Completely," he says.

Really? Are fermented foods a panacea? For Stogsdill, they are.

"They're the cure-all. They really are," he declares. Fermented foods are chock-full of probiotics, the healthy bacteria that our guts and bodies need. According to Stogsdill, "Probiotics wipe out bad bacteria and let good bacteria colonize in your gut. That balance of good bacteria in your body is the key to health."

Indeed, bacteria have been getting a lot of attention lately, notably in a feature story by Michael Pollan published in the May 15, 2013, The New York Times Magazine. Although more research needs to be conducted to determine the full extent of bacteria's role in our health, we know that diets rich in healthy bacteria, such as those found in fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut and kombucha (a fermented tea drink), benefit the digestive system as well as fortify the immune system.

Alan Conrad, the founder of Edible Alchemy, a local purveyor of fermented foods, explains, "With bacteria, it's about consistencies. It's not about taking one pill a week, or the yogurt from two days ago. You need to have probiotics daily." While he recognizes that some people might prefer to pop a probiotic supplement than nosh on pickled beets, he prefers to eat probiotic foods that naturally house a "broad spectrum of healthy little critters." Stogsdill concurs: "Supplements have three to four different strains of bacteria in them. In fermented foods you might have around 15 different bacteria." More than the quantity, "eating a broad spectrum of bacteria" is most beneficial to your health," adds Gisela Claasen, owner of Curds and Wine, in La Mesa, who specializes in DIY yogurt, cheese and wine. Claasen adds that making your own probiotic foods "could potentially be [healthier] because you know exactly what's going into them. You have more control."

Austin Durant, founder of the Fermenters Club, an organization dedicated to "reviving the tradition of fermented foods," fully embraces the DIY philosophy. For Durant, fermenting isn't purely about health; it is also economical, green and "old-timey," helping people reconnect to their family roots.

"Go back two generations and most of our grandparents pickled foods. [Fermenting] is important for me not only for health benefits but also for the cultural manifestations. It puts me in touch with my cultural and bacterial ancestors," he says.

Plus, fermented foods taste great.

"The flavor of fermented foods is much more complex than vinegar-pickled foods," says Durant, who punctuates our interview by repeatedly dipping his fork into a gallon jar of his dill and garlic pickles, savoring their heady aroma and pungent flavor. He even audaciously places an entire garlic clove in his mouth and begins chewing.

"It's not that garlicky," he says between bites. "The fermenting reduces the sharpness."

I eat the pickles. I pass on the garlic cloves.

Yet, like Durant I admire fermented foods' unabashed flavor. Stogsdill offers 100% organic seasonal kimchi and sauerkraut made from locally sourced produce. The fiery "Scarrots" are made with carrots, onion, ginger, garlic and Serrano chilies that are a symphony of flavors—salty, spicy, sour, earthy. I ask to buy a jar, but he tells me it's one of only a precious few from last year. I can't get him to budge. They're that good.

Stogsdill recommends eating a small serving before your regular meal as it "pre-digests food for us, which helps metabolize food." Conrad claims that drinking kombucha before a meal will help reduce your appetite, making you eat less overall. Indeed, since he began eating fermented foods on a daily basis, he has dropped over 25 pounds. "But I'm not orthodox about anything," he adds. "For me, pleasure's the measure." In other words, eat your yogurt and drink your kombucha when you want to and you will most enjoy it.

If you're looking to add a powerful health food to your diet, support local farmers and artisans, or join a community of fellow food lovers, then consider jumping on the fermented foods bandwagon. You and your bacteria will be in good company.

Happy Pantry
5611 Palmer Way, Ste B Carlsbad, California

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