2011 summer farm intern Cody Hooks ’13 on discovering a fermentation recipe in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library:
College students all know the torment that is December. On one hand, you have the promise of winter break, replete with home cooked meals, friends from home, and total hours of sleep not slept the semester prior. Before you can get there, however, you have to make it through those brutal little things called finals: greasy takeout, zero social interaction, and an unfathomable amount of hours spent in the library. Terrible, I know. It makes me pretty frustrated, too.
During one of my many visits to Beinecke Library, I came across a page from La Cuisine Créole, a New Orleans cookbook that many folks consider the first of its kind. Authored in 1885 by cultural writer Lafcadio Hearn, this book is a compilation of the recipes and wisdom of free women of color living in the Crescent City. While it had directions for dishes we understand as traditional New Orleans fare—filé and okra gumbo, crawfish, and frog legs—La Cuisine Créole also has recipes that reveal food traditions that industrialization has largely killed off. If you look at the picture above, you can learn how “to make good vinegar:”
Mix a quart of molasses in three gallons of rain water; add to this, one pint sharp yeast. Let it ferment and stand four weeks; you will then have good vinegar.
Making vinegar (as well as pickled oysters, mind you) wasn’t anything special in New Orleans’ late 19th century food culture. Everyone was doing it with the simplest of ingredients, including rainwater. Not too many people would dare attempt that sort of culinary experiment today – or any kind of at-home fermentation for that matter. Thankfully, there are a few folks who do dare, like fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz, who visited Yale earlier this semester. Our Yale community also has a growing number of undergraduates, graduate students, and employees who dabble in kimchees, bubbly brews, and other fermented foods.
How about this break, you and your folks start a sourdough bug and bake some delicious bread, brew some honey wine, or throw together some sauerkraut. Y’all don’t even have to use rainwater! I promise you’ll have fun no matter the outcome. That’s the great thing about break: you don’t have to worry yourself silly about results. Happy Holidays and Happy Fermenting!