An interesting tradition my mother recalls from growing up is that when she and her family visited the (paternal) grandparents, the Rahenkamps, her grandmother would always serve some kind of relish or pickled item along with the evening meal. Since the Rahenkamp family is of German descent, this is not surprising – one can hardly imagine German food without thinking of sauerkraut and pickled cucumbers. However, Germany is only one of many countries where these types of foods exist. In fact, most if not all cultures prepared and ate at least one of these items at one time or another. Unlike the prosperous free world today where we think of these items as condiments that we add to our food because they are tasty, past cultures kept these foods, which were originally fermented, out of necessity. Fermentation was a way to preserve foods for months without refrigeration, and to make foods that are hard on the bowels (like raw cabbage) more digestible. Adding salt to vegetables to prevent mold growth, and allowing the bacteria and yeast in the local environment to take over, our ancestors could preserve items for long trips and cold winters. The friendly microbes in the vegetables (or fruits or milk or other foods) break down the sugars and convert them to acids as a defense mechanism, producing a complex, sour flavor. Eating such foods fortifies the immune system and gastrointestinal tract with beneficial bacteria, and the acid and enzymes released during fermentation aid in the digestion of the rest of the meal. My informant, my mother, believes that her grandmother served these relishes as part of the tradition of using them for good digestion. Unfortunately, most pickled items seen today are not fermented, but merely canned in vinegar (including those my great grandmother used). They carry none of the health benefits and are sterile instead of crawling with friendly microbes. The real fermentation process actually increases nutrients – sauerkraut, in fact, was used to prevent scurvy on long voyages across the Atlantic, due to its high vitamin C content and its ability to keep for months without spoiling.
The Great Physician’s Rx for Health and Wellness, by Jordan S. Rubin, page 10, concurs that “Every sauce and condiment has its beginnings as a fermented food and throughout history has always been healthy.” Several fermented foods are mentioned, including ketchup, which is credited to the Chinese, who began it as a fermented fish brine.