Author Archives: justinross

German Fermented Vegetables

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.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes

This special feast was a tradition that my father’s father observed with his family before he married.  According to my informant, this was the traditional meal of Christmas Eve.  After going to church to attend the midnight Mass before Christmas Day, my grandfather’s family would come home and eat Seven Fishes Dinner, quite a generous meal, during the wee hours of Christmas morning.  As my mother has always aimed to have dinner on the table around six or seven o’clock, I found this quite shocking, but my informant added that they did not arrive home until around one in the morning to enjoy the feast.  This feast obviously included several varieties of seafood, not limited to just fish.  My informant recalled salt cod, shrimp, and calamari/squid, as examples of items my great grandfather ate on Christmas morning.

Annotation/additional comments:
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in an article on Dec. 22, 2005 (, recognizes the Seven Fishes of Christmas Eve as an Italian tradition and describes a restaurant owning family’s variation of the feast.  Their meal includes “scrod florentine, breaded filets in a bed of spinach; anchovies olio, pasta cooked with oil, garlic and the salty fish; linguine with white clam sauce; fried calamari rings,” and “deep-fried smelts, decapitated and marinated in lemon.”  This is the meal they serve at home, not at the restaurant.  The family also serves the feast as a special at their restaurant.
In the article, the main chef adds that there are “many theories” regarding the meaning behind the Seven Fishes of Christmas Eve.  He claims, “It has always meant the Seven Sacraments,” adding that some families celebrate with twelve or even thirteen varieties of seafood, to represent the twelve disciples and Jesus.  He suggests that the arms of the squid may have symbolic significance (“how God reaches out to us”), and that “the eel was supposed to be the speed in which Jesus’ word travels through the world.”
Many changes in the feast have been made over the years in this family, including the removal of eel from the menu and of the heads from the fish, and obviously many changes have occurred in various communities since whenever this tradition began.  According to the newspaper article, this family also celebrates their feast after seven o’clock rather than midnight like my grandfather.  Regardless of the variations in religious symbolism and details of the menu, this traditional feast illustrates the role of food in uniting and defining a culture, in this case Italians or Italian Catholics.

Saudi Hiccup Remedy

Press a wet newspaper against the center of your forehead.


Who ever consults a medical textbook when they get a case of the hiccups?  There must be more methods of curing the hiccups (or at least attempting such) than for any other frustration that ails the human body, and it seems everyone has heard and tried at least one of these folk remedies.  I have heard of many supposed hiccup cures myself: scare the person with the hiccups, gulp down water rhythmically (seven times in one particular variant), rub your earlobe with your fingers (this one has actually produced results on me – perhaps there is some real nerve connection there or perhaps it is the placebo effect), drink sugar water, hold your breath.
Recently, my roommate (Lebanese) and I, along with a friend of his from Saudi Arabia (my informant), were driving to buy food, and my roommate began hiccuping quite forcefully.  Predictably, everyone began reciting the hiccup-cure ideas they had learned growing up.  Since my roommate was driving, he unfortunately had to suffer the hiccups (and did for quite some time) until they passed.  I asked the informant how he would cure the hiccups back where he used to live in Arabia, and his method was the most unusual I had ever heard.  He said his mother used to soak a newspaper and press it against his forehead.  The informant did not know why this worked, but claimed it did.  Perhaps the cold, wet sensation triggers a reset button in the nerves and stops the spasms, or again, perhaps it is just the placebo effect – and it is doubtful that any medical guide would ever confirm this for us or would address the effectiveness of these traditional remedies.

Italian Toast

“This wine is good and clear.
Good health to everyone.
Hope they bring to the cemetery the ones
who wanted to do away with it.”

This saying has been passed down through the paternal side of my family, who are all of Italian heritage.  My father’s grandparents were immigrants in the early twentieth century and were the last to speak Italian fluently in my father’s genealogy.  Some of my older relatives still remember this saying, however, and have said it on occasion though it is obsolete.  My father begins it when toasting to his family, but never gets past the first sentence.  As it involves Prohibition (1920-1933), its terminus post quem is 1920.  As recent immigrants, my great grandparents had left a country where good wine was plentiful and many people drank it daily, and were now faced with an across-the-board ban on every kind of alcoholic beverage.  According to my informant, the Italian men who immigrated near this time would continue to make wine that their families would drink, keeping it hidden in their cellars while brewing.  When the wine was finished and illegally drunk, a toast such as this would be offered.  This particular saying was either created or picked up by one of my father’s grandparents, and as my family has increasingly forgotten Italian (I know essentially none), the saying has remained, whether or not my relatives are aware that it is an anachronism.  Though it is obsolete, it reminds us of our common heritage and of my great-grandparents (now deceased) and their families.

UFO Sighting

My grandfather still recalls an incident that occured on a flight to Washington D. C. approximately fifty years ago.  He remembered being in the aisle seat, while the plane was approaching the airport at twilight.  Looking out the window, he saw an object that he describes as having a “saucer-like bottom” and a smaller inverted saucer on top.  It was off in the distance, passing through the clouds on a parallel path to the airplane.  He said he could not estimate its size, as he could not tell how far away the object was.  Along the edge of the saucer, he mentioned what he called lighted windows or lights.  He was not the only witness of the incident; he recalled a man whose name I will abbreviate F. B., in the seat next to him, that also saw the object.  After the incident was over, my grandfather and F. B. separately sketched their own impression of what the craft looked like, and both the drawings matched.  My grandfather maintains an agnostic view toward the object he saw in the sky.  He indicated that if he were a skeptic, he would try to rationalize it by calling it a reflection of the airplane itself in the clouds; however, he does not hold to this theory.  Rather, he said it excited him, as it occurred in the era when UFO’s were a big cultural phenomenon.
Are these UFO’s still a cultural phenomenon, or have they faded out?  Certainly sightings still occur widely and the subject matter is still quite popular; consider that the paranormal-oriented radio show Coast to Coast AM is the most popular late night talk-radio show in the world.  Why do UFO’s excite people so much in the modern world?  I propose that in America and other developing nations that engage in free enterprise and capitalism, the opportunity of technological innovation promotes a forward outlook on society, civilization, and life in general.  As airplane flights were becoming available to the masses in the mid-twentieth century (when my grandfather’s sighting occurred), UFO’s foreshadowed futuristic technology in the minds of a forward-looking people.  In other nations, which have more monarchic or dictatorial governments, and in less-developed countries, past-oriented outlooks on unidentified flying objects are more common.  Explanations usually involve ancient times or spirituality.  As free trade and global business continue to spread, however, the idea of beings and craft from other parts of the universe or from other dimensions of reality will probably continue to evolve into a global concept.