When people ask what I do, I usually smile widely before answering, “I’m a pickler.”
There are few things more intriguing, bizarre, or comical than a fairly average looking 25 year old purporting to form her career around being elbow deep in brine. This is undoubtedly because careers like “pickler,” and “farmer,” have become something of an anachronism for several generations. And although pickling wasn’t taught in school, and the closest my suburban upbringing came to homesteading was my mother’s nightly ritual of reading Laura Ingalls Wilder, preservation has truly become my daily bread.
Graduating from the University of Michigan in 2008 with little interest in Judaism, I had worked on an organic farm, in a “from-scratch” pizza kitchen, and spent many afternoons dismayed over my inability to make homemade butter. I was shocked when a google search led me to the promise of these same fulfillments, available through a Jewish Environmental Fellowship called Adamah. Judaism and environmentalism had never before been linked, let alone adjacent, in my experiences.
I spent a summer and a fall at Adamah, staying on past my fellowship to be the pickle apprentice. Agriculture-based Judaism taught me the value of roots, and I ultimately found myself yearning for my home city of Detroit. I got an Americorps position through a Detroit non-profit as an urban agriculture apprentice with an expertise in food preserving. I’ve been thrilled to see a growing interest in food and agriculture arrive alongside a desire for traditional food knowledge. Canning, fermenting, drying, and root cellaring, all so recently discarded, are being sought after with gusto. I continued my foray into this sweet, salty, sauer, and starchy realm until my home kitchen was so thoroughly inundated with preserves, I started my own business, Suddenly Sauer.
Immediately, the intentionality informing my Jewish life and my food life was put to the test. Sourcing 20-40 pounds of ethically grown produce a week in a city noted for its lack of access to fresh food, proved intimidating. Yet, Detroit is often touted as a model of urban agriculture, an effort spearheaded by folks who have been growing food on varying scales of productivity and community involvement for decades. As a small producer with a background in urban agriculture, I’ve been fortunate to tap into this flurry of activity. For now, I’m making small batches of pickles in my home kitchen, but some day soon I hope to have a production kitchen and land to grow on. I’m most excited by the potential for collaborating with employees, students, partners, and producers as together we relearn how to sustain a local food system.
So while I call myself a pickler, I truly see myself as a preservationist. I’ve come to believe that my work is only marginally about the literal preservation of a vegetable at risk of spoiling. What keeps me going is the preservation of our knowledge, of the rhythms our ancestors had mapped onto their very existence, and the grounded evolution (or, if you will, fermentation) of our Jewish and human selves in an ever-changing world.
This simple recipe, introduced to me by the ADAMAH pickle princess (who oversaw me when I was apprenticing) gives way to a most delicious, complex, and unique pickle. This recipe makes 1 quart.
3 pounds turnips, topped, tipped, and washed with any bad parts cut off, but the skins left mostly intact
1 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoons fresh ground pepper
1) In a food processor, shred turnips with a 4mm blade.
2) Then salt them, tasting the turnips once they’re well mixed to make sure that there is enough salt added. They should taste overly salty, but the flavor should dissipate after 30 seconds or so. If the salty flavor sticks around, they’re probably over salted (you can compensate by adding more turnips). If the salt flavor isn’t very strong to begin with, you probably need to add a bit more, ½ teaspoon at a time.
3) Once properly salted, add your pepper, then pack the mixture tightly into one or two quart jars, leaving at least an inch of head space.
4) Place a food-grade plastic bag filled with 1 cup of water (ziplocs work well) in the head of the jar to help keep the turnips below the brine. Let them ferment in the dark between 60 and 70 degrees for 2 weeks, tasting them every couple of days. When you like how they taste, take out the bag, scrape off any molded turnips off the top layer, screw on the cap, and stick them in the fridge!
Editor’s Note: Want to learn more about fermentation, pickling and sauerruben from Blair Nosan and other amazing presenters? Join 250 Jewish foodies at the Hazon Food Conference in Sonoma County, CA on Dec 23-26! Blair will be teaching two sessions - What’s in a Dill? Vegetable Fermentation with a Twist; and Get Cultured! Homemade Dairy Products for All about educating, programming and growing food.