Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Lesson in Diversity from Our Friends, the Germs

I have now been researching and writing about ancient foodways for over 20 years, and only now am I starting to really know a little about the subject.  No one has yet accused me of being a brilliant scholar, but I am dogged and careful so that when a pearl of wisdom obtrudes on my dim intellect, it tends to be fairly reliable.  And in all those twenty-some-odd years, two fairly significant pearls have surprised, delighted and amazed me.  In fact, they have completely transformed my ways of thinking about food.

One of those I have mentioned several times in past blogs, but it’s worth repeating:  modern industrial food technologies are capable of producing foods more cheaply and more efficiently, but they are not necessarily capable of making them better.  As a child of the 1950s, we were indoctrinated to believe that science and its handmaiden technology make everything better.  Now, I’m no Luddite, but I’m here to testify, neighbor, t’aint so!  If you’ve ever tasted an artisinal loaf of bread from a wood-fired oven, you know perfectly well what I mean; there is simply no comparison with industrial bread.  The world’s finest cheeses, sausages, hams, and wines are still largely hand-crafted or at least follow the old ways as much as time and expense will permit.

Another article of faith that we learned back a hundred years ago is that germs are enemies to be avoided if at all possible, and if unavoidable, to be nuked with antibiotics.  Again, I’m no hippy-dippy whack job who believes that tetanus can be cured with the right dietary regimen.  Hey, I had scarlet fever as a kid and pneumonia twice as an adult, and that’s not to mention all the stab wounds from rusty nails and the dozen other hazards of roaming a farm in West Tennessee with my fellow knucklehead, Tom Barton.  But for the grace of antibiotics, I’d be dead by now at least five times over.  But our simplistic notion that all germs are bad has led us to a pretty grim place in modern medicine, as well as in modern food.

     We should have known better.  Germs are an intrinsic part of being human.  We now know that the average human body contains well over 100 trillion germ cells.  In fact, there are something like 10 times as many germ cells as human cells in the human body.  Some evolutionary scientists now suspect that so-called prokaryotes, the little critters which lack cell nuclei, especially bacteria, and which preceded our eukaryote ancestors in biological evolution by at least a billion years, subsumed viruses within an organelle to create what we now call a cell nucleus. And in that way were the first eurkaryotes born, and the evolutionary impetus that ultimately generated homo sapiens sapiens was set in motion. Thus it is possible that the human body is at a very basic level a host structure for a vast and multi-cultural community of bacteria, something analogous to the calcified reef that coral organisms create to live in.

So germ-hatred in a real sense is a form of self-hatred, and it has had some pretty dire consequences in modern medicine. Bacteria also have a preternatural ability to share genetic material and to mutate accordingly, and for that reason our excessive use of antibiotics has led (inevitably, we now know) to the genesis of super-germs which laugh at our puny biocins.  In my first book, I compared the use of a broad-spectrum antibiotic to kill off a germ living in one part of a human body to the use of a neutron bomb to kill off the crackheads infesting one street in a huge city.  Effective, at least in the short run, but pretty darned ham-fisted.

That anti-germ bias has made its way into the food industries as well, of course.  There are some really bad dudes which love to attack us by way of foods, things like tuberculosis and staphylococcus aureus, and botulism.  Those bad germs we call pathogens, and they richly deserve to be nuked.  But, the thing is, there are literally thousands of good germs in the food world which are our dear friends, often in ways we hardly yet suspect, and when we nuke the bad guys…  So we need to be discrete.

Some of my favorite little critters are the yeasts which give us alcoholic fermentations of beer and wine and bread.  Obviously, there is no beer or wine without yeasts, especially Saccharomyces cerevisiae, but lately it is possible to buy ‘bread’ which is ‘risen’ with industrial gases and no yeast.  A bigger problem, in my opinion, is that many modern bakers use S. cerevisiae to the exclusion of all other organisms.  In traditional breadmaking, bread dough is leavened with a starter, usually a portion a previous successful culture, which is mixed with warm water and a bit of sugar and allowed to sit out overnight to incubate.  During the night the starter is visited by a wonderful assortment of bacteria, and when the starter is mixed with flour to create the dough, these little guys ferment the sugars converted by their buddies the yeasts from the starches in wheat to produce a sourdough product.  And sourdough bread is a vastly superior product, more digestible, more nutritious, and infinitely more probiotic.  Look, if a doctor has diagnosed you with celiac disease, lay off the bread.  But if you think you’re gluten-intolerant, try a little experiment; eat some artisinal sourdough and, if nothing dramatic happens, continue to eat it regularly for a month or so.  I will give you better than even odds that your problem isn’t with gluten, it’s with the polysaccharides in bread that should have been predigested for you by some very friendly little germs.

The same scenario occurs with cheese as well.  So-called ‘processed cheese food’ is a perfectly good product, but it really shouldn’t be called cheese at all.  Real cheese is the product of the fermentation of milk sugars, especially lactose, by various lactic acid bacteria which metabolize lactose to lactic acid and create an acidic environment that makes the cheese safe, vastly more digestible, and delicious.  But the thing is, raw milk contains a whole sorority of these little germs, what is called a SCOBY, a ‘symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeasts’.  When milk is pasteurized for industrial cheese, the whole colony is wiped out, and then the milk is cultured, typically with Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus.  And the problems begin.  First, the cheeses never have the same complex flavors.  Second, a colony with only two strains of germ is inherently more susceptible to the attacks of bad guys, far less adaptable to the trauma, and thus far less able to fight them off.  Lab cultures are especially susceptible to viruses called bacteriophages that literally eat the good guys, and in order to fight these dread invaders, industrial creameries have to resort to ridiculous protocols for sterility and make massive use of chemical agents.  Meanwhile, high-quality raw milk typically contains six or more strains of bacteria and yeast, and these produce a healthful, highly digestible product which is complex in flavor and absolutely delicious.  And this under sanitary but by no means sterile conditions.

There is a famous example of a Benedictine nun in Connecticut named Sister Noella Marcellino who makes a French-style raw-milk cheese called Saint Nectaire using traditional farmhouse methods.  The germ police came calling when they heard she was using a wooden tub to produce her cheeses and, predictably, tried to force her to use stainless steel and sterilizers.  But Sister Noella knew perfectly well that the pores of her old wooden tub contained her SCOBY and they would do the dirty business for her, as they always had.  Oh, and I should mention, Sister Noella has a Ph.D. in microbiology.  She appealed to the state director of public health and, to his everlasting credit, he was willing to permit an experiment pitting sterile stainless against the good nun’s old oaken bucket and her secret allies.  Sister Noella deliberately infected both batches with strains of E. coli.  No need to tell you who won.  And Sister Noella and many others point out that pasteurization has in some ways encouraged more pathogenesis rather than less, because unscrupulous dairymen who know that their product will be pasteurized maintain far lower standards of dairy hygiene than do raw-milk purveyors.  Sister Noella’s milk comes from dairy cows lovingly tended and milked by the nuns right there on the estate, so they know that the milk they use is healthy milk from healthy cows.

The same scenario applies to some of the world’s finest charcuterie and beers, and it’s amazing how often the SCOBYs for these seemingly diverse foods have members of the same tribes, such as Leuconostoc and Pediococcus.  Even wine makers are returning to natural fermentations instead of defined inoculations because the wild yeasts, especially the so-called apiculate yeasts, produce a more complex product.  And if you’re not eating naturally fermented vegetables such as saurkraut and kimchi or naturally fermented beverages such as kombucha, you are depriving your system of some of your most dependable potential allies in the microflora of your gut.

There’s a lesson here for all of us, I think.  I know globalization scares a lot of people, not just here but over much of the developed world.  And it’s so easy to identify immigrants as ‘the other’; after all, they’re so often a different color, or speak with an accent, or worship in a different way.  Ironically, immigrants seem to be especially frightening to natives in the heartland, where there are so few of them.  I’ve had the good fortune to teach a large number of first- and second-generation immigrant kids at Cary High School over the course of the last 20 years, and I’m here to testify that those kids have been the light of my life:  hard-working, intelligent, respectful, and intensely patriotic.  Mixed cultures in foods are better than pure strains because they produce a healthier product far better equipped to fight off pathogens and spoilage organisms.  Plus, they create wonderful, complex, intense flavors in foods that would otherwise be boringly bland.  To borrow a metaphor, in the great, mixing pot of American culture, we could stand to take a page from the playbook of our little microbial friends.