Early on a Saturday just before Thanksgiving, about a dozen people are gathered at Garden Dreams greenhouse in Wilkinsburg. Mason jars, brightly colored mats, sharp kitchen knives, and crisp heads of cabbage await on folding tables before us, the tools we’ll employ in “Fall Vegetable Ferments,” a workshop directed by Trevor Ring through Community Cultures.
“If you put your hand anywhere on a map, whatever country you touch will have used fermentation,” says Ring. Land on China and you have kombucha, alight upon Korea and you’ve got kimchi; both trendy, tony darlings adored not only for their distinctive flavors but for the culinary sophistication they represent for the American gourmands who’ve embraced them in their diets. Settle on Germany, and there’s sauerkraut as the national dish, pivotal in Central and Eastern European fare, tracing all the way back to the Western Roman Empire, and more recently, to a lot of our grandmothers.
And that, along with pickled vegetables, is what we’ll roll up our sleeves (quite literally) to get hands-on education in preparing, in this morning-long class introducing the food preservation techniques that aren’t only the mode of the moment, as foodie culture celebrates all things fermented, but an ancient art transcending time and place.
“Most of us have been disconnected from our great grandparents’ practices of fermenting vegetables in a way that was intuitive for them, and that’s been lost over time,” says Ring. “I think it’s something we have to retrain ourselves for.” He founded Community Cultures in part to be a resource for that training, and while the business only became official about a year ago, Ring has been working in fermentation education and production for nearly a decade.
As a culinary school student, a friend acquainted Ring with various fermented products, and kombucha was the first to captivate him. He refers to it as his “gateway ferment”, and cites it as a not only the catalyst for the business he’s developed, but for his improved health as well. Once beset by stomach issues, he found that consumption of it alleviated his pain within minutes. “I was really intrigued from a culinary perspective, from a historical perspective, and from a nutritional perspective, how I felt after consuming fermented products.” He investigated further, clocking how many things fell into the category, registering how regularly he was consuming fermented foods without even knowing it, and learning to make as many as he could. “Slowly I started to recognize how all of these are interconnected through this one really basic, yet specific, approach to preservation.”
He did his Master’s thesis at Chatham on a multi-revenue stream fermentation business, and his goal is to split attention evenly between making and selling products and conducting workshops and classes. The former allows the opportunity for creative exploration. The latter shares practical knowledge, but goes beyond advancing a skill to embody a philosophy which promotes sufficiency, understanding, and a relationship with food that is deliberate, considered, mindful. “People are seeing the value of this,” says Ring. “and I just want to make it accessible.”
For millennia human beings have been eating food that we’ve created fully, responsible for every step of the process, but now many of us are reliant on what’s predominantly store bought and frequently pre-prepared for us. Though we’re moving towards a stronger, more informed connection with our food, we aren’t necessarily always comfortable with our ability to generate it- we don’t know if we can do things safely, we don’t know if we can do them right. “There’s definitely that hurdle, and I think it’s been ingrained in us over the past hundred years or so. That makes an in-person workshop very valuable,” says Ring. “Someone reading a recipe isn’t going to feel as confident as they will having someone walk them through the process.”
This confidence is definitely achieved during the two-hours we spend digging in. As we chop, soak, squeeze, and jar, Ring talks history, health, and safety in a thorough, fun manner that makes us feel that even when we walk out the door and leave the tools that greeted us behind, we’ll be equipped with all the tools we need to try this at home.
Upcoming workshops include in-person instruction on sodas incorporating the flavors of winter, hands-on creation of hot sauce and salsa; and the spirited offering of cider, wine and vinegar; Ring will also present an online veggie tutorial. Additionally, private and group events can be built for getting together for something different with friends and fam or a much-needed alternative to typical workplace outings.
“People are fascinated by this process,” says Ring. “For health reasons, to start a new hobby, for amazing flavor. As humans this is something that connects us all culturally to each other, and also connects us to our past and where we came from.”