Are we devoid of culture?
Cultured foods, especially fermented milk products, were once a much larger part of our collective diet. From necessity, many cultures discovered how to preserve milk and make delicious foods in the process. In the time before industrialization, cultured milk was a way of life.
Yogurt, buttermilk, sour cream, cream cheese, cottage cheese, and crème fraiche are common foods that have traditionally been made by allowing milk to sour. Without pasteurization or refrigeration, milk sours and separates. This process of lacto-fermentation involves the production of lactic acid—friendly bacteria break down milk sugar and milk protein to produce enough lactic acid to inactivate all the nasty bacteria. This preserves the milk for a time, making it safe to eat and imparting a sour taste. We seem to have lost the taste for sour milk, and with it we’ve lost a lot of food culture.
It’s useful to consider what we understand as culture. “Culture” is defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary as “the act or process of cultivating living material (as bacteria or viruses) in prepared nutrient media; also: a product of such cultivation.” This doesn’t sound very appetizing—in fact, it hardly sounds like food at all. Culture is also defined as “enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training.” If we no longer recognize culturing as making food, and if cultured foods are no longer held in good taste, is our intellect or our training to blame rather than our taste buds?
We must consider what influences our current food culture. Food is big business. National food safety regulations support food commercialization and tell us that the food we prepare ourselves poses health risks. The result is that we’ve become afraid of food. In such a state, we’re easily convinced by agri-business propaganda that processed cheese slices are an acceptable, edible milk product. We’ve become suspicious of the raw milk that has sustained generations, and of traditional practices that have produced cultured foods such as kefir—a sour and slightly effervescent beverage with antibiotic properties. Our appetites and attitudes have been warped. We’re at risk of losing the knowledge and good sense, not to mention the good taste, of our traditional foods.
It’s time for a cultural revolution. I’m making yogurt.