“The fermented style takes weeks,” says Holmes, who sells his own quick-pickled okra, kimchi, peppers, beets and more out of barrels at Union Market. “It’s more fussy, and you can get more of the bacterial issues.”
Americans have a love-hate relationship with bacteria: We pop antibiotics like candy to ward off the bad stuff, while searching supermarket shelves for probiotic products to load us up on the good stuff. Lacto-fermentation picklers are decided bacteria buffs.
“In our bodies, bacteria outnumber the cells containing our unique DNA 10 to 1,” writes Sandor Ellix Katz in “The Art of Fermentation” (Chelsea Green, 2012), regarded as the bible of new-school fermenters.
“Bacteria break down nutrients we would not otherwise be able to digest,” Katz continues, “and play an important role, just beginning to be recognized, in regulating the balance between energy use and storage.” Humans, in other words, should nurture the bacteria in their bodies instead of constantly trying to kill the microbes as if they were aliens out to attack us.
Caitlin and Yi Wah Roberts, founders of Number 1 Sons in Arlington, are the children of an Irish father and Chinese mother, and together, the siblings have drunk deeply from the Katz brine.
“We call him the kraut-father,” deadpans Caitlin, a senior government major at the College of William and Mary.
Katz’s influence is readily apparent with Number 1 Sons, a name that both pays homage to and pokes fun at the Chinese custom of placing so many rewards and expectations on the first-born male. Founded last year, the company preserves vegetables only through lacto-fermentation, in which lactic-acid bacteria lower the pH and naturally pickle the produce, whether cabbage for Number 1 Sons’ kimchi or cucumbers for its District Dills. The approach requires more patience than quick-pickling; Yi Wah has to monitor his vegetables through their transformation, checking pH levels and determining when they’ve hit the right moment to move from a cool fermenting space to the refrigerator, where the process slows considerably.
“It’s not a food that you can completely control. It’s not a recipe: You follow this and it’s done,” says Caitlin. “I say that we guide it.”
The risk-reward ratio, as Yi Wah likes to point out, weighs heavily toward the latter side of the equation. Katz has repeatedly said there have been no reported food poisonings from sauerkraut or other fermented foods in the United States, while the rewards derived from fermentation place these products in a kind of superfood category all their own: one that combines health benefits with the superior, funk-forward flavors that can be created only with living bacteria in a hospitable environment. It’s no wonder Number 1 Sons continues to secure more shelf space around town, from Smucker Farms on 14th Street or the new Glen’s Garden Market near Dupont Circle.
“It’s kind of this historical thing we’re participating in,” says Yi Wah, a former Marine, noting the founding fathers’ love for pickles. “We like being connected with all that.”
And yet: Across Glen’s Garden Market from the refrigerator case full of Number 1 Sons products, in-store chef Sean Sullivan is experimenting with a modern, Thomas Keller-inspired method for making pickles, one that maintains a vegetable’s color better than either quick-pickling or lacto-fermentation. He’s taking watermelon radishes, asparagus, beets and other vegetables and pickling them under vacuum, sous-vide style. The method’s main benefit is speed.
The vegetables, Sullivan says with no small amount of awe, are pickled immediately.