Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Making Peace with Microbes

I heard about Pasteur at far too an impressionable an age. It's been quite a struggle for me to accept that I am constantly in a field of living organisms too small too see. I can be a little fussy about how I wash dishes and trying to sleep outdoors, and stuff like that.

We were never meant to live in a completely sterile environment. We need bacterial help to digest our food, for gosh sakes, and I wouldn't be surprised if our skin is actually healthier when well-colonized. As long as it is the right set of microorganisms, I suppose.

Over the past few years, we've found that kids who grow up in less sterile environments develop fewer allergies. A little exposure to the normal microbes of soil is good for the immune system. We've found that acidophilus improves the function of our gut, and eating fermented foods supplies useful nutrients. The raw food enthusiasts talk mainly about enzymes, which sound nice and sterile -- my guess is that live micro-organisms also contribute to the benefits of that diet. Would we really want to give up risen breads and beer and wine and cheese and yogurt and kim chee and sauerkraut? OK, maybe sauerkraut.

On the other side of the spectrum, our efforts to create sterile environments have created dangerously infectuous disease organisms, like MERSA. That stuff is scary. We've incidentally encouraged anti-biotic resistant tuberculosis, too. For that matter, the widespread use of antibiotics to raise beef is probably a link in recent outbreaks of e. coli and other dangerous contaminants in food products.

It's a mess. And where did it start? With the mistaken assumption that microbes were harmful and best destroyed. It started with us going to war.

My particular efforts at making peace with micro-organisms have started with kim chee. From our first modest experiments with making Korean-style fermented cabbage at home, kim chee has grown to become one of our staples. I make another batch whenever we run out.

Kim chee demonstrates that the environment we live is in alive. I don't add the culture. The Chinese cabbage fizzes after a day or two, anyway. And it is good.

I still want my house to be clean. And I am slowly shifting my focus from a war against an invisible, omnipresent enemy, to creating a healthful, living environment.

Doesn't that feel better?