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Microbes, Microscopes, Microbiomes

For making 2013 the year I finally learned to make—and even eat—sauerkraut, I thank the ever-amazing Good Foods Market. Good Foods sells a small, slightly silly tool called The Perfect Pickler, which led me to this online tutorial. Now kraut colonizes my refrigerator, helping me eat fermented foods—beneficial microbes—nearly every day.

I should say, "eat MORE beneficial microbes." I eat plenty of fermented, cultured, microbe-enhanced or transformed food without thinking about it. I snapped this cellphone photo outside Saturday morning favorite place Sunrise Bakery recently, just because I was so happy to be sitting in a beautiful place with fresh mozzarella, coffee, and good olives. And now, Greg Miller reminds me in These Funky Microbes Make Your Favorite Foods More Delicious, a Wired piece, I owe that moment entirely to microbes:

You could build an entire picnic around foods fermented with lactic acid bacteria. And it would be an awesome picnic. There would be pickles, olives, cheeses, salami, sourdough bread, chocolate, and coffee....

Not only does lactic acid put the tang in pickles and kimchi...it also makes life miserable for other bacteria that could make you sick. Lactic acid bacteria are among the few microbes that can thrive in salty, low-oxygen environments, and once they get a foothold and start churning out acid, most other bugs don't stand a chance.

Miller narrates some extravagant microbe photos, bugs that make the foods we love lovable. Click on each thumbnail photo in his piece to learn about a different microbe essential to some of our favorite foods.

Recent stories about microbes and microbiomes, "the ecological community of commensal, symbiotic, and pathogenic microorganisms that literally share our body space"—our personal, individual, internal bug collection:

Microbes are having their moment. Actually microbes have had us—have been us?—for millennia. Food visionaries have worked to bring this to our attention for some time now. The second edition of the Weston A. Price Foundation's cookbook, Nourishing Traditions,  filled with fermentation fervor, came out in 1999. Sandor Katz, fermentation evangelist, published Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition and Craft of Wild-Culture Foods in 2003, and has published two more books since.

Now we begin to pay attention, using both new ways of seeing what's out there, as in the microscopy images Greg Miller curated for Wired, and new ways of understanding what's in us, as in the data collection and analysis underway at The American Gut Project. (For $99, you can join more than 6,000 others in crowd-funding an unusual research project, and in the process, get to know your own microbiome, or, as the website says, "Find out who's in your gut.")

For me, this new focus on microbes induces wonder, and a few seconds later, head-shaking. I want to find a pioneering microbiomial scientist and say, "You have got to be kidding me." How on earth is this possible?

Walt Whitman knew: we are large. We contain multitudes.


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