It probably would not occur to most people to use the words “destiny” and “sauerkraut” in the same sentence – that is, until they meet Monika Schifler of New Paltz. Recently converted to the ranks of true believers in the benefits of probiotics following a health crisis in her own family, Schifler is now a woman with a mission. One might say that Schifler’s journey to where she is now — moving her fermented food business, Süperkrauts, to its own space in the industrial park on Osprey Lane in Gardiner — began a couple of years ago when her son, filmmaker Rudi Azank, now 23, became ill. It started out as heartburn, which was treated first with over-the-counter antacids, then acid blockers that, according to Schifler, ended up causing liver damage. Rudi was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, cause unspecified, and eventually had his gall bladder removed, which “made him much worse.”
By this point her son was chronically “so nauseous that he couldn’t sit in a moving vehicle,” says Schifler. She took Rudi to Bock Integrative Medicine in Red Hook, who identified the source of his illness as “gut dysbiosis, meaning a destroyed gut microbiome,” she explains. Desperate to find a treatment that actually helped, she obsessively researched probiotic foods as a way of restoring the natural balance of intestinal flora that have been successively wiped out by treatment with antibiotics. “How can you fix your microbiome? You expose them to a lot of probiotics,” she says, noting that it’s not coincidental that the microorganisms used in fermentation are referred to as a “culture”: “It’s like a village. The ultimate goal is to repopulate your gut.”
Studies of indigenous rainforest people by New York University’s Microbiome Center for Rheumatology and Autoimmunity show “700 times greater diversity” in the bacterial population of their guts than people living in countries like the US, Schifler points out. Scientists are beginning to draw connections between “disturbances in the microbiome” of the digestive tract with all sorts of autoimmune diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, allergies, asthma, vision problems, ADHD and depression, in addition to digestive ailments like Rudi’s. But the “research is in its infancy,” lacking funding because Big Pharma doesn’t want people to be able to improve their health by something so simple as eating probiotic foods instead of taking pills, according to Schifler.
So she began making sauerkraut at home, using organically grown cabbage from Hepworth Farms and traditional probiotic methods that don’t involve cooking or pickling — just salt and natural anaerobic fermentation. Rudi was too ill to digest sauerkraut at first, so she gave him the juice to drink as a tonic and gradually weaned him onto eating the actual kraut as his condition improved. “I feel like we almost lost him,” Schifler says. “We turned him around. Last week he told me, ‘I think I’m 97 percent healed’.”
Meanwhile, friends kept mooching sauerkraut from her homemade batches and asking for more, as she experimented with unorthodox flavor combinations to keep things interesting. Urged to turn the family health project into a business, Schifler and her husband, painter Roberto Azank, set up a sauerkraut-making operation last November at a shared commercial kitchen in Accord, dubbing the product line Süperkrauts. “Although fermentation is one of the safest food-processing methods there are, it has to be done in a commercial location,” she notes.
So far, Schifler distributes her sauerkrauts only by mail order, at the Kingston and Rosendale farmers’ markets and at Mother Earth in Kingston. In less than a year, though, word-of-mouth (including an enthusiastic mention from Martha Stewart) has been so enthusiastic that she’s now producing 400 to 500 pounds of Süperkrauts each week. “The demand is there,” she says. “I would love to produce more.”
So not only is Schifler and Azank’s son bouncing back from a major health crisis, thanks to adding probiotic “live foods” to his diet, but, “In the magical way that the universe works, I got a business out of this,” she avers. “Everything in my life is coming together…. It has its karma, this business.” In fact, in the process of mastering the art of krautmaking, the Austrian-born Schifler has been transported back to her childhood experiences of buying traditionally made sauerkraut from a barrel at the corner market. And she belatedly discovered that her great-grandmother had been a cabbage farmer who “delivered sauerkraut all over Vienna.” The photograph of her great-grandparents on the Süperkrauts homepage bears out Schifler’s contention that “I’m her spitting image!”
So perhaps that karmic journey is actually rooted much more deeply in the past after all. Even the process of making kraut, in which you “put the right ingredients together and then let the microorganisms thrive,” is like “a microcosm of my life,” says Schifler. Her art training, for example, is being put to work in the design of colorful labels for the many different flavors of Süperkrauts — currently including Classy Cardamon, Crispy Curry, Zesty Sriracha, Greek Kraut, Green Goddess, Red-Hot Smokey, Red Ginger Zinger, Subtle Seaweed and two especially kid-friendly varieties: Cinnamon Crunch and Apple Cranberry. Each label also includes food-pairing suggestions for that particular flavor.
Newest to the Süperkraut line is Mojito, “made because of a dare” to create a kraut flavored with mint, whose first batch sold out within two hours of its introduction. After a sample, this correspondent can testify that it’s fresh-tasting, zingy, crunchy and delicious.
It’s the natural fermentation process that preserves the crunch, unlike supermarket brands of kraut that are pickled and pasteurized to a characterless mush that does nothing to repopulate one’s gut with diverse friendly bacteria. Süperkrauts are fermented in small batches in 15-liter glass olive jars with airlocks so that CO2 can escape without oxygen getting in, and it’s sold both in jars and one-pound pouches (also containing a valve) of BPA-free, phthalate-free plastic.
Schifler and Azank go to great lengths to use only sustainably farmed ingredients in their krauts and recycled materials in their packaging, as well as to compost 93 percent of their food wastes. Their idealistic business approach extends to a plan to plow five percent of proceeds from sales back into a cross-disciplinary curriculum to teach inner-city kids in Newburgh about food fermentation. “It’s not supposed to be just a money-making enterprise,” says Schifler. “I owe my son’s life to this…. I think everybody should experience what probiotics can do for you.”
For more information or to order Süperkrauts, visit the website at www.rawsuperkrauts.com.