Selfmade Experts: Katharina Birkenbach on Food as Medicine

r. Portrait © Robbie Lawrence

Katharina Birkenbach is a digital product designer who discovered the medicinal possibilities of food – her take on fermentation and food picking

Katharina Birckenbach quit her job as a digital product designer at Facebook, because she wanted to dive deeper into the topic that interests her the most: food. And by that, she means food from every angle – from its production and impact on your health, to its cultural and social impact. Here is the inspiring story of how she turned a diagnosis with an autoimmune disorder into an opportunity to expand her relationship with nutrition and explore how she nourishes her own body:

Almost one year ago: I find myself walking into Belcampo, a butcher shop on Polk St. in San Francisco. I’m buying my first piece of meat (I think actually ever) – certainly the first piece I ever bought that came packaged together with a terrible sound. I’m planning to make bone broth and trying to get the right bones for it. Belcampo is a great place and the butchers actually know what they are doing: They don’t shy away from using a saw to trim the bones.

And it wasn’t just that. I also find myself ordering fish heads at Bi-Rite, picking them up and trimming the fins with a scissor. It’s actually painful to do that.

So, how did I get here?

In 2015, I declared September the month to finally get things done: laser eye surgery, my driver’s license, a long-planned tattoo, that visit to the doctor. And it all worked out perfectly. Within a day of having LASIK, I could see, passed my driving test, found the tattooing process painless, and the doctor said that I’m fit. So, all good. I was even ok with getting my blood tested. The results came back with a surprise, however: I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease.                                                                  

That was the first time that I was (sort of) confronted with the fact that I might not live forever. It’s banal and stupid, but realizing it was actually a bit of a shock.

Although I was upset, I soon decided that I was actually very lucky. After reading up on autoimmune diseases, the thing that struck me was how difficult it was for most people to figure out what disease they actually had. People gained weight, had problems with depression, were medicated – but rarely did they receive a diagnosis that could really help them. I was lucky because I didn’t have any symptoms, but I knew exactly what problems I could potentially have. Double lucky, even. You see, I didn’t go to a conventional doctor. I went to a functional one, and rather than giving me medicine, I got advice on how to live with Hashimoto’s. The disease isn’t curable. And the advice I got was mainly about proper food, reducing stress, and getting enough exercise.

I tried to follow that advice. I read through blogs, listened to podcasts, and stumbled over terms like adrenal fatigue, inflammation, and leaky gut over and over again. Everybody seemed to agree – in a nutshell – that gluten is bad, the gut-brain axis is important, and fermented foods are excellent. I can’t really remember how, but I decided to do the GAPS diet, which is basically a diet designed to restore your gut. For the first few weeks, you eat nothing but broth and chicken soup.

For lunch, I sat on the roof at Facebook (where I was working at the time) and ate my chicken soup. I sipped some self-made bone broth in the mornings, and then in the evenings I ate some more chicken soup. I stuck to that regime for a surprisingly long time, two weeks or so, and was feeling really well.

The road trip I had planned to Palm Springs for Christmas put an abrupt end to it, though. The candied popcorn, the hamburgers, and the cocktails were just too good to say no to. But while I didn’t stick to the diet, the seed had been planted: Food can be medicine, and it can help you live healthy and well. And while there are many highly-processed and highly-marketed foods out there claiming to make you thin, beautiful, healthy, or what have you, I became fascinated with a messier kind of food. Food that is both more complicated and much simpler. Food that you make yourself.

I quit my job, traveled for a few months, and then returned to Berlin in the summer. Secretly, I had hoped that I would have an epiphany while I was travelling about exactly what I should do next with my life. That was not the case.

But I did find myself in the kitchen every day, doing things. I was amazed just how easy it was to make foods that you would usually buy (and probably never think about how they were produced). I made my own kombucha, my own sauerkraut, kvass, and kimchi. I fermented everything I could find – and saw quite some mold in the process, sometimes slime. Some ferments I had to throw away, others I just scraped off.

I built a raised planting bed on my balcony, but unfortunately it was already autumn, so I had to find a way to grow greens indoors. IKEA has a great system, but I still need to figure out what to plant with it exactly. So I became part of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) network, which is quite a challenge because I get a lot more vegetables every week than I need. Plus, you need to keep things fresh, which is not always easy.

I also discovered that food scraps can be super delicious. For example, all apple cores go in the freezer until I have enough of them to make apple cider vinegar and the leftover peels from squeezed out oranges are wonderful candied.

There are many, many yellow stains in my kitchen – because of fresh turmeric. I also got a dehydrator and use it with apples to make fruit paper (although, to be honest, I’m not a big fan of it) and also to make crispy nuts, mostly almonds.

I’ve started to do some foraging and took a course in finding mushrooms – I’ve never seen so many mushrooms before in the woods! They dehydrate really well and then you can add them to salt.

I’m by no means an expert when it comes to food. I’m not a good cook either. I don’t like recipes, but I do love to take care of my own food. This past year was mainly about exploring the world of food, stumbling from one thing to the next – and there’s still so much more to learn and discover. Nevertheless, I’ve learned some things that I’m happy to share.

First, there’s no cure-all. Everybody is different, and everybody reacts differently to different foods. I looked into health-improving diets quite a bit this year and the ones I find the most interesting are the ones that start with the most restrictions – the ones that bring you back to a clean slate before reintroducing food groups and seeing whether you can deal with them or not. These diets don’t claim that grains are bad, or that dairy is bad, but rather help you find out what works for you.

You can do it. Almost every kind of food that you can buy in the store you can make by yourself. And, without too much effort. Sauerkraut was a mystery to me, as was sourdough bread, yoghurt, ghee, apple cider vinegar, and kombucha. I became a big fan of books that introduce the idea of the pantry and how to fill it with homemade products. There are hardly any manufactured food labels left in my fridge or my kitchen – and I like it that way.         

And there’s money to be saved. I’m not big on saving, but I do enjoy it when I can make something great out of very little (or even leftovers). Even better than the feeling of saving a bit of money is the empowered feeling you get when you make something by yourself, especially if it turns out tasting great.

When I got my first computer – some time ago – I started building websites immediately. It felt so great to do something with real personal value, something that allows you to share your thoughts and ideas with other people. Looking into the source code made it so simple to figure things out, even in the middle of the process. If I wanted to build this or that, I’d just go deconstruct what other people did and apply it to my own websites.

I got a bit bored with computers, but last year I was reminded of how great accessible information is when you’re trying to figure something out like how to make kvass or bread. There’s a lot of trial and error involved when making your own food, but that’s also part of the fun.

As mentioned, I’m not big on saving. So I have loads of cookbooks. Here are some of the ones that I enjoy and recommend:

  1. The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz – Great book! Not really a cookbook, but one that gives quite some insight in the concept of fermented food.
  2. Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson – Gives great insight into how to pick your food and how to prepare it to get the most nutrients out of it.
  3. My Pantry by Alice Waters – A solid starting point to get your pantry in shape. There are so many good tips in here!
  4. Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon – A really good resource for getting to know more about food. Lots of background information and many, many recipes.
  5. Everything I Want to Eat by Jessica Koslow – At the moment, this is my absolute favorite. Every time I open it I feel nostalgic for California. I should probably go back…

Follow Katharina’s journey on her website and her Instagram account.

Photos: Katharina Birkenbach