Then and Now: A Personal Perspective on Fermentation

Self-described fermentation revivalist Sandor Ellix Katz muses on the past and future of fermented foods, personally and culturally.

| Fall 2019

Katz's Workshops attract people from all walks of life who are seeking to understand and use fermentation to improve their health and connection to the food they eat.

Each year since around 2012, various trend-watchers have proclaimed that fermentation is a big new food trend. This always strikes me as absurd, because fermentation is so ancient, and so integral to culinary traditions everywhere, and because the products of fermentation have enjoyed enduring popularity since long before our lifetimes, or those of our great-great-grandparents. Wine didn’t suddenly become popular in the new millennium. Nor did beer, bread, cheese, yogurt, chocolate, coffee, vinegar, soy sauce, fish sauce, nor even kraut, pickles, and other fermented vegetables.

Fermentation is so fundamental to food traditions around the world that almost every individual in almost every part of the world eats and drinks products of fermentation every day. There is nothing new about fermentation. It’s a natural phenomenon long preceding (and probably facilitating) the emergence of aerobic life forms, such as ourselves, which human cultures observed and have made use of and elaborated for thousands of years, to make alcohol, and to make food more delicious, more stable for storage, more digestible, more nutritious, and less toxic.

Although fermentation has been important in global food culture for thousands of years, it cannot be denied that there’s renewed interest in the phenomenon.

Part of what’s got people wanting to know more about bacteria in their food is all the buzz about the microbiome. The microbiome is the microbial matrix of life that exists everywhere on earth, in every ecological niche around us, upon us, and within us. Each human being, cabbage, grape, soybean, and even each grain of barley or wheat contains a multitude; elaborate microbial communities are everywhere, part of all multicellular life. We’re just beginning to develop methods to grasp the complexity and richness of these communities.

In the case of our human bodies, each of us is host to more than a trillion bacterial and fungal cells, inhabiting our intestinal tracts along with every other surface and orifice of our bodies (and some internal locations, as well), vastly outnumbering our bodily cells. We’re learning that this microbiome — manifesting differently in different individuals based upon such factors as environment, diet, health, and lived experience — help regulate some of our most critical physiological processes. As recognition of the importance of the microbiome has grown, so too has the application of probiotic therapy, and fermented foods and beverages that were here all along (and some new ones) became sought after for their promise of preventing and treating digestive problems, stimulating immune function, improving mental health, and more. I’ve met people of every imaginable dietary ideology seeking to use fermentation to access the full nutrient potential of food. Indeed, the fact that I was living with HIV before there were effective treatments made me very interested in nutrition and probiotics, and my interest in food as medicine heightened my interest in fermented foods. Many people find their way to fermentation through a health crisis, either their own or that of a loved one.



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