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.

This current thinking about the importance of bacteria contrasts sharply with the 20th-century war on bacteria, which indoctrinated people to associate bacteria only with danger, disease, and death. The earliest triumphs of microbiology involved identifying pathogenic organisms, and bacteria came to be feared. Public health campaigns encouraged vigilant chemical warfare against the terrifying world of invisible germs. With bacteria understood to be the enemy, fermentation became scary. “How can I be sure the bacteria in my sauerkraut won’t make me sick?” people wondered. In my work as a fermentation educator, I frequently hear people project all their anxiety about bacteria upon fermentation, when in fact, fermentation makes food safer.

Beyond the microbiome and potential health benefits of fermentation, people become interested in fermentation for many other reasons. Because of the fact that fermentation is so integral to food traditions everywhere, I’m not at all surprised that fermentation has become so popular. While there have always been people horrified by the smell or taste — or perhaps just the idea — of food transformed by bacteria and fungi, I’ve always found evidence of intense interest in fermentation. Conversations I had as I experimented and learned, further reinforced by my earliest teaching and public speaking on the topic, promised that this interest arose from a wide range of perspectives, and it seems to be steadily growing.

Flavor is where my own interest started, long before I ever gave a thought to fermentation, or even knew the word: I fell in love with the crispness and the garlicky, dilly, sour flavor of pickles as a young child. These weren’t the vinegary pickles that fill our supermarket shelves, but rather an Eastern European style that the Ashkenazi Jewish diaspora brought to New York, with a distinctive taste I now recognize as lactic acid, a product of their fermentation. They’re known there as “sour pickles,” and elsewhere as “kosher dills.” Just imagining these pickles as I write makes my mouth start to water. I have visceral feelings about the flavors of many ferments. I love the rich depth and complexity of miso, and how distinctive each batch can be. I love cheese, and especially its edgier, more extreme flavors. I’m developing an appreciation for the just-as-varied flavors of fermented tofu. I continue to find the flavors and textures of fermentation compelling, and they keep me investigating the diversity of cultural expressions of fermentation. In my workshops, I meet many culinary professionals and home cooks who come to fermentation primarily as a way to explore the flavors and textures that can only be developed through microbial activity over time.

What actually got me fermenting was getting involved in gardening, in 1993, and seeking strategies to preserve vegetables. An abundance of cabbage made me start thinking about sauerkraut, and I reached for the Joy of Cooking to search for a sauerkraut recipe. That first sauerkraut was so easy and so delicious that I quickly branched out to country wine, goat milk yogurt, sourdough, and beyond, sparking my full-on obsession with fermentation. My earliest teaching venues, and my initial Wild Fermentation book tour events, all grew out of this sustainable agriculture context, and brought me into contact with gardeners, foragers, small-scale farmers, and others whose interest in fermentation grew out of this practical impulse to make effective use of available food resources, and a desire to acquire and spread skills for practical living.

Another important aspect that draws many people to fermentation is a desire for cultural connection. I’ve consistently met people who are seeking to reconnect with lost cultural strands. They may be older people, grandparents themselves, who recall some annual fermentation ritual of their grandparents’ that failed to get passed down amidst busy 20th-century dreams of better living through convenience. They may be immigrants, or the children of immigrants, hoping to reconnect with cultural tradition through fermentation. Or they may be looking to rediscover and reinvent lost culture, as inheritors of traditions whose details were largely erased by genocide, displacement, enslavement, and policies that punished cultural continuity and rewarded assimilation. Fermentation is an important aspect of cultural survival.

A broad desire to be more connected to the food we eat unites all these varied perspectives from people who become interested in fermentation for reasons of health, or flavor, or practicality, or culture. I see this as a pendulum swing, an inevitable reaction to the reality that people have become increasingly distanced from the food they eat. Over the course of the 20th century (and earlier), fewer and fewer people were involved in agriculture, and the production of food became more distant to most of us. Food came increasingly to be mass-produced and preprocessed. Refrigeration and chemical preservatives meant that food could be transported farther from its place of origin and stored longer.

These forces all made food more of a mystery, as food production disappeared from the fabric of daily life. In recent decades, people began to recognize that certain illnesses could be attributed to the quality of our food; that aspects of environmental decline were due to agricultural methods, as well as the transportation of food; and that removing food production from our communities instigated a cascade of economic problems. Increasingly people have begun interrogating their food: Where was this grown? How was this grown? What ingredients are in this? How is this processed? Once people began asking questions like this, fermentation was always going to be part of the answer. But what spurs the questions is a much broader desire for connection with our food and all that it embodies: plants, animals, the natural world, and the accumulated cultural information that enables us to feed ourselves.

Sandor Ellix Katz is a self-described fermentation revivalist and author of Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation. He’s presented fermenting workshops and talks around the world, and currently lives in Cannon County, Tennessee.



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