Whether we realize it or not, the ancient art of fermenting food is an integral part of our daily lives. Bread, yogurt, cheese, pickles, chocolate, beer and wine are just a few of the edibles and drinkables that have been blessed by the transformative power of beneficial microbes.
And with our embarrassment of craft breweries, locally made cultured-food products and innovative restaurants, Ashevilleans have even more access to the lively world of fermentation. Many of the area’s fermentation pioneers were no doubt inspired or influenced by the work of author and do-it-yourself-food activist Sandor Ellix Katz. His books — which include The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements, Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation — have helped spark the modern fermentation revival.
Katz began experimenting with fermentation after moving from his native New York City to an intentional community in rural Tennessee in the mid-1990s. Since Wild Fermentation was published in 2003, he’s traveled the world teaching workshops aimed at empowering people to reclaim the tradition of fermenting food in their own kitchens.
Katz will be a featured speaker at the Mother Earth News Fair, coming to the WNC Agricultural Center Saturday-Sunday, April 12-13. Xpress caught up with him recently to talk about fermentation, its renewed popularity and its implications for individuals and society.
Mountain Xpress: You often refer to yourself as a “fermentation revivalist.” Can you comment on that revival and why it’s important, especially in American culture?
Sandor Katz: Fermentation is practiced in every part of the world. … It’s been one of the most important ways we’ve had to preserve food, to make food more digestible, more delicious. It has all these varied practical applications, and it’s very central to food cultures. In a way, I would say agriculture would not even be possible were it not for fermentation. This is something which has been practiced in every community, and in most households, forever — until the last century, as people became more and more distanced from all aspects of food production. The continuity of it being passed down from one generation to the next was severed in the course of just a couple of generations. That’s what I mean by a fermentation revival.
Although everybody eats fermented food products every day in some form, many people are utterly mystified by the process, and because this failure to pass it down through the generations occurred at a time that people were mostly becoming terrified of bacteria, people projected a huge amount of fear onto the process. How can they can be sure they’re getting good bacteria growing in their sauerkraut instead of bad bacteria? The work that I do is demystifying this process and showing people how simple it is.
Where’s the line between a food — sauerkraut, for example — being rotten and it being cultured?
The USDA tells us there has never been a single documented case of food poisoning from fermented vegetables. We hear every year about people getting sick from raw vegetables. … Statistically speaking, the process of fermentation makes food safer. So what’s the difference between rotten and delicious? If it’s rotten, you can smell it, you can taste it. There are no invisible dangers lurking in sauerkraut. Things can go wrong — you can get an awful flavor, horrible mold, a terrible texture — but those things would be abundantly clear to you: None of them are invisible, silent killers, which is what people are really afraid of.
As a person living with AIDS, what do you believe are the health benefits of fermented foods?
I feel like in talking about this I walk a little bit of a fine line. … I’ve read lots of articles about myself that say I’ve cured AIDS with fermented foods, and that is not the story — I mean, I take anti-retroviral drugs every day. And yet I believe there are many factors involved in our health, and I feel that eating lots of live-culture, fermented food helps keep my digestion good and my overall immune functioning in really good shape, and I feel like that’s a large part of why my day-to-day health has been so good. But I would also really caution people not to expect that eating a particular food is going to cure every disease and solve every problem. Well-being is complex and multivariable, and a food that offers the potential to improve digestion, nutrient assimilation and overall immune functioning — that’s a huge benefit for anyone.
You’ve written about food activism and corporate food production as a social-justice issue. Can you comment on how the way we eat and produce our food relates to your idea of a revolution?
The participation of many people in producing food and the tradition of local and regional food self-sufficiency got replaced during the 20th century by a model of centralization and mass production. … For the most part people really embraced that, but I think that over the last decade or so, people have been waking up to the fact that we have lost important things in the process: that the food that’s produced by this system is, for the most part, nutritionally diminished; that the methods that allow so few people to produce so much food are environmentally destructive. … It turns out that the tradition of self-sufficiency is at the core of economic stability. … For all these reasons, people are trying to reclaim their food, become more connected to their food, meet farmers, start their own gardens. I don’t know if this is revolutionary; in a way, it could be described as conservative. But because of the context, it’s a radical kind of change. I think there is a political component to the idea of people reclaiming their food, and I think fermentation is an integral part of that process.