Fermentation expert Sandor Katz — aka “Sandorkraut” — had a passion for sour pickles long before the idea to make fermented food crossed his mind. “I already had associated the pickles and sauerkraut and other live-culture ferments with digestive benefit,” he says, “and it was through following macrobiotics that I started eating that stuff.”
Katz explained his start with fermented foods to Xpress at the Organic Growers School’s third annual Harvest Conference, held at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College on Sept. 10. During a question-and-answer session at a pre-conference workshop the day before, he shared his knowledge of and love for all things fermented.
Armed with his own starter, Katz taught 53 participants how to make vegetable sourdough pancakes, and later that day they shredded cabbage and other vegetables en route to making and Mason-jarring their own sauerkraut.
Katz’s nickname, Sandorkraut, was given to him by a friend in Tennessee, he says. “I do love it and am very devoted to it,” he says. “Sauerkraut was my gateway into fermentation.”
Katz compared making sauerkraut with brewing beer. “To brew the kinds of beers people are used to drinking, it’s a techie thing. You need to get some special equipment.” Brewing beer “takes an investment of money, and there’s a lot of detail to learn. But sauerkraut is ridiculously easy. In two minutes, I can explain to anyone the basics of how to make it.”
Nicole DeMan, wellness manager at Earth Fare in West Asheville, is an avid fermenter and reader of Katz’s books. Touting the health benefits of fermented foods, she says, “If someone is curious about how they can aid their digestion or their immune system or their gut flora, fermented foods have a lot of beneficial enzymes and probiotics that can encourage good health.”
DeMan adds, “Our gut flora, the good bacteria in our digestive tracts, really influence everything in our bodies. There’s a connection with brain health and gut flora. If we have more of the good bacteria in our system, it’s going to be better for every system in our bodies. Different fermented foods provide benefits, whether they are vegetables or dairy products like kefir or sauerkraut or kombucha.”
Reckoning with a diagnosis
Katz’s first batch of kraut came about as an indirect result of receiving an HIV diagnosis in 1991. He took a hard look at his life then, recognizing the need to make some fundamental changes, says Katz. That year he went to Mardi Gras with roommates who were natives of New Orleans. They took him to a party, he says, where he “met some people who lived at this interesting queer commune in Tennessee.” Katz says he “couldn’t quite believe such a thing existed.”
The folks from the Tennessee commune “regaled me with stories of life on the farm. I was intrigued by them,” says Katz. He visited the commune and “was enchanted by the place.” The next year, Katz moved there. “I lived in the community for 17 years. I’m so glad I met those first people, and leaving New York and moving to rural Tennessee was definitely a positive change in my life,” he says.
Farming his first crop of vegetables in 1993 forced Katz to deal with a garden full of food, he continues. “I was such a naive city kid that it had never occurred to me that when you plant a garden, all of your cabbage and radishes are ready at roughly the same time,” he says. “I decided I’d better learn how to make sauerkraut. I looked at Joy of Cooking, found a recipe for sauerkraut and made sauerkraut. Then it snowballed. I started making yogurt, playing with a sourdough starter, making country wines. Within a few months of that first batch of sauerkraut, I was obsessed.”
Fermented foods could play a part in the maintenance of his health, Katz learned, and he thought that if he ate and lived well, he could avoid HIV drugs and be fine.
“In 1991, there were really no effective treatments,” Katz says. “The only treatment was high-dose AZT, and I had watched people get sicker on that. As someone who was asymptomatic at that time, I just couldn’t really picture getting on the medical treadmill, having to take meds when I didn’t feel sick.
“But then a couple years later, I got sick,” Katz continues. “My whole calculus about [my illness] changed. I wanted my story to be that by good eating and good living, I [would] able to maintain my health without pharmaceutical assistance. It was hard to let go of that and acknowledge that I’m really sick and I see where this is headed if something doesn’t change.”
To this day, Katz remains on antiretroviral drugs and also maintains his health through food and self-care, including sleep, stress management and macrobiotic principles, such as eating fermented foods.
The first workshop
Katz began sharing his food locally, and his generosity created another opportunity that changed his life. “I was always showing up at potluck dinners and parties at friends’ houses with fermented things,” he says. “It was kind of a joke and a funny reputation. But in 1998, these friends of mine at a place called the Sequatchie Valley Institute in Whitwell, Tenn., had an event called Food for Life in the New Millennium. They asked me if I would come and teach a sauerkraut-making workshop. … I loved sharing my sauerkraut with people. It seemed like it would be fun to teach [them] how easy it was to make. So I taught my first workshop in the summer of 1998. I had so much fun. I just loved it.”
Katz found that one of the most integral parts of teaching people how to ferment foods was allaying people’s anxieties. “It was the first time that I learned that there’s this widespread fear of fermentation, often manifested as the question, ‘How can I be sure that it’s good bacteria growing in my jar of sauerkraut and not bad bacteria that might make me sick or hurt my children?’” he says. “Since I had never personally felt this fear, I found it fun to demystify the process of fermentation for people.”
De Man has also fielded questions about the safety of making fermented foods. “It can seem a little daunting at first,” she says. “At book signing Q-and-As, people wanted to know, ‘Do you have to sterilize everything we’re using?’ You want to make sure everything you’re using is clean, but you don’t have to have a sterile kitchen in order to do this. Wash your hands, wash your crock. It’s not as daunting or hard as it seems.”
The book that started the revival
Katz taught the Food for Life workshop each year. Then in 2001, he spent a summer in Maine. Unable to go back to the Food for Life event, he spent a month researching the history and science of fermentation, wrote down all the fermentation recipes that he’d developed and self-published a “zine” called “Wild Fermentation: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Cultural Manipulation.”
Katz made 100 copies, sent half of them to Tennessee and then sold a few at a local bookstore. Because there was little published information about fermentation at the time, it occurred to him that he should write a book. Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods, published in 2003, fomented a book tour that hasn’t stopped yet.
“I didn’t have a full-time job. I was living in the [Tennessee] community, so I didn’t have a rent or a mortgage,” Katz says. “So I organized six months of book touring. I went to co-ops, health food stores, farmers markets, bookstores, whoever would have me.”
Katz discovered “a huge interest in the topic of fermentation.” For the first few months, he had to work hard to find venues for talking about his book, he recalls. “But after doing that for five months, my reputation started to spread, and I started getting invitations. I haven’t stopped teaching about fermentation since that time.”
“Sandorkraut” has since revised his first book and in 2006 published a second one, The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements. A third followed in 2012 (The Art of Fermentation).
“Getting to interact with so many people about fermentation, hearing what other people have done or tried, hearing about things in different parts of the world from immigrants, hearing from old-timers about what their grandparents used to do, traditions that may have gotten lost, hearing the kinds of questions that people have, having to do research to find answers to them — the teaching has enhanced my education immeasurably,” says Katz. “It’s been a constant in my life for the last 13 years.”
His mission is teaching others to claim their space in the local and regional food movement, he says.
“The revival of interest in fermentation that we’re seeing right now is beyond my wildest dreams. That my book could have been one of the catalysts for this to happen is thrilling,” says Katz. “We have this parallel universe where there are more farmers markets than ever before, and young people are getting interested in sustainable agriculture, farming with practices that are not environmentally destructive. The fermentation revival is part of that rejection of mass-produced food.”
Lee Warren, executive director of the Organic Growers School, attests to the impact that “Sandorkraut” has had on modern culinary practices and food belief systems. “Katz is a master,” she says. “He is a leader in his field, and he uses his expertise to show people the way to reclaim their food, within a historical and cultural context. Having him at the Harvest Conference furthers the school’s mission. Reviving food traditions is what the Organic Growers School is all about.”
Katz will continue to give himself completely to the revival of the fermentation movement, he says.
“I’m going to continue to plug away at an agenda of sharing information and sharing skills, trying to empower people to take back their food.”