By Sandor Ellix Katz
Little could I have imagined, as a New York City kid who loved pickles, that those delicious, crunchy, garlicky sour pickles would lead me on such an extraordinary journey of discovery and exploration. In fact, products of fermentation—not only pickles, but also bread, cheese, yogurt, sour cream, salami, vinegar, soy sauce, chocolate, and coffee, as well as beer and wine—were prominent in my family’s diet (as they are in many, if not most, people’s), though we never talked about them as such.
Yet, as my path through life led me to various nutritional ideas and dietary experiments, I did learn about the digestive benefits of bacteria present in living fermented foods and began to experience their restorative powers. And when I found myself with a garden, faced with a surplus of cabbages and radishes, sauerkraut beckoned me. Our love affair endures.
|Sandor Ellix Katz teaching a fermentation class.|
The first time I taught a sauerkraut-making workshop, at the Sequatchie Valley Institute in 1999, I learned that there is a tremendous fear in our culture of aging food outside of refrigeration. In our time, most people are raised to view bacteria as dangerous enemies and refrigeration as a household necessity. The idea of leaving food outside of refrigeration in order to encourage bacterial growth triggers fears of danger, disease, and even death. “How will I know whether the right bacteria are growing?” is a common question. People largely assume that for microbial transformations to be safe, they require extensive knowledge and control and are therefore a specialized domain best left to experts.
Most food and beverage fermentation processes are ancient rituals that humans have been performing since before the dawn of history, yet we have largely relegated them to factory production. Fermentation has mostly disappeared from our households and communities. Techniques evolved by disparate human cultures over millennia, through observation of natural phenomena and manipulating conditions with trial and error, have become obscure and are in danger of being lost.
I have spent nearly two decades exploring the realm of fermentation. I do not have a background in microbiology or food science; I am just a food-loving back-to-the-land generalist who became obsessed with fermentation, spurred by a voracious appetite, a practical desire for food not to go to waste, and a willful desire to maintain good health. I have experimented widely, talked to many, many people about the subject, and done a lot of reading on it. The more I experiment and the more I learn, the more I realize how little of an expert I remain. People grow up in households in which some of these traditional ferments are the daily context, and their knowledge is far more intimate. Others become commercial manufacturers and develop technical mastery in order to produce and market consistent and profitable products; countless such people know much more than I about brewing beer, making cheese, baking bread, curing salamis, or brewing saké. Microbiologists or other scientists who study very specific facets of the genetics, metabolism, kinetics, community dynamics, or other mechanisms of fermentations understand it all in terms I can only barely comprehend.
|Vessels full of kimchi in Seoul, Korea. Photo by Jessica Leo.
Nor do I possess anything approaching encyclopedic knowledge of fermentation. The infinite variation that exists in how people on every continent ferment all the various foods they eat is too vast for any individual to have comprehensive knowledge. However, I have had the privilege to hear a lot of wonderful stories, and taste many homemade and artisan-fermented concoctions. Many readers of my books, visitors to my website, and participants in my workshops have recounted tales of their grandparents’ fermentation practices; immigrants have excitedly told me about ferments from the old country, often lost to them through migration; travelers have reported on ferments they have encountered; people have divulged their quirky family variations; and other experimentalists such as myself have shared their adventures. I have also fielded thousands of troubleshooting questions, causing me to research and think about many more aspects of the inevitable variations that occur in home fermentations.
One word that repeatedly comes to the fore in my exploration and thinking about fermentation is culture. Fermentation relates to culture in many different ways, corresponding with the many layers of meaning embedded in this important word, from its literal and specific meanings in the context of microbiology to its broadest connotations. We call the starters that we add to milk to make yogurt, or to initiate any fermentation, cultures. Simultaneously, culture constitutes the totality of all that humans seek to pass from generation to generation, including language, music, art, literature, scientific knowledge, and belief systems, as well as agriculture and culinary techniques, in both of which fermentation occupies a central role.
—Excerpt adapted from “The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World” (Chelsea Green, 2012) by Sandor Ellix Katz. Katz shares his fermenting expertise online at 11 a.m. MST Oct. 22 during our first Slow Money Gatheround.