Why Fermentation Is the Key to Local Foods and Good Health
The day I first made dilly beans, everything changed. And all because of Sandor Katz.
Sandor Katz is a self-taught fermentation experimentalist. To him (and his devoted following--ahem, which includes me and half the people in the room I'm sitting in), live fermented foods are a critically important staple to sustainable human health...not to mention delicious. Ever had sauerkraut? Pickles? Yogurt? Sourdough? Sounds familiar, doesn't it. Well, what about Ethiopian honey wine? Root kimchi? Elderberry wine? Persimmon cider mead? Ginger champagne? Kombucha? If you're dribbling at the mouth, or even a little but intrigued, prepare to enter the world of Sandorkraut.
Sandor Katz's "fermentation fervor" grew out of his overlapping interests in cooking, nutrition and gardening. (He's also an herbalist, activist, writer, builder, craftsperson and bicyclist.) He's written two books: Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods and The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America's Underground Food Movements. A native of New York City, a graduate of Brown University and--as he calls it--"a retired policy wonk", Sandor Katz moved from New York and now lives at Short Mountain Sanctuary, an intentional community in Tennessee. I talked to Sandor about fermentation fetishism, underground food movements, and the benefits of fermented foods.
And so....at long last...behold the grandeur of a fermentation revivalist, and get your crocks ready!
Makenna Goodman: Can you explain what you mean when you call yourself a "fermentation fetishist"?
Sandor Katz: I am very devoted to fermentation, fermented foods, and the organisms of fermentation. I think that as a group ferments are the most delicious of foods and are nutritionally powerful. My dictionary defines a fetish as an object "supposed to possess magical powers" or "any object of special devotion." This definitely describes my relationship to the process and the products of fermentation.
MG: Your book, Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods, is a staple on the shelves of nearly every single homesteader, farmer, cook, nutritionist, thinker, and healer I know. What is it about fermented foods, in your opinion, that warrants it a food movement in and of itself?
SK: Fermentation is not exactly a food movement in and of itself. If you are a locavore and thinking about strategies for feeding yourself with local foods in the winter, you have to include fermentation. If you are part of a nutritional movement (any of them, really) and thinking about nourishing your body, you have to include fermentation. If you are a food recycler, mining dumpsters and rescuing discarded foods, fermentation is a great way to preserve a sudden abundance of random vegetables. If you are a farmer looking for strategies to add value to the vegetables you grow, fermentation is your best bet. Fermentation is an import realm of food transformation that is undergoing a revival not as a singular movement, but rather as an area of intersection among a number of quite varied food movements.
MG: How did you come to love fermentation?
SK: I've always been drawn to the flavors of fermentation and throughout my childhood I sought out sour fermented foods. I didn't learn how to make sauerkraut until I was in my thirties. My motivation to learn was purely practical, having a garden for the first time and facing the fact that all the cabbages are ready at the same time. After that I started exploring many different ferments. I taught my first kraut-making workshop in 1999 and learned that there is a widespread cultural fear of aging food outside of refrigeration. That began my mission of demystifying fermentation and empowering people with simple tools to reclaim this important process.
MG: In terms of health, what are the benefits of fermented foods?
SK: Fermentation pre-digests foods, breaking down compound nutrients into more elemental forms and making them more available to us. Minerals in particular become dramatically more bio-available. Fermentation also produces unique micronutrients not found in the original ingredients but rather produced by the fermenting organisms. Some examples of these are anti-carcinogenic isothiocyanates in fermented vegetables, or dipicolinic acid in miso, which draws heavy metals out of our cells, binds with them, and removes them from our bodies. Ferments also detoxify certain foods. But the most profound benefit of fermentation is the live-cultures themselves, not present in all fermented foods but only those not subjected to heat after fermentation. The bacteria in these live-culture ferments replenish and diversify bacteria in our digestive tracts. These bacteria enable us to effectively digest food, assimilate nutrients, and create a competitive situation that helps protect us from pathogenic bacteria. Ferments have numerous benefits to our health.
MG: Can you talk a bit about the current state of food?
SK: Well, the big picture is pretty bleak. In sum, I would say that the model of mass production applied to food is destroying the Earth, destroying our health, and destroying possibilities of economic security. But against this destructive and depressing backdrop, there is an incredible agricultural revival taking place, and every indicator, from home gardens to CSA farm projects to farmers markets, suggests that greater numbers of people are opting out of the corporate globalized system and relocalizing food. Reclaiming our food is imperative.
MG: What other underground food movements do you envision will re-awaken in the near future?
SK: I think foraging is an extremely important activity that is building as a movement. I see an enormous hunger for information on edible wild plants. Most of us are indoctrinated as children not to put plants into our mouths, and most of us can distinguish only a few different plants (though we learn to recognize thousands of corporate logos). As organisms, we have been disempowered by the loss of skills to browse on wild plants. Foraging opportunities exist everywhere, in dense cities as well as suburban yards and pristine forests. We nourish ourselves and become more connected with our environment when we tap into this ubiquitous resource.
MG: You live at an intentional community in the hills of Tennessee. What do you enjoy most about living in a commune?
SK: I'm a very community-oriented person. I like group work projects and sharing resources. I like having a big family to cook for (and to cook for me). I like homesteading off the grid in the woods, which makes more sense as a group than it would for me as an individual. But most of all, I like being able to put ideals into practice, being part of an ongoing process of working things out and resolving conflict.
MG: Describe a day in the life of Sandor Katz.
SK: I wake up early. I make tea and listen to the radio while I write. I've just started working on a new fermentation book, and I also attend to my correspondence. My house is ¼ mile from our communal kitchen, and eventually I walk up there and make breakfast. Some days I attend to our chickens and goats. If the weather is good, I like to spend time outside doing physical work: gardening, infrastructure maintenance, wood-cutting and chopping in the winter. Sporadically I teach (about fermentation), in a kitchen I've created a few miles away at a friend's farm, or sometimes I travel near or far to teach. I also make large quantities of kraut-chis, miso, tempeh, meads, kombucha, kefir, etc. which I share with my community and various neighbors through what I call community supported fermentation. I like to read, I like to hike, I like to cook, I like to play many kinds of games, and I like to spend time with my friends.
MG: Sounds pretty great. So, for those new at fermentation, what would you recommend as a starter project?
SK: Fermenting vegetables is the easiest way to start. Chop or grate any raw vegetables, salt them lightly, squeeze with your hands until their juices are dripping, pack them tightly in a jar or other vessel, and wait. More detailed instructions on my website and in Wild Fermentation.
MG: How has fermentation affected your life (in terms of health, in terms of heart, and in terms of whatever else)?
SK: Fermentation helps keep me healthy and feeling good. But the biggest impact in my life has been taking on the mission of cultural revivalist, which has given my life a whole new level of purpose, which is very gratifying.
MG: If fermentation is your first love, what is your second?
SK: I do love fermentation, but it is not my first love. I am extremely devoted to the people in my life, as well as animal friends and plant allies.
MG: Do you have a secret recipe you would never, ever tell anyone?
SK: No. The more I share, the better I eat.
Sandor Katz is an author, foodie, and fermentation "experimentalist" and enthusiast. His books include Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods and The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America's Underground Food Movements.