Author Sandor Katz talks fermentation, consumer culture, and food politics ahead of New Zealand Festival Writers Week.
It’s not long ago that the term ‘fermented’ would have set off my culinary alarm bells. From the outset, the image it conjured was less than appetising—an over-ripe, bubbling concoction would come to mind, perhaps accompanied by a pungent odour. Either that, or the scarily old leftovers lurking in the back of my fridge. Then I got my hands on a copy of Sandor Katz’s New York Times bestseller, Art of Fermentation. The DIY style guide proved truly transformative—I found Katz’s breadth of knowledge and grass roots approach to the subject inspiring, his passion contagious. In the introduction, he talks about learning traditional fermentation techniques as a means of reclaiming our dignity, a way of eschewing our dependence on corporate producers for fermented products, and finding joy in learning new skills. Katz has also penned two previous books that encompass the subject: Wild Fermentation and The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved.
Speaking with him last week, I was interested to learn that his self-described ‘fermentation fetish’ was sparked by something small. 21 years ago, Katz relocated from New York City to a community in rural Tennessee, and began keeping a garden. “I found myself facing this classical dilemma which farmers everywhere face, where your crops come in at certain periods of the year, and you can’t possibly eat them all. So I started making sauerkraut!” Soon he began making yoghurt and cheese from fresh goats’ milk, and experimenting with winemaking. “My service work in the community mostly involved gardening and cooking, so my obsession with fermentation just fit right in with that,” he says.
The community Katz resides in is a unique one, defined as a queer space for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people. “I was ready to make a big change and I met some people from there. I couldn’t believe such a thing existed.” Indeed, moving from New York City to rural Tennessee is a big jump, and Katz is open about the health struggles that led him there: “Two years earlier I had tested HIV positive. That had really spun me around and all the ideas I had about the career that I thought that I wanted, and the life that I pictured for myself in New York City just disintegrated. It was a couple of years where I felt somewhat lost and was just trying to re-orient my life.” He cites his love of cooking as part of the draw card for making the move, too—life in the countryside meant being more connected to food and water sources. Good nutrition was becoming increasingly important to Katz, who had already developed ideas about live bacterial cultures being beneficial for digestion. “What most people with HIV were really getting sick with was just wasting away, so nutrition and digestive health seemed really important.”
In New York, Katz had also been involved in AIDS activism as part of ‘Act Up’, the AIDS coalition fighting for greater medical research and resources for those living with AIDS. “I found myself gravitating towards the alternative treatments committee. It was people interested in other kinds of healing modalities as an alternative or a complement to the pharmaceutical kinds of treatments which barely existed at that time.” Information surrounding nutrition proved elusive, too: “there really wasn’t a lot of information about nutrition and HIV specifically, so I was just trying to glean what I could about nutrition in general, like how would anybody keep their digestion healthy, not just a person living with AIDS.”
“Most food activism is very simple. It’s just finding ways to get a little bit involved in your food. It’s supporting local farmers, it’s having a garden—it’s simple things. I sort of came to regret the title of that book [The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved], because I think it scared a lot of people away and made people think that it was this partisan political manifesto.”
Having had his words blown out of proportion in the past, Katz is now cautious when talking about the health benefits of fermented foods. “It’s amazing what people can think that they read. I have read articles about myself that say that I cured AIDS with fermented foods. We live in this culture that wants magic bullets.” Rather than proposing fermented food as a cure or medicine, Katz maintains, “Live culture foods can potentially improve anybody’s digestion, anybody’s ability to effectively assimilate nutrients from the food that they eat, and anybody’s immune functioning, because what we call our immune system is almost entirely the function of bacteria in our intestines.” While he doesn’t promise any miracles, Katz attests to the positive effect fermented foods have had on his personal health. “I notice it when I don’t eat fermented foods, I feel my digestion slowing down. Most of the people who I meet who take [HIV medication] have terrible digestive problems that I’ve never really suffered from. So that’s further evidence to me that fermented foods are powerful digestive stimulants.”
On another level, Katz sees fermentation as a practice that has deepened his relationship with the food he eats. He believes that people are increasingly seeking to connect with their food, and to become more educated about how it is produced. “I would say through the second half of the 20th century most people were thrilled to have less work to produce their food, less involvement in producing their food, to have greater convenience, to abandon direct connection to production.” However, it seems that our society has swung too far in the other direction, and people are beginning to realise the downside to the current culture of convenience. Katz elaborates, “The food that that system produces is nutritionally diminished; the methods that enable that food to be produced so efficiently and with so few people working in agriculture is environmentally destructive.” He is also concerned that the removal of agriculture from communities has had a negative impact on local economies: “For all these reasons we need to re-establish our connection to where our food comes from.”
In Katz’s eyes, such a connection must begin with empowerment and education. “It all has to start with awareness, and only from awareness can we move to action.” Katz’s own conscious interest in fermentation began in later life. “I really didn’t grow up around any practice of fermentation. From my understanding now, we always had bread, yoghurt, certainly chocolate, coffee, beer, and wine. Fermentation was all around us, as it is for most people on this earth, but we weren’t thinking about it or talking about it or praising it.” Indeed, ‘fermentation’ is a term often found in the fine print, relegated to the back of the label on a loaf of sourdough, or artfully avoided altogether—I don’t think I’m alone in the opinion that the term ‘fermented’ makes for bad PR. From Katz’s brief list alone, it would appear that most of us consume fermented products on a daily basis and don’t even realise it, let alone consider making these items ourselves. “In our time, we think of ourselves as consumers, and if we’re all just consumers, that’s a very unbalanced way of life,” he says.
Katz’s earlier book, The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved, focuses heavily on political and social issues surrounding food production, and the concept of ‘food activism’. “Most food activism is very simple. It’s just finding ways to get a little bit involved in your food. It’s supporting local farmers, it’s having a garden—it’s simple things. I sort of came to regret the title of that book, because I think it scared a lot of people away and made people think that it was this partisan political manifesto.” Katz actually refers to his ideas surrounding food politics as conservative, rather than revolutionary. After all, the notion of eating wholesome food produced in a traditional way seems far from radical. “I think the only thing that makes that political or revolutionary is the context that we’re living in, of these chemical-dominated agricultural systems, and the mass production of food.”
This criticism is on point, but because large commercial producers have become so integrated into modern life, challenging their dominance might seem an impossible task to the everyday person. Luckily, according to Katz, such confrontation is not necessarily the answer. “Rather than battling the mainstream corporate behemoths, creating alternatives to them is frequently the most fruitful avenue.” Such action is already beginning to take place, he claims. “In the US and most of the other places that I’ve visited, there’s been a huge resurgence in farmer’s markets, in small farms, and people wanting to have a relationship with their farmer, microbreweries, small local bakeries, all these things.”
Yet becoming a producer is not without its difficulties. Katz relays an anecdote about a dairy farmer friend who opened the first raw cheese-making operation in Tennessee. “The department of agriculture refused to believe that it was possible to make raw milk cheese safely. My friend had to bring the inspector to a gourmet food store and say, ‘Look! There’s a raw milk cheese from France, there’s a raw milk cheese from Cali, there’s one from Vermont, do you think that people in Tennessee just aren’t smart enough to be able to figure out how to do this safely?!’” Five years later, he tells me, that same dairy farmer was recognized as one of the finest cheese producers in the United States.
Katz speaks of the removal of fermentation from everyday life, a shift he sees as the root of such misconceptions. “These are mysterious processes—we don’t understand how they’re done. In just a couple of generations of having [fermentation] disappear from everybody’s households, they are utter mysteries.” Katz also links this to peoples’ increased fear of bacteria. He explains, “The earliest triumph of the field of microbiology was identifying pathogenic bacteria, and in the popular imagination, bacteria became equated with disease and death.”
“It doesn’t mean that it’s a crime to eat an exotic fruit that is shipped from somewhere else. I just think that we have to re-orient ourselves so that the foods that are shipped thousands of miles are treats rather than the everyday staple.”
Of course, there are legitimate concerns surrounding food safety that need to be acknowledged. Katz informs me that the incidental contamination of raw vegetables is a huge issue in the United States, leading to large outbreaks of illness every year. Interestingly, he says the fermentation process can counteract such risks. “If you took vegetables that had been subjected to incidental contamination and fermented them, the indigenous population of lactic acid bacteria would always dominate. It would acidify the environment to such a degree that they would no longer be able to exist, they would be killed off.”
This is not to say that fermentation can’t go awry. Katz has certainly had his share of what he calls ‘learning experiences’. “I was trying to learn how to make stinky tofu. It involves growing a mould on the tofu, but it’s a specific kind of a mould. I had two or three experiences where I got red, orange, pink, yellow moulds growing on it and you really don’t want to eat food that has bright coloured mould.” Among other nasty surprises, including flies laying their eggs in fermenting vessels, Katz emphasises that the problems are usually easy to identify, and that dealing with them is simply an exercise in trial and error. “Ultimately fermentation has to be learned experientially, a book can only get you so far. Then you have to do it and there’s always a feedback loop, you’re always learning what factors in the environment are influencing it.”
Katz is well travelled, and has sought out many unique culinary experiences across the globe. He enjoys eating widely and trying new things: “I would say that’s really fuelled lots of my explorations with fermentation and has made me want to try even some of the ferments that were a little bit notorious. Most of what I had heard about them was how awful they smelled, or how terrible the texture was.” I’m intrigued as to whether there’s a limit to Katz’s curiosity. He replies, “I would say that some of the fermented fish things that I’ve encountered have been the most challenging, but I think that a lot of fermented foods work this edge.” He reflects on a technique used in the Arctic for preserving fish, where it is caught in the summer time and is then buried in pits, or mounded on the ground, and left to ferment until winter. “That is the practice that has enabled people to survive in the harsh climate. Sometimes the fish decomposes to the texture of cheese before people eat it. It’s really at the edge of decomposition.”
This type of synergy between local resources and human ingenuity is one that resonates strongly with Katz. “I think that, for a million reasons, it’s better to have food production mostly integrated into our communities.” Katz vouches for the higher nutritional quality and better taste of locally sourced food, but there’s also what he calls “the energy embedded in food.” This refers to the excess of resources consumed in a system of centralised mass production, due to transportation and chemical agriculture. Katz suggests an adjustment of the norm. “It doesn’t mean that it’s a crime to eat an exotic fruit that is shipped from somewhere else. I just think that we have to re-orient ourselves so that the foods that are shipped thousands of miles are treats rather than the everyday staple.” And we needn’t start burying fish for the winter to make a difference. Katz speaks passionately about the importance of community in reshaping food production to fit a local scale. “If everybody is producing a little something and exchanging some of what they’re producing with their neighbours and their friends, then that really is how you build communities, through simple, local exchange.”
Katz’s notion of scaled down production also extends beyond food. “The shelters in which we live—like the food we eat—most of us have become accustomed to thinking that that’s something someone else does. We’ve become so atomised and specialised in our lives that most of us have very few practical skills.” He feels that these practical skills have become de-emphasised, and recalls the pleasure he found in building his own house. “It’s so empowering to learn about building things, to learn about the infrastructure of how does your water get to you, how is your electricity made, all of these things.”
For Sandor Katz, it all seems to relate back to building an education and awareness of one’s environment. “I’m glad that we don’t have to be 100 per cent focused on survival all the time, but I do think that part of being grounded is understanding how the natural resources go into meeting our needs and playing some role in that.”