Spur a Cultural Revival With Food Fermentation

With traditional fermentation, one of the oldest processes of preserving food, we can drive a cultural revival that reclaims our food and revitalizes our communities.
By Sandor Ellix Katz
July 13, 2012
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Handmade crocks by Sarah Kersten, of Berkeley, California, are made in the style of the famous German Harsch crocks with moats that fill with water to create a water lock and prevent fresh air from entering the fermentation chamber. These crocks come with semi-circular weights to keep contents submerged.
SARAH KERSTEN
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We are in the midst of a cultural revival. People around the world are nurturing a genuine interest in “back-to-the-land” practices and modern homesteading. We want to know where our food comes from, but even more importantly, we want to grow it ourselves and share our abundant harvests with family, friends and our communities. Preserving our food ensures that we are eating the summer cherry tomatoes we harvested from our gardens in the midst of winter. One of the most healthful and rewarding ways of preserving our food is through fermentation. In this excerpt from The Art of Fermentation (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012), author and self-taught food fermentation expert Sandor Ellix Katz beseeches that we cast aside the monoculture of the food industry, and give back to our local communities by supporting local food and embracing traditional food preservation processes such as fermentation. 

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.

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 food 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 sake. 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.

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.

This book is a compendium of the fermentation wisdom I have collected. I have included many other people’s voices throughout. Though I have made an attempt to be thorough, this book is far from encyclopedic. My intention with it is to identify patterns and convey concepts to empower you with tools so you can explore and reclaim fermentation into your life. I am on a mission of sharing skills, resources, and information related to this important art, in the hope that these long-standing coevolutionary relationships, embedded in cultural practices, are not lost but rather spread, cross-pollinated, and adapted.

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).

In fact, the word culture comes from Latin cultura, a form of colere, “to cultivate.” Our cultivation of the land and its creatures—plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria—is essential to culture. Reclaiming our food and our participation in cultivation is a means of cultural revival, taking action to break out of the confining and infantilizing dependency of the role of consumer (user), and taking back our dignity and power by becoming producers and creators.

This is not just about food fermentation (even if, as a biological force upon our food, that is inevitable), but about food more broadly. Every living creature on this Earth interacts intimately with its environment via its food. Humans in our developed technological society, however, have largely severed this connection, and with disastrous results. Though affluent people have more food choices than people of the past could ever have dreamed of, and though one person’s labor can produce more food today than ever before, the large-scale, commercial methods and systems that enable these phenomena are destroying our Earth, destroying our health, and depriving us of dignity. With respect to food, the vast majority of people are completely dependent for survival upon a fragile global infrastructure of monocultures, synthetic chemicals, biotechnology, and transportation.

Moving toward a more harmonious way of life and greater resilience requires our active participation. This means finding ways to become more aware of and connected to the other forms of life that are around us and that constitute our food—plants and animals, as well as bacteria and fungi—and to the resources, such as water, fuel, materials, tools, and transportation, upon which we depend. It means taking responsibility for our shit, both literally and figuratively. We can become creators of a better world, of better and more sustainable food choices, of greater awareness of resources, and of community based upon sharing. For culture to be strong and resilient, it must be a creative realm in which skills, information, and values are engaged and transmitted; culture cannot thrive as a consumer paradise or a spectator sport. Daily life offers constant opportunities for participatory action. Seize them.

Just as the microbial cultures exist only as communities, so too do our broader human cultures. Food is the greatest community builder there is. It invites people to sit and stay awhile, and families to gather together. It welcomes new neighbors and weary travelers and beloved old friends. And it takes a village to produce food. Many hands make light work, and food production often gives rise to specialization and exchange. And even more than food in general, fermented foods—especially beverages—play a significant role in community building. Not only are many feasts, rituals, and celebrations organized around products of fermentation (such as bread and wine), ferments are also among the oldest and most important of the foods that add both value and stability to the raw products of agriculture, essential to the economic underpinnings of all communities. The brewer and the baker are central participants in any grain-based economy; and wine transforms perishable grapes into a stable and coveted commodity, as does cheese for milk.

Reclaiming our food means reclaiming community, engaging its economic interconnectivity of specialization and divisions of labor, but at a human scale, promoting awareness of resources and local exchange. Transporting goods around the globe takes a huge amount of resources and wreaks environmental havoc. And while exotic foods can be thrilling treats, it’s inappropriate and destructive to organize our lives primarily around them; most globalized food commodities are grown in vast monocultures, at the expense of forests and diverse subsistence crops. And by being totally dependent on an infrastructure of global trade, we make ourselves exceedingly vulnerable to disruptions for any number of reasons, from natural disasters (floods, earthquakes, tsunamis) and resource depletion (peak oil), to political violence (war, terrorism, organized crime).

Food fermentation can be a centerpiece of economic revival. Relocalizing food means a renewal not only of agriculture but also of the processes used to transform and preserve the products of agriculture into the things that people eat and drink every day, including ferments such as bread, cheese, and beer. By participating in local food production—agriculture and beyond—we actually create important resources that can help fill our most basic daily needs. By supporting this local food revival, we recycle our dollars into our communities, where they may repeatedly circulate, supporting people in productive endeavors and creating incentives for people to acquire important skills, as well as feeding us fresher, healthier food with less fuel and pollution embedded in it. As our communities feed ourselves more and thereby reclaim power and dignity, we also decrease our collective dependency on the fragile infrastructure of global trade. Cultural revival means economic revival.

Everywhere I go I meet people who are making the choice to be part of this culture of revival. Perhaps this is exemplified best by the growing number of young people who are choosing to take up farming. The second half of the 20th century saw the near extinction of the tradition of regional food self-sufficiency in the United States and many other places. Today that tradition is in revival. Let us support and become part of it. Productive local food systems are better than globalized food for many reasons: They yield fresher and more nutritious food; local jobs and productivity; less dependence on fuel and infrastructure; and greater food security. We must become more closely connected to the land via our food, and we must have people willing to do the hard physical work of agriculture. Value and reward that work. And get involved with it.

I don’t want to give the impression that this culture of revival is brand new. There always have been holdouts who resist new technologies, such as farmers who never adopted chemical methods, or never stopped using and saving the legacy of seed resources they inherited, or still use horses in lieu of tractors, or families who have unceasingly maintained fermentation practices. There have always been seekers looking to reconnect to old ways, or unwilling to accept the “conveniences” of modern culture. As much as culture is always reinventing itself in unprecedented ways, culture is continuity. There are always roots. Cultural revival certainly does not require abandoning cities and suburbs for some remote rural ideal. We must create more harmonious ways of life where people and infrastructures are, and that is mostly cities and suburbs. “Sustainability” or “resilience” cannot be remote ideals you have to go somewhere else to fully realize. They are ethics we can and must build into our lives however we are able to and wherever we find ourselves.

Nearly 20 years ago, I moved from a lifetime in Manhattan to an off-the-grid rural commune in Tennessee, and I’m so glad I did. Sometimes a dramatic change is exactly what you need. I was 30 years old, had recently tested HIV+, and was searching for a big change I could not yet imagine, when a chance encounter led me to a communal homestead of queers in the woods. I can personally testify that rural resettlement can be a rewarding path. But rural living is certainly not intrinsically better or more sustainable than city life. In fact, rural dwelling, as most of us (myself included) are practicing it, involves driving frequently to get around. In the city I grew up in, most people do not have cars and get around using mass transit.

Cities are where most people are, and much incredibly creative and transformative work is being done in urban and suburban areas. Urban farming and homesteading are on the rise, flourishing especially in cities with large expanses of abandoned properties. The revival of artisan fermentation enterprises is centered around cities, mainly because they hold the major markets, no matter where production may occur.

The late, great urbanist Jane Jacobs put forth an intriguing theory that agriculture developed and spread from cities rather than rural outposts. In her book The Economy of Cities, Jacobs rejects the prevailing assumption that “cities are built upon a rural economic base,” which she calls the “dogma of agricultural primacy.” Instead she argues that the inherent creativity of urbanism fostered the innovations that spawned (and continually reinvent) agriculture. “The first spread of the new grains and animals is from city to city. . . . The cultivation of plants and animals is, as yet, only city work.” Her basic idea is that a trading settlement that is a crossroads for people migrating from different areas provides a dynamic environment for incidental seed crossing and selective breeding, as well as greater opportunities for specialization and the development and spread of techniques.

If Jacobs’s theory is correct, then food fermentation practices must also have urban roots. Rural dwellers may frequently be guardians of inherited legacies such as seeds, cultures, and know-how; however, it is primarily urbanites who are spurring agricultural change in the countryside by creating demand—starting farmer’s markets and providing the bulk of the community support for what is known as community supported agriculture (CSA). Urbanites can grow gardens and ferment, just as rural dwellers can. They can also tap into the deep currents of creativity that exist in cities, and the inevitable crosspollination that occurs there, to foster change. That change can incorporate ancient wisdom that is in danger of disappearing, just as much as it can foster innovation. In any case, cultural revival is not exclusively or even primarily a rural endeavor.

Much of the 20th-century literature of fermentation promoted moving production away from small-scale community-based cottage industry into factories and replacing traditional starter cultures passed down from generation to generation with laboratory-bred improved strains, in the name of improved hygiene, safety, nutrition, and efficiency. “When an attempt was made to introduce Western-type beverages such as beer, Coca-Cola, and other soft drinks to the Bantu people, they were rejected,” Clifford W. Hesseltine and Hwa L. Wang, of the US Department of Agriculture Fermentation Laboratory, reported in 1977, “so the Bantu beer process, as practiced in the native villages, was investigated. When the native process was understood and the yeast and bacteria occurring in the process had been isolated, an industrial fermentation process was developed using modern malting and fermentation equipment. The Bantu beer made in these modern fermentation plants was readily accepted. . . . The product, produced under sanitary conditions, is of uniform quality and sells at a low price.” A cheap and uniform product, mass-produced under sanitary conditions, is taken as unequivocally superior to the traditional village-produced product, regardless of the cultural and economic importance of the practice in the village context. Meanwhile, Paul Barker, from South Africa, writes: “Traditional fermentation along with many other practices are dying out in our African cultures and need to be recorded before lost to the likes of KFC, Coca Cola and Levi’s.”

My objective with this book is to encourage a reclaiming of fermentation in our homes and in our communities, as a means of reclaiming food, and with it a broad web of connections. Rather than fermenting just grapes, barley, and soybeans, let’s ferment acorns, turnips, sorghum, or whatever food surpluses we can access or create. The great global monoculture ferments are wonderful, indeed, but the practical thrust of localism must be learning to make the most of surpluses that make themselves, such as acorns, or are so well adapted that they practically grow themselves with only a minimum of intervention, such as turnips or radishes in Tennessee gardens.

This book is organized around types of ferments, and specifically how to make them. The first three chapters are broad overviews, contextualizing fermentation in terms of evolution, practical benefits, and basic operational concepts. Most of the rest is organized by substrates—what foods are fermenting—and whether or not the products are primarily alcoholic. The end chapters address considerations for people thinking about turning their passion for fermentation into a commercial enterprise, non-food applications of fermentation, and finally a cultural revivalist manifesto.

In the processes-focused core of the book, I have abandoned the recipe format (aside from a few sidebars with recipes contributed by others). Rather than specific recipes, I wish to communicate concepts with broad applicability. I offer general proportions, or ranges of proportions, and process parameters, and sometimes even seasoning suggestions. I have attempted to explain what to do in each ferment, and why. Food fermentation is more dynamic and variable than cooking, for we are collaborating with other living beings. The hows and whys of these sometimes complex relationships are more important than the specific quantities and combinations of ingredients, which inevitably vary among recipes and traditions. I want to help you understand the hows and whys of fermentation. With that understanding, recipes are everywhere, and you can creatively explore.


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World, published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012. 


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