Midway through an interview with fermentation expert Sandor Katz, I heard the clack of a sharp knife against a wooden cutting board. Katz had pulled out a couple of onions and began chopping up his breakfast prep while we chatted.
A former policy wonk turned self-taught fermentation expert, he has gained wide appeal and praise for his books Wild Fermentation (2003) and The Art of Fermentation (2012), a James Beard award winner and New York Times bestseller.
He has remained grounded in the simple things, like chopping onions, focused on his own personal healing as someone living with AIDS and educating the public with in-depth workshops and easy access to his expertise.
This weekend, Katz will deliver the keynote address at Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Durham. He will also host two fermentation workshops at the conference, on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. For more details, visit CFSA’s website.
You use the term “revivalist” to identify yourself and your work. Can you explain that?
It’s a little bit of a play on words, the idea of a religious revival. I think that fermentation arts are extremely important in many cultural traditions around the world, I dare say most. They are part of the cultural legacy we have inherited. Yet over the course of the second half of the 20th century, people were thrilled to be unburdened from the production of food. We’ve sort of become de-skilled. I think of the work that I’m doing as, first of all, demystifying a process that has become shrouded in mystery. Secondly, sharing important skills with people to ultimately empower and reclaim the tradition.
How does that revival work now, as food has become trendy?
Hasn’t it always been trendy? We eat, don’t we?
Here’s what’s happened: Agriculture scales up, food production moves into factories and largely disappears from people’s lives. People were thrilled to be unburdened and have their lives freed up. Our generation, over decades, has realized that much has been lost. I don’t really see it as a fad or anything like that, I think there is, sort of, in our culture and our society, a hunger for connection with our food. The food that’s produced by this system of centralized mass production is not only destroying the Earth, it’s part of an economic decline. There’s a hunger to become more connected to food, and we are seeing an extraordinary revival in agriculture. Everywhere in the United States, people are realizing that there’s value in fresher, local food.
But if you look in people’s refrigerators, most of what people are purchasing is not raw products of agriculture. Agriculture wouldn’t be possible without fermentation. It makes no sense for people to invest their energy in crops. Classic value-added products make what they are growing financially viable.
There’s social value in having farms and farmers and being connected to local farms. There’s economic value in supporting locally. If people are going to be eating local food in temperate climates, that’s where preservation comes in.
I’ll admit that I’ve got a bit a phobia of canning. Have other people told you the same?
There’s a real danger with canning, so it’s made everyone afraid of canning. Can I tell you how many recorded food poisonings by USDA are from fermentation? Zero.
Why is fermentation more beneficial than quick pickling?
Historically, no one had to think about the bacteria (they didn’t even know they existed). But they didn’t have regular exposure to chemicals killing bacteria. Our water supply is chlorinated; our restrooms are filled with soaps that promise to kill 99 percent of our bacteria. We are ingesting these chemical compounds all the time, and it’s becoming important to consciously and constantly replenish this bacteria that enables us to exist. That’s the value of live culture foods. Nothing wrong with vinegar or quick pickles, they just provide that to a lesser extent. [Fermentation] is an excellent way in replenishing gut bacteria.
Can you literally keep something in your fridge or pantry for years and then eat it safely?
The devil is in the details. Closed can, sure, absolutely. Out of the fridge, that’s the historical context here. It all depends. If you have an unheated cellar you can have a barrel of kraut and enjoy it for years. With heat, where I live, it gets mushy and it’s fine to eat, but unpleasing to my palate.
Historically, this method of preservation provided a period of abundance to get you through a period of scarcity. Our perspective of food preservation from canning and freezing is things that are good must be forever. Most living fermented foods can’t really be forever. It’s about extending the useful life for the food, but not petrify it forever. That’s doomsday thinking.
How can fermented foods complement modern-day gourmet?
All of the foods we consider gourmet food is a product of fermentation. A gourmet food store you see in New York City, walk in, you see olives. Then you take a few more steps and there’s cheeses. There are unfermented cheeses that are really mild and soft. What do you put your cheese on? Bread is created by fermentation. Chocolate, coffee, certain kinds of tea, black pepper. All the condiments. Fish sauce, soy sauce. Or they rely on vinegar as a stabilizer. Ketchup. Chutneys.
Fermentation is so well represented in culinary traditions all around the world. Cheeses are this realm of great gourmet variety. If you look at the traditions, they are extremely practical. We can’t imagine life without milk, yet that has been around for 800 years. It’s only been refrigerated for about 100 years. Sour milk made the benefit last. Cured meats are gourmet, but they are born out of practical necessity. You kill a 600-pound pig and have to figure out ways to eat this pig that will last you for months.
What gives birth to all of these traditions is necessity, but also generates these incredible flavors.
You’ve been to North Carolina many times to visit and teach workshops. Who are some of the people you admire here in Triangle?
Farmer’s Daughter, April McGregor over in Carrboro. I’ve learned a lot from her. A former student of mine, Audrey [Lin], she and her partner [Debbie Donnald] started a fermented vegetable business called Two Chicks [out of Two Chicks Farm]. Emily Buehler, a baker. She was a Ph.D. chemist who got disillusioned from the world of academia. She wrote a great book called Bread Science that I’ve learned a lot from. That’s off the top of my head. There are certainly a lot of bakers, cheese makers and microbrewers I don’t know about.
Have you found a richer tradition of fermentation here in the South?
April McGregor shed some light for me on the Cherokee tradition of fermenting fresh corn. I started doing fermented corn relishes. In the Cherokee tradition it’s more of fermenting whole heads of corn in a brine. Ham-making is another. Old-timer people who grew up on homesteads made that, sauerkraut. Some of the really classic things have been part of how homesteads sustain themselves. Over the course of the 20th century, a lot of traditions got shifted. Like chow chow. From what I’ve read, vinegar chow chow was only in mid 20th century. Worldwide, all of the things we know of were done previously in a salt brine. It’s really a question of when white vinegar became cheap. Salt was [at one point] cheaper and easier way of doing things.
As someone living with AIDS, you speak a lot about the healing properties of fermented foods.
I’ve become more careful and circumspect about how I talk about it. From that, people have extrapolated that I’ve cured AIDS with fermented foods. I try to be really clear that that is not accurate. Beyond that, I think that if you peruse the Internet, many people have made absurd and unsubstantiated claims that fermentation has cured diseases. That said, bacterially rich foods can improve overall digestion, nutrient simulation and immune function. And that’s huge. Whether you are the healthiest person on the planet or if you are living with a chronic illness. It’s all about diversity. Different kinds of food and bacteria you can get in your body, the more stimulation you can get.