“It would be the rare person on an extremely restricted diet who is not consuming some kind of fermented food on a daily basis,” says Sandor Ellix Katz, self-described fermentation revivalist. And if in doubt about that — kombucha, kimchi and kefir are not on your radar — consider yogurt, cheese, bread, salami, sour cream, vinegar, soy sauce, chocolate, coffee, beer and wine: our pantries and refrigerators would be pretty much empty without the
se common fermented foods and beverages.
Katz will be at the Gardiner Library this Saturday, November 29 from 3 to 5:30 p.m. to give a broad overview of fermentation. He’ll speak about the nutritional importance of live-culture ferments and put it all into historical and cultural context. And as part of that presentation, he’ll demonstrate how to make a simple fermented sauerkraut. The event is free to attend.
Fermenting cabbage into sauerkraut is a good place to start if people are interested in learning about fermentation and trying it out at home, Katz says. “I would recommend fermenting vegetables as a way to start a fermentation practice for a number of reasons: you don’t need special equipment, you don’t need any starter cultures, it doesn’t take a great deal of time or effort and the only equipment you need is a jar. You’ll be able to enjoy the results pretty quickly and it’s extremely healthy and delicious.”
Fermentation is not difficult to do, he says. “The process can be intimidating to people because it’s an unknown, and they might project some fear or danger onto it, but it’s really not a lot of work. What takes a long time is the waiting [for the process to complete].”
It’s also “incredibly safe,” he adds, speaking to the common fear often expressed to him that leaving food outside of the refrigerator (an appliance that he refers to as “your fermentation slowing device”) can’t be a good thing. “But according to the USDA, there is no case history of any food poisoning or illness resulting from eating fermented vegetables. It’s 100 percent safe; among the safest foods known to humans.”
Some of the apprehension people feel about deliberately cultivating bacteria in what they’re going to ingest stems from the general idea that preserved food, if not done correctly, can be dangerous, Katz says. “This stems from canning, which is the opposite of fermenting. If you don’t use enough heat for enough time, it can be dangerous, and that’s why we know about botulism. But that led to a misplaced fear of food preservation in general.”
And in addition to the health benefits of eating fermented foods, fermentation creates strong flavors. “Not everybody loves every flavor, but they’re memorable,” Katz says. And they’re best eaten often, but in small quantities. “I’m not advocating any particular kind of diet. I certainly have my own ideas about what I like to eat, and if someone solicits my advice, I might offer my opinion, but no matter what kind of dietary ideology you have, fermentation is part of the picture. And they’re generally condiments, side dishes, accents; never the core of the meal.” As more professional chefs are starting to do fermentations, he says, “they’re using it as an opportunity to create signature flavors. The only limitation is our imaginations.”
Katz has been immersed in an exploration of fermentation for more than two decades. Calling the practice “neither panacea nor peril” in his most recent book, The Art of Fermentation (2012), his own interest in fermented foods began with the sour pickles he loved eating as a youth growing up in New York City. And he often spent weekends in Gardiner with his dad, Joe Katz, absorbing his father’s interest in vegetable gardening. After moving from New York to rural Tennessee some 20 years ago, he started his own garden. “I just started tuning into that more, and when I had a row of cabbage all ready at the same time, I thought, ‘I’d better learn how to make sauerkraut.’ It was really just based on the practical realities of having a garden. You have these waves of overabundance and you need to use the vegetables. That’s what has driven fermentation practices in most places throughout history; the practical necessity to figure out strategies to preserve the harvest.”
In the emergence of agriculture, people didn’t have refrigerators, freezers, or canning, Katz says. “I would go so far as to argue that agriculture wouldn’t be possible without fermentation, because how could people ever invest their energy into crops that are ready at certain times of the year if they didn’t have some strategies in mind for using those crops to feed them for the rest of the year?”
Our techniques of freezing and refrigeration and canning have warped our perceptions of how important fermentation techniques have been historically for simple survival purposes, he adds. “If you have a limited growing season, more than six months of the year with no fruits and vegetables, you need nutrients, vitamin C. Sauerkraut is a survival food.”
Katz also has ideas about the value of people participating more in the way they obtain their food. The emphasis on convenience and one-stop shopping that began in the 20th century has freed up our time, he says, but at a cost. “It makes us less connected to the world around us. The food the system produces is nutritionally diminished. It’s really about having relationships with farmers, and knowing the people who produce our food and where it came from. To have so few people involved in the production of our food has been environmentally destructive and economically devastating for our communities.
“If we only think of ourselves as consumers, that’s infantilizing,” he says. “It’s ultimately empowering for people to learn how to make food for themselves, whether that’s learning how to cook, having a garden and growing some of their own food, or learning about fermentation.”
The Gardiner Library is located at 133 Farmer’s Turnpike in the hamlet. For more information on Katz’s books and workshops, visit www.wildfermentation.com. For information on the event, call 255-1255 or visit www.gardinerlibrary.org.