Sandor Katz is an expert in fermentation, which is the chemical breakdown of a food using bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms. Katz has authored two books—Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation—and the latter received a James Beard award. He teaches fermentation workshops around the globe and The New York Times called him “one of the unlikely rock stars of the American food scene.”
Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Sandor Katz about microorganisms, wild foods, and how fermentation can represent acts of self-sufficiency and food activism.
Food Tank (FT): Can you talk about how you became involved in fermentation? What drew you to microorganisms and wild foods?
Sandor Katz (SK): I would say that there were a few steps along the way. As a kid growing up in New York City, I loved sour pickles. They were one of my favorite foods. I was always drawn to a particular flavor of fermentation even when no one was talking about fermentation. When I was in my mid-twenties, I started experimenting with a macrobiotic diet, which places quite a bit of emphasis on the digestive stimulation of starting a meal with live culture foods. When I ate pickles or lactic acid sour foods that I loved, I noticed that these foods got my digestive juices flowing in a very tangible way. Finally, when I moved from New York City to rural Tennessee and started keeping a garden, I realized for the first time that all of my cabbages or radishes were ready at the same, so, practically, I started making sauerkraut.
FT: How does the consumption of fermented foods contribute to healing and improve human health?
SK: It is a complicated question that I am not sure that there is a fixed, known answer to. The first way is that fermentation is a form of pre-digestion that transforms foods nutritionally and can make them more nutritious. Specifically, mineral bioavailability in all kinds of different fermented foods is activated by the pre-digestion action of fermentation. Another aspect is that detoxification and pre-digestion can break down all kinds of toxic foods that people eat around the world that would be toxic to varying degrees without fermentation, for instance, cassava. In certain soils, cassava grows in extraordinarily high levels of cyanide, and it would be poisonous without somehow removing the cyanide. The most widespread way this is done is through a simple soaking fermentation that breaks down the cyanide into benign forms. Fermentation also generates additional nutrients like B-vitamins and micronutrients that are just beginning to be investigated for their anti-carcinogenic properties. I would say the most profound nutritional benefit of fermented foods is the live bacterial cultures themselves. In the context of our 21st-century lives and the antibiotics drugs, antibiotics cleansing products, and chlorine in water designed to kill bacteria, what fermented foods do is help to rebuild biodiversity, which has implications for our digestion, our immune function, and our mental health.
FT: You call your school The Foundation for Fermentation Fervor. Where did you come up with the name and how does it speak of your passion for fermentation?
SK: I love alliteration. Fermentation and fervor together are something I have been playing with for years.
FT: How do you view microorganisms’ connection to the larger world and what role do you think they play in our ecosystems?
SK: Well, everything, really. The emerging consensus in evolutionary biology is that all life descended from bacteria. The corollary to that is no form of life has ever lived without bacteria. Just as we are dependent on the incredible, complex community of bacteria that lives within us, so are a tree, carrot, cow, and snake. Every kind of multicellular organism carries a complex community of bacteria and is utterly dependent on that complex community of bacteria. Bacteria and other microorganisms are the most basic fabric and building blocks of the biological world.
FT: What advice do you have for the Food Tank reader who wants to dive into the wild world of fermentation?
SK: Generally, I recommend people with a curiosity for fermentation start with vegetables, but any kind of fermented foods that resides in your fantasies and you want to learn how to make is possible to make in a home kitchen. There is no fermented food that anyone with a dedication to learning couldn’t figure out how to make. I think fermenting vegetables is a particularly good first project because I can tell people with confidence that, according to the USDA, there has never been a documented case of food poisoning from fermenting vegetables, so it is very safe. Plus, all the bacteria you need are already on every vegetable, so you don’t need any starters.
FT: How did you decide to leave your career in policy in New York City to join your off-the-grid community in Tennessee?
SK: The biggest factor was that the year before I tested HIV-positive and felt the need to make some kind of huge change in my life. I happened to meet the people who were part of the community, and I was enchanted with their stories. When I went to visit them, I had a great time and upon future visits, I had an even better time. The event that made me open to the huge change was testing HIV-positive. Part of my motivation in moving was healthier living, being outside, being more active, drinking fresh spring water, and eating organic vegetables.
FT: How does making sauerkraut and fermenting other wild foods represent acts of food activism and self-sufficiency?
SK: In terms of self-sufficiency, once you have a garden and see that you have all this cabbage at once, well, that’s what made me make sauerkraut, because what do you do with all this cabbage that is ready at the same time? That’s the practical aspect of it, to preserve it so you can eat it more slowly over a period of time. What was so appealing to me about learning how to ferment was the practical aspect of it and the preservation of food. Fermentation and other means of preserving food are important means of self-sufficiency.
In terms of food activism, in our current context of most people being completely disengaged from the production of the food that sustains them, I think that anything that people do to reclaim their food, to start to produce even a small portion of food for themselves, can be viewed as an activist act and as a sort of bucking the trend towards just being a consumer.
FT: Can you speak a little about your community and some of the other ways that making food can be empowering?
SK: I actually live down the road from the community now, although I am still very connected to the community. Food can be empowering. Food is something that we need every day. It sustains us and it is a primary link between us and the world around us. Throughout time, human beings and every other kind of animal have interacted with their environment and the plants and animals around them in order to feed themselves. Human society today has slowly removed itself from this equation in a way. I would say a lot of our ecological disasters and the degree to which we have disengaged from our environment has something to do with the fact that most of us have nothing to do with feeding ourselves. I think that at any scale, people getting involved with producing food is really empowering. In baby steps, it can help relieve our utter dependency on this very fragile system of food mass production and mass distribution.
FT: How can the energy and creativity in your community be translated into urban communities?
SK: First of all, in lots of urban areas it is totally possible to have a garden of your own. It doesn’t have to be huge. There are tons of opportunities in existing community gardens and even more opportunities for people with organizing skills to try to get cities and urban institutions to dedicate more land to community gardening projects. There is clearly more potential for food production in cities, suburbs, rural areas, and everywhere where people are. In some ways, the creativity might be easier in urban communities where there are more people and more excitement. I have seen some incredibly vibrant food production from tiny scale urban gardens to really ambitious farming projects in lots of different urban areas. I don’t think because people live in cities means that they can’t have anything to do with food production. I also think that farmers’ markets are incredibly important because it is the countryside around its cities; that’s an important relationship where the city helps sustain the neighborhood countryside and the space that they have in the countryside to produce more food helps sustain the people in the city. Not everyone has to do it all themselves. Rather than going to the supermarket and buying produce from around the world, you can support local growers and support the local economy and the development of skills and productive potential locally. You are getting fresher food, which is more nutritious and tastier. There are a lot of good reasons to become part of the economic fabric that connects the cities to the regions around them.
FT: What else would you like to share with Food Tank readers?
SK: Just to encourage people to experiment with fermentation. Fermented foods are just so thoroughly integrated into food tradition everywhere. We can look at them as delicate things that we go to a special store to buy that happen somewhere else, or we can try to integrate that into our lives if we have the inclination.