Fermentation is the foundation of warm sourdough bread, crunchy pickles and cold micro-brewed beer. And Sandor Ellix Katz is, in our humble opinion, the rebbe of fermentation.
Two weeks ago, Naftali posted a review of Sandor’s book Wild Fermentation. Now, you can read the exclusive (and incredibly inspiring) interview with Sandor, and answer the following question for a chance to win a copy of his book: What is your all-time favorite fermented food?
Interview with Sandor Ellix Katz
Who is Sandorkraut?
Sandorkraut is an affectionate nickname I was given by friends thanks to my love of sauerkraut, my constant production of it, and more broadly my evangelical zeal about fermentation. My name is Sandor Ellix Katz. I’m a queer Jew born and raised in New York City who has been homesteading in rural Tennessee for the past 15 years.
My interest in fermentation developed out of overlapping interests in food, nutrition, and gardening. My book Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods has propelled me into a mission of what I call cultural revivalism, spreading fermentation skills and fermentation fervor.
What was your “gateway drug” to fermenting?
Sour pickles, what people sometimes call kosher dills, were my favorite food as a kid growing up in New York City. These brined pickles, so different from the vinegar pickles that fill supermarket shelves, got me hooked on the sour flavor of lactic acid. The first ferment I learned to make myself was sauerkraut. It was my first year living in Tennessee, and when all the cabbage was ready at the same time, I was motivated to figure out how to turn it into kraut.
What is wild fermentation? What are the differences between regular/ industrial fermentation and wild fermentation?
Wild fermentation describes ferments that rely upon microbes that are spontaneously present, either on the food that’s being fermented or in the air. The contrasting style of fermentation is “culturing,” where we add some specific microbial culture to the ferment, such as we do with yogurt. All cultured foods began as wild fermentation events somewhere, which people liked and found ways to perpetuate.
Wild microbial populations vary and exhibit unique characteristics in different places. Even when foods are cultured in different places, the cultures tend to take on microbial characteristics of the specific place. This variation is one of the factors that gives rise to the specificity of place and the huge variety of foods that people enjoy in different culinary traditions. Industrialization and mass production remove all aspects of food production from the fabric of life and create culturally homogenous foods that erase cultural distinctness, disempower people, and breed dependence.
Have you been influenced by your Jewish background? How so?
Absolutely. Although my family was not at all religiously observant, we celebrated our Jewish heritage with the foods of my grandparents’ Russian and Polish childhoods and the thriving Jewish culture of New York City, where I grew up. Jewish identity for my family consisted largely of my grandmother’s gefilte fish and blintzes. I view the sour pickles that I love so much as a refection of the Jewishness of my background. I never saw my grandmother ferment anything, but the culinary tradition she and we came out of included plenty of fermentation.
How would you link fermentation to spirituality?
The practice of fermentation involves collaboration with invisible forces. When you stir your mead or sourdough over several days to incorporate wild yeasts into it, it is largely an act of faith. Fermentation has been an important element of ritual and iconography in many different religions. In Judaism, one of the prayers that we recite over and over again is, “Blessed is the creator of the fruit of the vine” as we sip on wine, the fermented symbol of the brilliance of creation. Tuning into the importance of microbial life and learning to work with it increases reverence for life in general, invisible forces in our lives, and the dynamics of transformation.
You mention in Wild Fermentation that, “We can merge appetite with activism…” How is fermenting one’s food a form of activism?
Food has become very political. I think that anything people do to break out of the limiting and infantilizing role of consumer and become food producers is activism. Our system of mass production of food is destroying not only the earth itself, but also human health and economic security. Mass production of food is not a sustainable practice. At every level, from seed saving to vegetable growing to fermentation, we must revive community-based food production. In addition, I would like to point out that the word fermentation has another connotation, describing people in a state of excitement or agitation. In addition to being a realm in which people can revive important skills for preservation, flavor, and nutrition, fermentation is an important engine of social change.
How does fermentation contribute to the process of upholding biodiversity?
By eating a variety of live fermented foods, you promote diversity among microbial cultures in your body. Biodiversity, increasingly recognized as critical to the survival of larger-scale ecosystems, is just as important at the micro level. Call it microbiodiversity. Your body is an ecosystem that can function most effectively when populated by diverse species of microorganisms. By fermenting foods and drinks with wild microorganisms present in your home environment, you become more interconnected with the life forces of the world around you. Your environment becomes you, as you invite the microbial populations you share the earth with to enter your diet and your intestinal ecology.
Can food poisoning result in something going wrong with the fermentation process?
Other than fermenting meat and fish, where the possibility of botulism exists and it is important to work within certain parameters, fermentation is extremely safe. When raw vegetables, milk, and grains are fermented, acids develop (every time) that protect against all the food poisoning organisms people live in fear of. Similarly, sugars ferment into alcohol which protects against food poisoning. Because we live in a culture that fears bacteria and in general demonizes them, and which equates food safety with refrigeration, most people in our culture fear that a ferment gone wrong can kill them. In fact, historically people have relied upon fermentation to protect them from food poisoning.
What is your favorite wildly fermented food?
That is a hard question because I really do love the whole spectrum of fermented delicacies, but I remain devoted to sour pickles and sauerkraut. For anyone thinking of trying fermentation for the first time, fermenting vegetables is where I recommend starting, because it’s easy, fast, and powerfully nutritious.
Wild Fermentation was published in 2003. What’ve you been up to since then?
What started out as a book tour for Wild Fermentation has evolved into a life of fermentation revivalism. I spend about a third of my time traveling and teaching about fermentation. I’ve taught hundreds of workshops now, all across the U.S. and a little bit beyond. I wrote another book, The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements, inspired by food activists I’ve met in my travels. But ironically, all this travel has largely taken me out of the garden and the kitchen, the places where I could lose myself for days and weeks and where my dabbling experimentation led me to writing Wild Fermentation. I’m throwing myself into travel and teaching for 2008, and then I’m planning a break in 2009 so I can cultivate my own garden, as it were.
You seem to have had quite the life journey so far. One of the mantras that you live by, as mentioned in Wild Fermentation, is “Our perfection lies in our imperfection…” What does this mean for you? What special words of your own wisdom can you share with us?
I think that we are so accustomed to the homogenized products of mass production that when our homemade experiments don’t look or smell or taste just like them we often feel like we have failed. We must let go of expectations and embrace the quirky results of our experimentation as we build skills. And skills are what we need if we are to reduce our dependency on corporate chemical poison and reclaim our food. Another mantra I have adopted is “Sustainability is participation.”
Check out Sandor’s website here.
Big thanks to Hazon’s amazing intern, Regina, for interviewing Sandor!
Other Interviews on The Jew & The Carrot
Author, Michael Pollan
Jewish cooking diva, Joan Nathan
Curd Nerd, Jamie Forrest
Farmer, Emily Freed
Jane Goldman of Chow
Jill Ginsburg of Thou Shall Snack