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Meet Sandorkraut: Interview with Sandor Katz

pickle1.jpgFermentation 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

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25 Responses to “Meet Sandorkraut: Interview with Sandor Katz”

  1. RivkaK Says:

    Pickled Watermelon Rind. My bubbie from Russia came here when she was 10 and lived in the country after she got married. Living in Texas, we always had watermelons. She would collect the rinds from, yes, the eaten watermelons. She would trim them into uniform semicircles and pickle them. Along with her pickled carrots they were the best pickled food ever!

  2. Alix Wall Says:

    Pickles? Beer? Sauerkraut? Tough call. Probably pickles.

  3. Michael Croland Says:

    Nobody can POSSIBLY top pickled watermelon rind. Just give RivkaK the book!

  4. Max Rosan Says:

    I’m not crazy about fermented veggies. I like ‘em fresh, and when it’s a salad, I prefer it undressed. Fresh garden taste, yummm. I don’t care for sauerkraut at all, although I *do* like real Kosher Pickles in small doses. All that said, my all-time fermented favorite is sourdough. I enjoy making & eating sourdough pancakes and waffles. In fact, sourdough pancakes/waffles are a regular Sunday breakfast tradition in my home. I also enjoy tweaking and perfecting my own recipe for sourdough French bread. Yumm, fragrant on the inside; thick chewy crust on the outside, and the house smells soooo good when it bakes in the oven. I’ve been using the same sourdough starter given me by my stepfather back in 1979. That culture has had several near-death experiences, but we have pulled through and survived them all.

  5. Vered Says:

    Homemade yogurt is by far my favorite fermented food. I eat it all the time, I can’t get enough! Sauerkraut comes in close second.

  6. Andi Says:

    While my first thought was “kimchee!” I gotta say that in the long run, I want to vote for vinegar as my favorite of all the fermented foods. It’s a little plebian, a little pedestrian, but it’s so amazingly versatile and utilitarian. I like that. I like it as I like, say, wooden salad bowls that are made of beautiful woods; useful and artistic. Vinegar does so much besides giving us great salad dressing and half-sour pickles (sigh). It cleans windows and scours copper, useful in laundry and drains. And can be flavored in infinite ways. The first time I created a flavored vinegar i used orange rind and parsley. It was fantastic. My opal basil vinegar has resulted in colored liquids ranging from lilac to dark purple. A now-defunct internet company that sold pepper wreaths and pepper vinegars made wonderful combinations and we used them in so many dishes. I don’t think a week goes by that I don’t use one vinegar or another 9we have probably about eight different ones right now) in a recipe. Oh yeah, then there’s balsamic vinegar. Yum.

    So hurray for humble vinegar!

  7. Leah Koenig Says:

    Wow Rivka – watermelon rind? I love that your Russian bubbe found ways to bring a beloved food tradition to her new home.

    Agreed on the sourdough pancakes, Max. It’s amazing that you’re still using the same starter almost 30 years later. I wonder how long the longest starter lasted…

    Have you ever tried goat yogurt Vered? It’s a new favorite for me.

    Thanks for reminding me that fermented foods truly do come in all forms Andi. :)

  8. Leah Koenig Says:

    Any other favorite fermented foods? Send in your responses by Thursday, Jan 10 to be entered into the raffle to win a copy of Sandor’s book, Wild Fermentation!

  9. Joshua Lichtman Says:

    I loved the pickled green tomatoes made by the grandfather of a good friend growing up. But my favorite these days is dilly beans (especially those made by the good folks in the ADAMAH program).

  10. RivkaK Says:

    I was looking through my old pics. I just wanted to add, that along with my Bubbies awesome watermelon rind and carrots, she infused in me the desire every year to can pickles of all sorts. If the picture at the bottom works, you can see on the bottom right. So what my Bubbie started, skipped a generation and I picked up. My mom never canned, but every year she helps me. When my Bubbie died, my mom asked me if there was anything special of hers I wanted? Jewlery? Glass? China? No…I wanted her wood recipe card box…and her pressure cooker. She had many brines. She loved making bread and butter pickles, but I don’t like those. I also thought that I recall the gag reflex I had when walking into her house when she was making pickled Tongue. EWWW! But when looking at her recipe for pickles, many had the same spices…so perhaps it was a convenience. I on the other hand never use pickling spices. I use gobs of garlic, dill and mustard seeds.I try to grow my own dill. But I usually buy my picklers at the local farm as I tend to grow seedless English cukes ( which don’t pickle well).
    Great topic! Love reading the replies!

    I picked up some new Greek strained yogurt the other day. I am not much into reading nutrition labels. It was the BEST yogurt EVER! I had to look…no wonder it was good…12 grams of FAT!

  11. dory Says:

    Maybe it’s because I’m Canadian, but I can’t be the only one to exuberantly answer beer! Seriously, the stuff is amazing, with so many variations and such–when I’m having a wheat beer and someone else is drinking a stout, it’s sometimes hard to imagine that it’s the same substance at heart.

  12. itta Says:

    i have a one word answer for that question:
    VEGEMITE.
    (and americans? don’t you dare knock it until I make you your very own vegemite sandwich – possibly with butter or maybe a slice of cheese…)

  13. RivkaK Says:

    oooo! I forgot to add a funny story! I make beer twice a year. Once when it gets cold, another when it is about to STOP being cold. Beer making involves a bunch of heat. You have to cool the hot wort really quick. I found that if I haul the wort and out inon the 2nd step of my pool it cools real fast!
    Anyway, we moved into our house in April of 1997. I had started a batch of India Pale Ale at my old home. Well we had to move. I also had started some seedlings ( veggies/herbs)under lamps. So when the movers came, I was SURE they must have thought we were some king of drug dealers/moonshiners! I had to haul my carboy of beer in my car, all seat belted in! I prayed I would not be stopped by police…ya know…way against the open container law..but then I was prepared to give the police a whole story on stages of fermentation and pull out my meter that shows sugar/alcohol content. Then I had to keep the carboys and fermenter in the garage cause Pesach had just started!
    I have made Cerveza, India Pale Ale, Dark Nut Ale, and a chocolate ale. But my India Pale ale is by far the favroite. I am not up to using mash, but I do use fresh ground grains /grain bag and liquid malt.

  14. Anna Stevenson Says:

    i’m pretty much drooling at this point …. beer, sourdough pancakes, pickles…. yup. good stuff.
    my favorite pickled vegetables are greenbeans, or dilly beans, with a hot chili pepper in them.
    but my other favorite fermented food is buckwheat sourdough pancakes — you make the ferment with milk instead of water, and it tastes almost cheesy.

  15. Lindsey Says:

    I know it is weird for me not to say beer or any other fermented alcohol, however, after visiting Freedman for the first time last month, i am hooked on the Kimchi. That is my vote. Here’s to yummy foods!

  16. Leah Koenig Says:

    Josh – Dilly beans from Adamah are so amazing – crunchy, sour, and sooo much garlic!

    Dory, it was fun sharing beers with you the other night :)

    Honestly, I’m a bit frightened of vegemite, Itta. But if you’re offering to make me a sandwich, I’ll try to get over it!

    Yum, Anna.

    Thanks for the kimchi vote Lindsey – I was starting to wonder where it was!

    Now’s your last chance to place your vote – we’ll announce our raffle winner by the end of the week. :)

  17. Rachel Says:

    I’m a huge fan of fresh sourdough bread with butter. Also amazake, chai flavored. Yum!

  18. Naf Hanau Says:

    Sourdough bread, hands down. It’s complex, deep, and has so man possibilities. Baguettes, Ciabbata, Pumpernickel, Rye…. I mean, why anyone would even use commercial yeast, I don’t even know.
    A close second though, is cultured butter…. On top of sourdough bread…

  19. Andi Says:

    Ooh, this strikes me as a good place to ask about something. I’ve been damn curious ever since seeing this. Anyone ever had/tasted/seen/tried “He’Brew, the Chosen Beer”? (it’s on the web at shmaltz.com, go look) They are based in SF, surprisingly enough. We don’t live there but literally saw someone with a six-pack at a corner near our house one day. It’s supposedly in local stores here so I might have to track it down – Pomegranate ale anyone?

  20. Leah Koenig Says:

    Hey Andi,

    I’ve tasted a couple of varities of He’Brew beer over the last couple of years, particularly their “Genesis Ale” and “Messiah Bold.” Both were good – not necessarily ambrosia in a bottle, but decent beer and the shtick value was worth its weight in gold. Seriously, I think they’re the only drink out there that can hold a candle to Manischewitz as the “hipster Jew” drink of choice.

    I’ve been meaning to try their Lenny R.I.P.A. – and the Pomegranate Ale sounds promising too. If you try them, will you report back?

  21. Andi Says:

    Leah, Definitely I’ll report back. Finding the stuff will be a challenge – I wrote them months back to say “er, um, that store you have listed? It doesn’t exist any longer” and they said “oops, we’ll get that updated. It’s still listed so i don’t know how much I can trust their “where to find us” and this is a challenge to someone without a car and using a wheelchair. BUT, weather permitting, i’m heading out this week to a store that allegedly carries the stuff and as I like IPA, I’ll probably try that, at the very least.
    “Fruit” ales smell nice but I seldom get why they have fruit in them and I haven’t found any real fans either (over the weekend, out with friends, asking about several Belgian style ales, no one could convince me to spend $7 on a bottle) BUT…..in the name of the greater good and seeking knowledge, I might have to get some of the pomegranate stuff. Just to be helpful, you understand.

  22. Botulism Says:

    VEGEMITE: no way ! tried it once and it was scary !

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