Sandor Ellix Katz is the author of The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes From Around The World, “the most comprehensive guide to do-it-yourself home fermentation ever published”. Released in 2012 with a foreword by Michael Pollan, it has received rapturous praise in both the food world and in environmentalist circles. Sandor Katz writes and holds regular workshops on fermentation in the USA and internationally. He lives in Tennessee.
Hestia Peppe is an artist and writer living in south London who has recently been making work inspired by the memory and lineage of microbial cultures.
Hestia Peppe: You make a really compelling connection between the double usages of the word ‘culture’ to talk about microbial cultures and human culture and the things that people do with each other. If that could be a starting point, would you be able to talk about whether or not you see those things as even separate and if not, how?
Sandor Katz: Well our use of the word ‘culture’ to describe communities of microorganisms really stems from human interaction with them. I don’t think that necessarily we would even think of the microorganisms, let’s say, present in the digestive system of a wasp or a bee as cultures until we start trying to look at them. Certainly, as a group, cultured foods are inextricably part of culture. When we look at where the word culture comes from – the Latin word for cultivation – and really it’s our notion of what we could be cultivating that has grown and expanded over time. It’s only since the emergence of microbiology that we’ve thought about culturing cells or communities of micro-organisms, but yes I definitely think that fermented or cultured foods as a group are more than incidental culinary novelties – they’re not cupcakes – and they are in certain ways at the core of many expressions of culture, many cultural identities, many cultural practices.
I would go so far as to say that agriculture
would not be possible without fermentation.
Really I would go so far as to say that agriculture would not be possible without fermentation or at least without a good bit of insight into how to preserve food effectively. I mean how could people invest all of their energy and resources into crops at specific moments of the year if they didn’t have some really good strategies for how those crops were going to feed them for the rest of the year. I would say that some kind of fermentation processes and insights into storing food are a necessary precondition for the emergence of agricultural societies.
HP: So would you say then that you see culture as something that only humans do?
SK: Well I think certainly that we could say that birds, fish and other animals have perhaps cultural existence as well but I would say that primarily if we’re thinking about culture – the big picture idea that we use the word culture to describe – that really the way I would encapsulate it is as what we seek to pass down from generation to generation. I would say that cultural information, which is critical, gets passed down outside of genetics. There’s genetic information that gets passed down through our bodies and there’s cultural information, which is the lessons our parents teach us, the acquisition of language; acquiring some subset of the wisdom passed down by the previous generation.
I am a little bit fascinated by some of the examples of cultivation by other species. There are some ants that collect leaves in a certain way so that they grow mould on them and the mould is what feeds the ants. So there are some other examples that we’ve been able to learn a little something about and observe. Clearly bees have some sort of society and I guess that’s not the same as culture but they have very elaborate kind of interactions and hierarchies and things like that.
HP: What you were saying about lineage brings me onto something that I was interested in and wanted to ask you about. Your practice in terms of fermentation is also very much a practice of speaking about fermentation, workshopping fermentation with people and also exchanges, in that you’re exchanging things within your community like different skills and things that you make, different produce. So I was wondering how you would characterise the teaching element of that?
SK: Historically this was part of the survival package that people had to learn, it was a part of agricultural practices, food preservation practices. But what we’ve seen, certainly in the course of the 20th century, and possibly even further back, is this idea of intensifying production so that fewer people can be involved in agricultural production and more people’s time is freed up in order to do other things. So what we’ve seen is a massive severing of people from the continuous lineage of this information.
With the emergence of microbiology
we developed a lot of fear.
As fewer people were learning their grandparent’s means for processing the food that they were producing and with the emergence of microbiology, we developed a lot of fear. The earliest triumphs of microbiology involved identifying pathogenic bacteria and in the popular imagination bacteria became largely equated with disease, danger and death. In my first experiences teaching people about sauerkraut in about 1998 I realised that most people were coming to this with a huge amount of fear. Sauerkraut is arguably the safest food known to humanity – with an incredible track record of safety, certainly safer than raw vegetables. But people project all this fear onto it, this sort of generalised fear of bacteria, and of food preservation. In that first workshop what I saw was that about half the people were saying, “How can I be sure I’m getting the right bacteria growing? I want to get good bacteria not bad bacteria”; “I don’t want to get sick”; “I don’t want to make someone sick”; “I don’t want to kill anybody by accident”. Without denying that there are bacteria that can make us sick, there’s an irrationality to this fear. I mean there is no case history of people getting sick or dying from this food. It literally is one of the safest foods known to humans.
HP: Can you talk about how you came to be working with fermentation?
SK: It was really a series of small steps. As a child growing up in New York City I loved sour pickles. I was just drawn to the flavours of fermentation and have always loved that sour lactic acid flavour. Then in my mid- to late- twenties I spent a couple of years following a macrobiotic diet and in macrobiotics there’s a huge emphasis on the digestive benefits of pickles and other live culture foods and I just started noticing for myself that when I would eat these sour foods that I craved I could feel my salivary glands, like, squirting under my tongue! So in a very tangible way I began to experience how they stimulate digestive juices and that was a personal observation that made me increasingly committed to eating these foods.
But then what happened, the real big thing, is that in 1993 I moved from New York City to a community in rural Tennessee and I got involved in keeping a garden. So there I was faced with these seasonal abundances – all the cabbages are available at the same time, the radishes are available at the same time – so that’s when I started learning how to ferment things myself just as a practical aspect of gardening, of taking what you’re growing in the garden and making it useful over a longer period of time. I got a little bit obsessed and started learning how to ferment all sorts of things and my friends were very amused by this and gave me the nickname Sandorkraut.
I self-published the first version
of Wild Fermentation really
as a surrogate for me.
Then in 1998 some people at another community in Tennessee were holding an annual food skills sharing event and invited me to start teaching fermentation workshops each year. So really the first thing I got involved with beyond making ferments was teaching just the one annual workshop a year. Then in 2001 I spent the summer in another part of the country, in Maine, and I was missing this annual event and so I decided to write down the fermentation recipes in a little booklet. So I self-published the first version of Wild Fermentation really as a surrogate for me since I wasn’t going to be at the event. But as soon as I wrote the self-published zine I realised that this would be a great thing to write a book about. At that point I had read one book about fermentation by Bill Mollison, the Australian guy who coined the expression permaculture, which he wrote around 1993, it was called The Permaculture Guide to Ferment and Human Nutrition.
HP: So you learnt about fermentation almost entirely by doing it and by working with people and teaching as you did it, which is kind of unusual for somebody who’s created such a touchstone of a book. It’s amazing to have to put that into words.
Obviously the community that you were living in was playing quite a large role in the work; a Radical Faery community, is that correct?
SK: Yeah, Radical Faeries is a very loose network and idea. If you look up what it means you’ll probably find a lot of ambiguity. I personally don’t strongly identify with that idea but yeah, the community that I lived in for many years is sort of loosely affiliated with the Radical Faeries.
HP: I grew up in sort of a community myself and I’m familiar with the difficulty of defining that kind of relationship! But it’s interesting to me that you find someone speaking in what we might even call the mainstream, who is so embedded in that type of life or lifestyle, for want of a better word. Have you found that difficult?
SK: I would say it’s been very gradual. The mainstream interest in what I’ve been writing about has been very gradual. When Wild Fermentation came out in 2003 I don’t think it was perceived as being of mainstream interest.
HP: So it’s actually kind of created its own interest in a way.
SK: Well all along I’ve been sort of pointing out to people – it sort of dawned on me as I was getting obsessed with fermentation – everybody eats the products of fermentation every day. Cheese, coffee, chocolate, beer, wine, cured meats, condiments, vinegar: everybody eats fermented products all the time. In some parts of the world the daily staple grains are always fermented before people eat them, throughout much of Africa and China and lots of other parts of Asia. Unimaginable numbers of different elements of the cuisine are products of fermentation. Really in almost all parts of the world almost all people eat products of fermentation many times every day.
Now people are craving a connection to their food and to the source of their food. So part of what I have been pointing out is that this is extremely mainstream and the only reason it’s not seen as being mainstream is because all aspects of food production have been disappearing from our lives and our kitchens and our yards and our communities and that people are just disconnected from it. People are content to let it happen in a factory or some production facility where they’re not present, which is fine – you know, it’s not like I really think that everybody has to be part of every aspect of food production. But I do think that in our present moment, at least in the US and my impression is that in the UK and in many other places it’s the same, that, after a period of time of being perfectly happy to let food production happen in invisible places, now people are craving a connection to their food and to the source of their food, and wanting to know more about it and to be more involved in it.
So I think in a certain way it’s an empowerment thing where people want to have the tools to understand what they’re eating and to participate in food production, to at least be closer to knowing their farmers and having relationships with the people producing their food. Here in the US and I’m guessing in the UK also there’s an explosion in gardening and in community gardens and school gardens and farmers’ markets and box schemes and all of these things which are manifestations of this sort of hunger to have more connection to the food that we eat. I would view the growing interest in fermentation as really being a manifestation of the same general desire.
HP: I definitely feel when reading your book and hearing about you from people who were just so excited to have this resource, this book, that I just received these ideas very quickly from them. My boyfriend was just so fascinated by it. You could immediately see the impact of it on his practice as a cook. I feel like the ramifications of the focus on fermentation and what fermentation really brings to light does seem to be a new way of thinking about relationships, almost a new politics if you will, or a new way of thinking about politics which perhaps people have, like you say, a real hunger for.
I did want to just touch on the fact that you speak in the book about your ‘queer family’ and of the people that you’ve been doing this work with and I wonder if you see that as something that you were able to do because of existing within a different political framework. Do you see your work as part of an existing queer politics? I think that I’m interested in having to talk about relationships in this way, between human and microbe for example, it does kind of force you to think in ways other than standard hierarchies or binaries.
SK: Yeah, sure, I definitely am a ‘product’ of having grown up in a gay community, thinking about family in more expansive ways. Certainly my experimentation with fermentation was completely catalysed by moving to this commune. It was all about sharing resources, sharing a kitchen, things like that, and we were producing a lot of our own food. So it’s impossible for me to separate my evolving interests and focus and how I think about things from my own personal experiences and evolution. But, that said, I will say that it seems like there is huge mainstream interest in these ideas and that there’s a hunger for this information. Almost everybody recognises how important fermented food and beverages are in their lives even if they’ve never really conceptualised it or thought about it before.
Human beings have shaped the evolution
of plants, but plants have shaped humans
and human culture just as much.
There have been various authors that I’ve read whose work has influenced me a lot – for instance, Michael Pollan, who wrote the foreword to my book. In his book, The Botany of Desire, he was talking how, of course, human beings have shaped the evolution of plants, but that just as much, arguably more so, plants have shaped humans and human culture. That idea really stuck with me and I just kept on thinking, you know, that it goes way beyond plants. Are humans the master of saccharomyces cerevisiae, common yeast, or have they cleverly manipulated us into covering a large portion of the earth in crops that are ideal for them so that they can explode into this massive population? I think this concept of co-evolution is really, really important.
HP: It kind of reframes everything as collaboration really doesn’t it?
HP: For me, as an artist, it’s interesting. I feel like it goes beyond just being a useful metaphor into something that seems to affect everything in this amazing knock-on way. Have you read any Donna Haraway?
SK: The name seems very familiar but I don’t think I’ve read any of her work.
HP: She talks about “when species meet”. I was reading her at the same time as reading your book and they seemed to complement each other well!
SK: Well you saying that just reminds me of one thing which is that just because ‘species’ was our way of taxonomising, we applied our understanding of ‘species’ onto microorganisms, but it isn’t really accurate. I think there has to be some revision in that understanding or that we have to maybe think of bacteria in some different way.
HP: I think that’s what she was saying as well. I think that you’d like her.
SK: What’s the name of her book?
HP: When Species Meet. Finally I wanted to ask you how you feel about the way that, since you started writing about these subjects, the Big Science angle on microbes and particularly genetic study of microbes seems to have completely exploded. This summer particularly there’s been a huge emphasis on it in mainstream science narratives and I wondered if that worries you at all? I can see how that would obviously be a good thing but I can also imagine some scary applications of it.
SK: Well it is always possible to imagine scary applications, but mostly I think it’s fascinating. Science has a set of tools that have been in existence for only a very short time that are enabling us to get insights into microbial communities that never were possible before. A few weeks ago I had the great pleasure of visiting a major university’s microbiology lab where the focus is on the microbial communities of cheese rinds and it’s just amazing what they’re learning. I mean it’s clear from just looking at them that cheese rinds are really complex microbial communities but I think it’s fascinating that these people are actually learning something about the dynamics of these communities inside our own bodies!
At the time that I was going to school the only information that we were getting about bacteria was to stay away from them any way that you can and now there’s a growing recognition that we couldn’t possibly function in this world without the bacterial communities, in our guts in particular. We’re beginning to learn some things about these communities and how they function and interact with our bodies and contribute all this functionality to us, and I think that’s fascinating and exciting. Sure, I can imagine all sorts of undesirable applications of the knowledge but I can also imagine some very useful ones. In general I just have to think that knowledge is a good thing.
Sandor Katz will be speaking and giving workshops in the UK in spring 2014. More information and regular updates can be found on his website www.wildfermentation.com
Image credit: Hestia Peppe, Microbial Familiars, 2013. Cultures of microbes brought together in the gallery. Courtesy of the artist and GV Art gallery, London