Sandor Katz is a fervent devotee of fermentation. “In my home at this moment,” he writes, “I’m tending two long-term sourdough starters, one wheat and one rye, along with yogurt, and jun, a cousin of kombucha; periodically I dip into large vessels filled with half a year’s supply of kraut and kimchi while I wait for misos and shoyu and doubanjang and mirin and takuan and salo and saké and various country wines and meads to slowly ferment.” For Katz, fermentation is more than just a form of home cooking—it’s a radical alternative to industrial food that connects us to other cultures and the natural world. His new book, “Fermentation as Metaphor,” delves into the process with electron microscope photos of fermentation, coupled with discussion of the inspiration he finds in fermentation’s bubbling powers of transformation.
These are very scary and uncertain times. The specter of climate change alone calls everything we have known into question: rising temperatures; melting glaciers; rising seas and shifting currents; more extreme weather patterns, with bigger, more dangerous storms, displacing growing numbers of people; less predictable agriculture with resulting crop failures; new vulnerabilities to pests and diseases; and a cascade of effects as yet unrecognized or unimagined.
Mass extinctions are already occurring, and ecological balances are destabilized. Our insatiable appetite for resources not only accelerates climate change but also leads to deeper and more destructive extraction practices. Income inequality grows ever starker as technology and cheaper globalized labor replace workers. Racism and sexism persist in systemic structures, and are spread and exploited by a growing politics of resentment.
The shocking jolt of the COVID-19 pandemic on all social, public, and economic life illustrates just how vulnerable our entire mass society is to disruption. In this case it was a virus that sent shock waves that have been felt everywhere, most acutely in densely populated cities. Sometimes society is disrupted by more localized phenomena, such as wildfires, floods, tornadoes, or earthquakes. Not to mention war, going on somewhere always, and in some places for protracted periods.
For all these reasons and more, humanity is desperate for transformation. Our way of life is proving to be unsustainable. We need to reimagine how we live our lives. Now more than ever, we need the bubbling transformative power of fermentation.
I definitely do not wish to suggest that the simple act of fermenting in your kitchen will save the world. I wrote in Wild Fermentation of fermentation as “a form of activism.” I stand by this notion, but not because there is anything inherently political about fermentation.
People can be narrow in their focus, and often the reasons people ferment are specific, for example preservation of garden vegetables, or a desire to improve health, or the pursuit of compelling flavors.
The only thing that makes do-it-yourself fermentation radical is context: our contemporary system of food mass production, which is unsustainable in so many ways. Our dominant food system is polluting, resource-depleting, and wasteful, and what it produces is nutritionally diminished, causing widespread disease. Perhaps even more profoundly, it deskills and disempowers people, distancing us from the natural world and making us completely dependent on systems of mass production and distribution—which are fine as long as they function, but are vulnerable to many potential disruptions, from viral pandemics to fuel shortages or price spikes to war and natural disasters. Expanding local and regional food production, and in the process transforming the economy that goes along with it, is the only real food security.
Food and food production are quite profound as we try to shift our relationships to the Earth and to one another. Food can be a means of building and strengthening community. Producing food is a very ethical way to channel one’s energy. You’re doing something productive and creating some sustenance for yourself and other people. Localizing food production stimulates local economies more broadly, by recirculating resources rather than extracting them. Getting involved in food production can also help us feel empowered and more connected to the world around us.
We must find ways to reorganize our society, to move from being driven by resource extraction toward a dedication to regeneration. I do not mean to sound preachy here. I’m not entirely living what I advocate, so I can be viewed as a hypocrite. I mean, I fly more than almost anyone else I know in my fervor to share fermentation. And in my home life in a rural area, I drive almost everywhere I go. I greatly admire people who live their ethos and entirely eschew planes, or all fossil-fuel-driven transportation, but in my life I have defaulted to the path of mobility, like most.
We, including me, definitely need to slow down our mobility and along with it our expectations of growth. What we need is contraction: each of us leaving a much lighter footprint, with more equitable distribution of resources. We also need to shift from our focus on individualism to more cooperative, collaborative models for working together and mutual aid. I have no grand plan, and in our current corporate-dominated political system I’ve become skeptical of grand plans. But moving in this direction definitely involves getting more people plugged into the earth and life around us, the plants and animals and fungi and even the bacteria. This is what food production forces us to do—to be more tuned into our environment. Certainly this is true of fermentation.
Excerpt from Sandor Ellix Katz’s new book Fermentation as Metaphor (Chelsea Green Publishing, October 2020) is reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Sandor Katz is a fermentation revivalist. A self-taught experimentalist who lives in rural Tennessee, his explorations in fermentation developed out of overlapping interests in cooking, nutrition, and gardening. He is the author of two best-selling books: Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation, which won a James Beard Foundation Award in 2013. Sandor is the author of Fermentation as Metaphor (Chelsea Green Publishing, October 2020).