Sandor Katz on Fermentation, Health and Community

September 16, 2012 in Author Series, Community Resources, Uncategorized

Sandor Katz has inspired countless a person to stretch beyond any self-imposed “I can’t do that” attitude toward fermentation. Wild Fermentation and, just published, The Art of Fermentation offer us an accessible and engaging invitation to be kind to our guts, to rejuvenate our palettes, and, ultimately, to reclaim food. As Sandor notes on his website, “Fermentation makes foods more nutritious, as well as delicious. Microscopic organisms – our ancestors and allies – transform food and extend its usefulness…Fermented foods help people stay healthy.”

Sandor is not only an author and teacher on fermentation technique, but, in his The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved, offers an intelligent and compelling argument for weighing the true costs of food systems that extol convenience, industry profit, and a pseudo-nutritional framework.  As you will see in this interview, Sandor challenges us to consider this small act, the act of fermentation, as an opportunity for self-knowledge, community building, and pure enjoyment!

For information on Sandor’s upcoming workshops, visit Join the Good Food Neighborhood™ next weekend at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania, where Sandor Katz is a keynoter on the topic of Fermentation, Culture and Coevolution.


Sandor, for folks who might not be as familiar with how you became so passionate about fermentation, could you provide some insight into your journey?
Okay, sure. I would say my path to fermentation started as a kid growing up in New York City. I just loved sour pickles. I can’t say why. Nobody in my family was making them. It was just a food I really liked. Then, I started to tune in to the digestive benefits of fermented vegetables, even though I wasn’t making them myself. That didn’t happen until I moved from New York to a community in rural Tennessee and got involved in keeping a garden. I was such a naive city kid that it didn’t even occur to me that all the cabbages would be ready at the same time, that all the radishes would be ready at the same time. So, basically, faced with that practical challenge -that all people who have gardens are faced with- I decided that it was time for me to learn how to make sauerkraut. I just looked in some cookbooks, figured out how to do it (it’s pretty simple), loved it, and, pretty much since that first batch, I’ve always had sauerkraut going. That led me into a broader obsession of wanting to learn to make all sorts of things fermented, but it definitely started with sauerkraut…prompted by what was coming out of my garden.

You were a guest on NPR’s Fresh Air this summer. Terry Gross asked you how people can get started and you recommended they start the same way: sauerkraut.  Are there other ‘newbie’ options that you recommend for people who are just getting started?
Well, what I think is so perfect about fermenting vegetables is that it is intrinsically safe, you don’t need any special equipment, you can just do it in a jar that you have sitting in your pantry somewhere. You don’t need a special starter culture and you get relatively quick results. So, that’s why I think it’s a great way to start. But I mean really, my primary message with fermentation is that this is not rocket science. Anybody with a kitchen can do any of this. So I would say that beyond sauerkraut, it just depends on what foods people like to eat. Making yogurt is really easy; making alcoholic beverages is really easy.

So, on the opposite of that, are there some things that you only get to ferment a couple of times a year that you really look forward to?
Sure, I think of a lot of these ferments as annual rituals: I make wine out of certain fruits and berries based on when those things are ready, and I make those things just once a year. I’ve got a lot of pears, and I’m looking forward to them ripening, and getting to squeeze them into juice and making perry (fermented pear juice). Every winter for maybe the last nineteen years, I’ve made miso. Usually the first weekend in November I go to my friend’s farm where he plants acres of daikon radishes as a cover crop and he lets me fill up a pickup truck full, I then transfer them to a 55 gallon oak barrel and make radish-kraut. This summer, I made a quick vegetable ferment of corn relish where I cut kernels of corn off the cob, salt and squeeze them, and mix them with onions and herbs. I ferment the whole thing. So, yes, I do a lot of my fermentation as a seasonal activity during the appropriate harvest time of the year.

That sounds delicious. Beyond just being tasty, fermented foods have so many health benefits. I have been reading about, and hearing various programs about, the role everything from viruses to bacteria to parasites can have on our health and how our obsession as a culture with hygiene can lead to a gut that is vacant of what we need to digest food and ward off disease.

Yeah, for all of us in the United States anyway, we live in the context of what I call the war on bacteria. We have all received this thorough indoctrination into this misguided notion that bacteria are dangerous to us. That’s not to deny that there exist bacteria that can be dangerous, but the vast majority of bacteria we can coexist with. And human beings could not possibly function in the world without the bacteria that are part of us. But all of the anti-bacteria ideology, compounded by the chemical exposure we all receive every day through antibiotics, through the water that we drink, and through cleansing products that are marketed on the basis of their antibacterial chemicals, all of this chemical exposure has the effect of killing off bacteria that we desperately need. And at the same time, research is demonstrating, more and more compellingly, how vitally important bacteria are to our functioning. The report last month from the Human Microbiome Project really laid out how much we are ultimately dependent on the genetics of the bacteria we are hosts to and to our own limited range of genetics. Without bacteria, human beings could not reproduce. Human beings could not digest food and assimilate nutrients. Bacteria are responsible for most of the immune responses that allow us to live in this world, and also for our brain chemistry. Every aspect of physiological functioning involves bacteria that are part of us. We need to abandon this misguided ideology that bacteria are our enemies and start recognizing that bacteria are our ancestors, that bacteria are integral parts of our bodies and we need to coexist with them and not try to just kill them.

You’ve traveled extensively, offering an abundance of workshops. You obviously love to connect with people and love the act of collective learning. What was your motivation behind writing, now, your third book?
The publication of Wild Fermentation got me invited to lots of different venues to teach fermentation, brought traffic to my website from people with all sorts of questions trying to troubleshoot, trying to figure out what was going wrong, or to brainstorm when things weren’t going as expected. That process has expanded my education in a huge way. So I’ve gotten to hear thousands of people’s stories about things that they’ve tried, or things that their grandparents used to do, or ferments that they used from the old country. All that troubleshooting has really forced me to research a lot of it and understand better what is going on and what makes things sometimes go awry so that I can give people some idea about how to do it better. Really my new book [The Art of Fermentation] is a book I couldn’t have written at the time when I wrote Wild Fermentation. And I felt that I had expanded my repertoire and had enough new information and new insights into giving people suggestions for troubleshooting that it was time for me to write a new book on this topic. You know the topic of fermentation is so vast and infinite that no one book can say everything there is to be said.

Sally Fallon‘s forward in Wild Fermentation refers to your book as “a road map to a better world” and that got me wondering, do you feel a certain responsibility for sharing the information you have gathered, for what you can offer the world?
The biggest thing that I have learned in my now decade of teaching fermentation workshops is that there is a huge hunger for this information. I accept my limitations, I can’t necessarily satisfy everybody’s appetites for this information but I’m really thrilled to see that there are a lot more people all around the country who are stepping up in their communities and offering workshops and sharing this information on their own. So, yes, I love to share this information, I always encourage my students to not be end-users of this information, to go head and share these foods and share the information on how they made them with people.

I’m going to just say a few phrases and you tell me what comes to mind with regard to fermentation’s role.
Okay, this is like a Rorschach!

Fermentation as a food safety strategy…
According to the USDA, there has never been a single case of food poisoning reported in the United States from fermented vegetables. And we all know that every year we hear of outbreaks with raw vegetables traced to some kind of ground contamination of vegetables. We’ve seen it with lettuce, we’ve seen it with spinach, we’ve seen it with tomatoes. All kinds of vegetables and produce. Fermentation is a safety strategy. Even if you take vegetables that have been exposed to some sort of incidental contamination, when you ferment them, when you allow the indigenous dominant population of lactic acid bacteria to develop, the fermentation overwhelms any incidental contaminants. Through fermentation, we create an environment to destroy them. So, fermentation really is a strategy for safety as much as it is anything else.

Fermentation’s role in pre-digestion…
Well, fermentation IS pre-digestion. As foods are fermenting, the microorganisms that are transforming the foods are transforming the foods precisely by digesting the compound nutrients into suitably more elemental forms. So all fermented foods have some degree of pre-digestion, especially if you look at fermented foods based upon the raw foods that are sometimes difficult for people to digest (or always difficult for people to digest, as in the case of soybeans). You can see that fermentation pre-digests food and typically makes the nutrients in them more bioavailable and makes them easier for people to digest.

Fermentation’s role in detoxification…
Well, fermentation has been used in many cases specifically in order to detoxify different kinds of foods. Sometimes some of the toxins are quite dramatic, as in cassava which is a tropical tuber which about a billion people on this earth are dependent upon for their daily calories. Cassava grown in certain soils has really high concentrations of cyanide. If people ate unprocessed roots it could literally kill them. But the way that cyanide is removed, or rather digested into benign forms, is simply by cutting the roots up into chunks and soaking in water and initiating a fermentation. Other toxins are not quite so dramatic: phytic acid -the outer layer of greens- in legumes and seeds can be digested by fermentation. Oxalic acid…there are lots of examples of various nuts and seeds from around the world that people regard as toxic unless they are fermented before they are eaten. In the Asian cultures that pioneered soy agriculture, none of them eats bowls of soybeans. They all process them primarily through fermentation, also through making tofu which is a very involved, many-step process. But soybeans are never eaten without some sort of pre-digestion.

In your book The Revolution Will Not be Microwaved, Jeff Poppen (The Barefoot Farmer) offers: “CSAs offer hope for rural America, not only in a practical financial way, but on a deeper level too”. And I’m wondering…in what ways are you hopeful for rural America?
Well, I mean really, the local food revival is great news for rural America because people living on small plots of land have the potential to produce things that are of real value to themselves and their neighbors and the people in near-by cities. I’m seeing, in my own community, that the revival of local food and local food systems is leading to some small scale specialization at a local scale and is really a positive force in giving people more options. Giving the people who grow food more options to support themselves; giving other people more options in terms of healthy food to eat.

Seems the most we can do is change our one little bit of the world.
You know, I agree. Sometimes things happen in the world that you feel like you need to respond to, but really for the most part we just have our small little realm of influence.

Sandor, thank you!
Thank YOU, Hannah.


More about Sandor Katz:

Author Sandor Ellix Katz

My name is Sandor Ellix Katz, and I am a fermentation revivalist. My interest in fermentation grew out of my overlapping interests in cooking, nutrition and gardening. It started with sauerkraut. I found an old crock buried in our barn, harvested cabbage from our garden, chopped it up, salted it, and waited. That first kraut tasted so alive and powerfully nutritious! Its sharp flavor sent my salivary glands into a frenzy and got me hooked on fermentation. I have made sauerkraut ever since, earning the nickname Sandorkraut, even as my repertoire has expanded. I have explored and experimented widely in the realm of fermentation, and my mission…is to share information and resources, in order to encourage home fermentation experimentalists and propel more live-culture foods out into our culture.

I am a native of New York City, a graduate of Brown University, and a retired policy wonk. In 1993, I moved from New York City to Cannon County, Tennessee, where I am part of a vibrant extended community of queer folks (and many other friends and allies). I have AIDS and consider fermented foods to be an important part of my healing.

Since 2003 when my book Wild Fermentation was published, I have taught hundreds of workshops demystifying fermentation and empowering people to reclaim this important transformational process in their kitchens.

Transcription service provided by Chip Mefford.