- Susan Low
Sandor Katz: the 'fermentation revivalist'
Updated: Dec 17, 2021
I recently had a Zoomer with ‘fermentation revivalist’ Sandor Katz for an feature published on The Independent.
Katz has written a definitive book on fermented foods, The Art of Fermentation (2012), which won a prestigious James Beard Award and has sold more than 500,000 copies, as well as Wild Fermentation (2003) and Fermentation as Metaphor (2020).
I’ve been to a couple of Sandor’s talks and fermentation workshops in London back in the days before Covid, and have written about him in the past. This time I was talking to him about his latest book, Sandor Katz’s Fermentation Journeys (Chelsea Green). It came out last month and is a kind of world tour of fermentation, from the mild (olives, miso…) to the wild (natto, tua nao…).
To my mind, Sandor is easily one of the most interesting (and interested) and inspiring people in the food landscape at the moment. So much more than a discussion about sauerkraut, our interview touched on a huge range of topics, from the micro (how microbes can affect human health, the ‘war on germs’) to the macro (how fermentation can help ensure food security in communities around the world).
Fermentation and food security
On fermentation’s role in food security, he said: “I think part of what makes fermentation practical is that it’s a strategy for preservation. A cheddar cheese is lovely to eat but it also has this practical aspect, it’s a way to store the most perishable of foods – milk…In temperate climates with limited growing seasons, we need strategies for preserving food to be well nourished all year round.”
And, referencing Covid: “It’s not just pandemics, it’s natural disasters. All around the world we’re seeing more severe storms, more extreme weather, war and political violence – a pandemic is just one flavour of disruption.”
Food for thought for the future…
Coca-Cola-nisation and the Green Revolution
Another topic that came up in our conversation is with what you could call culinary colonialism – the ways in which the comestibles of a more powerful nation replace the traditional ones of the less powerful when the two societies come into contact.
Katz uses the example of the drink pulque in Mexico (where, of course, the Green Revolution got its start). He writes: “Pulque, like many of the world’s indigenous fermented beverages, has been much maligned. Profitable and politically powerful breweries, working with corrupt public officials, orchestrated government campaigns against pulque in the early twentieth century, characterising it as unhygienic…Factory production of Western beer and Coca-Cola was touted as safer than traditional small-scale pulque production. I heard a similar story in Colombia, where indigenous, ancient chicha was disparaged as unhygienic.”
It is not mere coincidence that Mexico now has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world. The ‘sugar tax’ on sweetened beverages introduced in 2014 is deemed to be having some positive results, according to a recent BMJ study.
Sandor also said:
“There’s a lot of ways beyond fermentation that colonisers have used people’s Indigenous food traditions to dehumanise them. Whether it’s talking about the point that they eat insects or grubs, or whatever – people eating things that are different from what ‘we’ eat has often been used to dehumanise them.”
Yet another classic case of “othering”, in which the effects are more far-reaching and negative than originally intended.
Indigenous foodways – and a wish for 2022
Fermentation Journeys has a short chapter on Indigenous food practices in which Katz writes: “In many places, Indigenous traditions have been lost due to long, shameful histories of genocide, mass relocation, forced assimilation, removal of children from their families, and other forms of cultural destruction.”
Katz's book is a means of drawing attention to these food traditions, and underscoring their cultural importance – and why it’s vital not to lose connection to older traditions.
Books such as Fermentation Journeys as well as The New Native Kitchen and The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, and US restaurants such at Thirty Nine restaurant in Oklahoma City and Owamni in Minneapolis (there are others and the list, I hope, will continue to grow) give people from Indigenous communities the opportunity to reclaim and share their foodways – and their culture as a whole.
As the year soon draws to a close, it’s traditional (if a bit tedious) for journalists to be asked to predict the next-big-thing trends for the coming 12 months. Predicting the future is a fool’s game but can I hope for a trend instead? If so, I’d like to have the opportunity to eat a wider range of Indigenous foods from around the world.
That’s my wish (hope?) for 2022 and beyond.