Bubbles, bacteria and me: Sandor Katz on why fermentation isn’t a fad

When people meet Sandor Katz and learn that he writes about and lectures on fermentation, they often give him “the face”. Katz, on a video call from rural Tennessee, wrinkles his nose like he’s smelled a fart. “They’re thinking kimchi,” he says. “They’re thinking roquefort cheese. They’re thinking of the more extreme manifestations of fermentation and they say, ‘Oh, I don’t like fermented foods.’”

Back when he was starting his life as “a fermentation revivalist”, around 25 years ago, Katz would have been polite, even sympathetic. Now his reaction is more combative. “I say, ‘Well, poor you!’ Or, ‘That’s amazing, I wonder how you eat food in a restaurant if you don’t eat vinegar.’ And, ‘Oh, you don’t like chocolate? You don’t eat things with vanilla in them?’ Just so many foods that are intrinsic to our western traditions and to traditions in other places are part of fermentation.”

Katz likes to say that “fermentation is not a fad” – like cupcakes – “it is a fact”. He appears to be winning the argument. Noma in Copenhagen, the world’s most influential restaurant, has had a specialist fermentation lab since 2014; and before coronavirus hit, every dish on its menu featured a fermented element. At home, too, we appear to be embracing the funk, and not just stealth fermented foods such as beer, wine, cheese, charcuterie and coffee. Deli shelves are rammed with krauts, kimchi and kombucha: foods and drinks that have undergone a controlled breakdown by micro-organisms. At times during lockdown, it was hard to find someone who wasn’t baking sourdough loaves. In the US, as the masses turned to gardening, there were reports that it was impossible to find enough glass jars to pickle their glut of vegetables in.

For Katz, whom Noma’s René Redzepi calls “the OG”, you would imagine that the explosion of interest in fermentation is a source of pride. When he began experimenting with pickling and preserving in the mid-1990s, he had not long found out he was HIV positive. He moved from New York, where he was imagining he would have a career in politics, to an off-the-grid commune for LGBTQ people 70 miles from Nashville run by a neo-pagan group called the Radical Faeries. There was no running water or television, but the community did have goats and a large vegetable garden.

Fermentation was a forgotten art in the US back then, and the idea of inviting bacteria into your food and drink was extreme. Looking for recipes to follow, Katz resorted to scouring textbooks written by microbiologists, which was part of the reason that he wrote a book of his own. Wild Fermentation was published in 2003. To spread the word, he embarked on “a self-organised grassroots book tour” and he has basically not stopped since.

“It’s gratifying,” says Katz, who has vivid blue eyes and whose mutton chops are today a more regulation beard shape. “When Wild Fermentation was published, I had several friends who had had books published and they were like, ‘We hope you’re not expecting to make any money from this. Probably your book will be like other books and sell 1,500 copies, and it’ll be remaindered. Then that’ll be the end of it, and you’ll have something you can look at.’”

Katz’s follow-up in 2012, The Art of Fermentation, had an even bigger impact, winning a James Beard award in the US. He modestly deflects the idea that he should be singled out for praise, and disputes the fact that the surge in interest we’re seeing now should even be regarded as new. “I feel thrilled that all of these culinary visionaries are seeing the power of fermentation and using their imaginations to take it to places that I never could have imagined,” he say. But eat in any Chinese or south-east Asian restaurant, Katz points out, and there will be a fermented element such as soy or fish sauce in many dishes. “It’s not that it’s become a fact in the last 20 years, it’s that it always was,” continues Katz. “We just weren’t paying attention or thinking about it. Now we’re seeing so many more intentional processes.”

Katz’s new book, Fermentation as Metaphor, approaches the subject from a different angle. Over the years, he has noticed how often aspects of “fermentation” are applied beyond food to politics, religion, cultural movements: “Anything bubbly, anything in a state of excitement or agitation,” he notes, “can be said to be fermenting.” Katz wanted to see if he could weave together what he has learned about our food system (which he worries about) and diets (ditto) into a broader discussion of germs and fear of contamination. Fermentation as Metaphor is audacious, often surprising: on one page Katz might discuss his use of deodorant, on another, he will link modern germophobia and obsession with purity to Donald Trump’s slogan “Build the Wall”.

He’s well aware that it would have been easier and probably more remunerative to return with a fresh batch of kraut and bread recipes. “Not every reader of my earlier books is going to find this accessible or interesting,” he says. “On the other hand, it’s a short, fast-paced read. A lot of people who can get excited about something beyond recipes and ‘how-to’ will find it interesting and provocative.”

Provocative is right. Katz has long argued that we are too fixated on cleanliness, a stance that has more charged connotations in the age of Covid-19 when we are advised to constantly wash and sanitise. He, however, doesn’t see an inconsistency. Katz, who is 58, wears a mask, practises social distancing and washes his hands with soap regularly. But he feels that too often and too quickly, in the popular imagination, we equate bacteria and viruses with “disease and danger and death”.

“There are bacteria that can make us sick,” he says. “Obviously, there are viruses that can make us sick and can kill us. I’ve been taking antiretroviral drugs for 20 years, because I have HIV. But I think it’s really important that we not decide that other forms of life are our enemies.”

As for the health-giving properties of fermented foods, Katz also preaches that we should avoid absolutism. Before he went on antiretroviral drugs, he tried to control his HIV with a macrobiotic diet and treatments made from local herbs. However, he became perilously thin and was lacking in energy. “Diet alone does not solve every problem,” he says. “I decided that I needed to get on the meds and I’ve been on meds since 1999. I would say that for me, that does not discredit the idea that these foods can have a positive impact on health, because almost everyone who I’ve ever known who’s been on the same kind of meds as I am has had digestive problems that I’ve never had.”

Katz has had a restful lockdown, working in his garden, experimenting in the kitchen. He’s particularly excited about vegetable charcuterie, for which he grows koji mould directly on veg which he then salts and dries. He moved out of the commune a few years ago, but lives nearby with his partner in a 200-year-old wooden farmhouse that he restored. He’s also been writing, and it sounds like it will not be eight years between books this time. His next idea is a fermentation-focused travelogue that takes in what he has learned everywhere from the R&D kitchen at Noma to the native Alaskan woman who showed him how to make tepas, or stinkheads, a dish made from decomposed king salmon that Katz admits he struggled to eat. Compiling the book has been humbling, he says, a reminder of just how little he really knows.

“I’ve heard people use these descriptors, particularly for The Art of Fermentation, like, ‘the Bible of fermentation’,” he says. “It makes me laugh because I appreciate the sentiment, but it is not the last word. I don’t think it would be possible in one lifetime for anybody to have a comprehensive knowledge of fermentation.”

Extract from Fermentation as Metaphor

The shocking jolt of the 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 shockwaves that have been felt everywhere, most acutely in densely populated cities. Sometimes society is disrupted by more localised 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 have written 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 flavours.

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 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. Localising 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 reorganise our society, to move from being driven by resource extraction towards 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 fervour 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 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 skepticalsceptical 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.