I first met Sandor Ellix Katz a decade ago, outside of Nashville, Tennessee, at the fermentation workshop kitchen and queer intentional community where he then lived. Wild Fermentation (2003) was already a best seller, and his views on food activism had already had a huge impact on my life. I’d started growing more of my own food, fermenting a good deal of it, volunteering for local food organizations, and in 2009, several months after I met Katz, I cofounded the annual Portland Fermentation Festival, at which Katz spoke.
Fermentation is the process by which microorganisms—bacteria, molds, yeasts—break down food and drink and by doing so preserve them and make them more delicious and nutritious. Some food and drink ferments beloved worldwide include cheese, leavened breads, cured meats, wine, soy sauce, miso, sauerkraut, and sour pickles.
Since 2009, Katz has written The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from around the World, which won a James Beard Award, taught hundreds of workshops internationally, and presented at Terra Madre, Slow Food International’s conference in Italy. Throughout all of this, Katz has had AIDS. Since his initial HIV-positive diagnosis, in 1991, he has been deeply committed to the nutritive and immune-boosting sustenance of live fermented food and drink, to which he attributes, in part, his own well-being, although he shies away from any sort of sweeping fermentation health claims.
Katz now lives with his husband, Leopard, just on the outskirts of the intentional community where I first visited him. On a loud-with-crickets midsummer evening, I was welcomed into their colorful, art-filled home, and we made our way to the kitchen, where Katz sometimes teaches workshops. A huge cast-concrete island was covered in various ferments, and overhead, a beautiful stained-glass window depicted bacteria. It was here that Katz caught me up on the recent lightning storm that took out their solar-charge controller. While it got repaired, they were keeping their batteries charged by generator.
Katz and Leopard live off the grid, surrounded by gardens, with spring water and an outhouse that includes a sparkly pink flamingo toilet seat. They grow a significant amount of their food and ferment much of the surplus. The ferments I spotted that first night in their kitchen were a crock of two-week-old sake, inspired by Katz’s recent trip to Japan, a container of radish kimchi, and a gallon jar of turmeric vinegar.
Our interview was conducted over the course of three days. For some of our conversation, Katz lay down on the couch, as if in therapy, though he was too animated to stay in that position for very long.
I. “CHOP THEM UP, SALT THEM, STUFF THEM IN A JAR.”
THE BELIEVER: You’ve talked and written a lot about how fermentation builds culture worldwide and how it’s done so for countless generations. What are some examples of this?
SANDOR ELLIX KATZ: Well, I would start with the idea that agriculture is not practical without preservation. You certainly could function as a hunter-gatherer each day, procuring foods and resources that would get you through that day, without thinking about the dynamics of how food ages over time, but as soon as you begin investing yourself into crops that are ready at a certain moment of the year, things change. You need to have some ideas in mind as to how you are going to preserve these foods for this to be a practical strategy for year-round survival.
Fermentation is certainly not the only ancient method of preservation, but it’s a major one. The other primary methods are drying food, which deprives the microorganisms present on the food of the water they need in order to function, and also heavy salting, which serves to make it impossible for microorganisms on the food to function. Fermentation has been utterly essential for survival. So fermentation is at the core of culture in that very tangible context.
Now, if we think about culture in terms of cultural identity and how food plays into that, well, how can we imagine France without bread, cheese, and wine, and how can you imagine Japan without soy sauce, miso, and sake? So from the perspective of cultural identity, fermentation is also incredibly important.
When you start looking at vocabulary, our sense of what we can culture has expanded over time. If it all begins with agriculture, now we can talk about microbiology laboratories where we’re trying to grow certain cells in a petri dish—that’s a culture also. The community of organisms that we add to our yogurt—we call those cultures, our yogurt cultures. So fermentation is intertwined in so many different understandings of culture.
Many products of fermentation function as religious icons as well. In the Roman Catholic mass, the substance that transubstantiates is wine. It’s not some random substance; it’s a product of fermentation that magically transforms into the blood of Jesus Christ. If you look into surviving indigenous cultures, there are many examples of rituals organized around the process of fermentation. It is this mystical process that until 150 years ago nobody really understood in a scientific way.
I would say that fermentation techniques are essential cultural information. [They are] of the same caliber as knowing how to cultivate the soil, how to save seeds, and how to grow food. I think that in our modern society what has historically been essential cultural information has been downgraded, so the vast majority of people never learned it. That means it is at risk of disappearing. At some level, and in some contexts more than others, in general I would say that the fermentation revival—people taking up fermentation now—is really an act of cultural survival, trying to make sure this essential information remains relevant and in use and that it continues to get passed down.
BLVR: When you think about modern-day issues of hunger and poverty, how exactly do you see food-and-drink fermentation fitting in?
SEK: Fermentation is important when you are seeking to maximize nutrition from available food resources. In rural areas there are plenty of people who are cash poor who have always had gardens. For those people, fermentation is relevant. Any time I meet an old-timer in Tennessee (or almost anywhere), someone who’s been living off the land their whole lives, they all make sauerkraut. It’s impossible to think about primarily living off of the food you’re preserving in temperate regions of the world without including some method of fermenting vegetables.
The United Nations has in the past couple of decades published a series of books: Fermented Fruits and Vegetables: A Global Perspective [and] Fermented Cereals: A Global Perspective. They’re looking at [fermentation] from a hunger perspective, and they’re essentially saying that if there is a limited amount of food resources available to people in a particular region, those people can get more nutrients out of the food if they ferment it. Fermentation remains as relevant as ever in terms of feeding people and enabling people to get the maximum nutrition out of food resources available to them.
Poverty is complex. Part of it is about access to financial resources, part of it is about access to information resources, another part of it is [about] access to stores where these products are. So much of the marketing of fermented products right now is geared toward affluent people, but these foods all come from practical poor people working the land and trying to get the most they can out of the food resources they have. Fermentation practices are inherently related to thrift and practicality.
BLVR: There are often four-to-five-dollar sixteen-ounce bottles of kombucha lined up for impulse buys on US grocery store shelves. Has the scale of fermentation finally tipped away from access and economy, where it’s firmly stood for thousands of years, and toward privilege, or is it more complicated than that?
SEK: There’s a book by a fellow named Hamid Dirar called The Indigenous Fermented Foods of the Sudan[: Study in African Food and Nutrition], and in it he delves into how in the urbanization of the Sudan, a lot of the traditional foods have been deemed too smelly and markers of rural identity. If people are trying to be sophisticated urbanites, they don’t want anything to do with these foods, because they feel that just by touching them or having them around, they’re going to make them smell this country way. So as people climb in class status there and elsewhere, there’s this rejection of traditional ferments. It’s funny because in the West we’re really seeing the opposite of that. That’s a huge departure from the history of fermentation.
There’s nothing intrinsically bourgeois about them except for the degree that we fetishize them. Wine is really simple to make if you have grapes. You crush the grapes, and their juice ferments spontaneously. The process is so simple, and there’s nothing specific about it that would make it an international symbol of status. And yet wine has come to embody great status, with vast wine monocultures over huge swaths of the world and a status-driven industry that projects value on the wine. I love wine. I don’t mean anything negative about it as a fermented beverage. It’s so interesting though, being in Italy, where wine is really for the people, of the people, and it’s just not expensive. There is cheap wine everywhere.
BLVR: It’s cheaper than soda in many parts of Europe.
SEK: Yes. So there’s nothing intrinsic to these foods that makes them status objects. It’s just what we’ve done with them. In addition to kombucha on store shelves, there’s also this huge DIY movement. Kombucha might be more available on shelves than it’s ever been, but there are also more people making it at home than ever. Kombucha is easy and cheap to make at home. I get people complaining to me all the time about the cost of buying fermented vegetables and it’s like, Hello, don’t whine about it, just make them yourself. It’s incredibly easy. Spend a dollar, buy a pound of vegetables at the market, chop them up, salt them, stuff them in a jar, and then you have your jar and you don’t have to spend eight dollars a pint for it. I think that if we want to empower people [who have] scarcer access to resources, sharing skills is the best way to empower anyone.
II. “I’M NOT SAYING THAT EVERY TIME SOMEONE GROWS A TOMATO IT’S A REVOLUTIONARY ACT, BUT I DO THINK IT CAN BE.”
BLVR: With our current US administration, the word resist has been used a lot more frequently in the realm of political activism and organizing. In the second edition of Wild Fermentation you write this:
Resistance takes place on many planes. Sometimes it must be dramatic and public, but most of the decisions we are faced with are mundane and private. What to eat is a choice that we make several times a day, if we are lucky. The cumulative choices we make about food have profound implications.
Food offers us many opportunities to resist the culture of mass marketing and commodification.…We do not have to be reduced to the role of consumers selecting from seductive convenience items. We can merge appetite with activism and choose to involve ourselves in food as co-creators.
Do you think DIY food fermentation is always a form of activism?
SEK: Food can be a means to building community in all kinds of ways. It can be a means to feeling empowered and feeling more connected to the earth around us, and those are all things I consider to be forms of activism.
At the moment, it’s not like I think anyone fermenting anything is going to improve life for immigrants who are being deported, or for people who are losing their health care, or other really trying and difficult things like that. It’s not like I’m saying fermentation is the same as being part of a march of one hundred thousand people, or making regular phone calls to your reps to express your feelings, or going to vote. But we have to find ways to reorganize and move from being this resource-extraction society to being a more regenerative one.
We have to reimagine agriculture. Part of reimagining our economic system is reimagining how we produce and share food. I’m not saying that every time someone grows a tomato it’s a revolutionary act, but I do think it can be.
Food mass production, as currently practiced, is unsustainable. It is polluting, depleting, wasteful, and results in food that is nutritionally diminished. The fact that we have less than one person in one hundred working in direct agricultural production forces us to rely on methods that are very damaging to the earth. I would love to see around 10 to 15 percent of our population working in food production and producing food with very different methods. I’d love to see a whole devolution of agriculture.
BLVR: What current food or agriculture groups or movements do you feel strongly about and gravitate toward?
SEK: For me a big one is seed saving—people who are trying to revive disappearing varieties and breed new regionally specific ones. I see the kind of skill acquisition and skill sharing involved in the seed-saving movement as analogous to the work I do with fermentation. Food cultures have been disappearing just as seeds have been disappearing, so there’s this important aspect of cultural survival to both. Seed saving is a movement that’s getting bigger and involving more people, [and] that requires decentralization. You can’t have effective centralized seed saving. You need a lot of different people in different places doing it [on] different scales.
I think anything in an urban area that’s trying to make more gardening space available—community gardening projects; school, church, and public-housing-project gardens; anything that enables people who don’t own land to access some for gardening—is excellent. These programs usually have some sort of a skill-sharing aspect to them too.
We have to find ways to bring food policy into the larger political conversation. I would say that food issues have largely failed to capture the public political imagination. Civil liberties, immigration rights, war and peace, and health care: all these issues seem larger, and in a way are larger, but food is so basic that it relates to everything else.
BLVR: Where do you see the most room for food-systems improvement in our country, and how do we get there?
SEK: Agriculture has been so centralized and built in these labor-efficient ways. There are giant tractors and combines where one person can cover dozens, maybe hundreds of acres in the course of a day. There is all sorts of propaganda out there trying to convince us that it would be impossible to feed the 7 billion hungry people of the earth without continually intensifying biotechnology. I don’t buy into the scarcity myth. Without denying that feeding huge numbers is daunting, all of the studies I’ve seen support the idea that maximizing production per acre, rather than production per person and hour, depends on polyculture [mixed crops].
You can always get more food out of an acre of land if you grow a lot of different things on it. It’s a much more labor-intensive method of agriculture. But if our issue is feeding 7 billion people on a limited amount of land, then it seems like we would need to use the methods that would produce the most food per acre even if we have to work [the land] more intensively.
We also need a larger portion of our income going toward food. Most people feel cash-strapped, and the idea of [putting 15 percent of their income toward food rather than] 7 percent seems scary, because that’s nearly twice as much. But it’s also rescaling other things. Is it intrinsic that people should be paying more than half of their money for a place to live so they have so much less money to spend on all of the other things they need to sustain themselves?
Step out and look at the big picture again, and let’s talk about health care. We keep seeing all of this data about how much health care costs are escalating, and when you look at graphs tracking the percentage of household income spent on food versus the percentage of household income spent on health care, you’ll see that the food line has gone down steadily while the health care one has gone up steadily. At some point, around twenty years ago, they passed each other, and we started spending more on health care than on food. I would suggest that if we spent a little bit more of our overall resources on food—and I’m thinking about this in a more qualitative way—then as a society we would spend less of our resources on health care.
BLVR: What have you learned about the positive effects of a healthy diet, which incorporates fermented food and drink, during your recent international travels?
SEK: If you measure the minerals in cooked grains versus in fermented cooked grains, the fermented ones always have higher levels of minerals because fermentation liberates the minerals and breaks down bonds that otherwise make them inaccessible.
There are all kinds of unique fermentation by-products, some of which are regarded as anticarcinogenic, [while] other compounds aid circulation. And then the bacteria themselves, we actually don’t have a lot of exact information about what the mechanism of probiotic benefit is, and there’s a lot of debate about it, but it’s very well documented that eating living fermented foods can improve digestive processes and improve overall immune function. There is exciting new data suggesting that fermented foods might improve mental health as well.
One thing I find myself steering away from is the idea of a prescriptive diet—of telling people that this is the way to eat. There’s no one way to eat. People often want to know which fermented foods are best and exactly how much of them they should eat, and I just don’t feel like everyone can possibly be the same. I would say, especially in terms of immune-stimulating benefits, that diversity is best: a broad variety of ferments and a broad variety of plants. Plant carbohydrates and plant fibers are really important. Everything I read about the microbiome really emphasizes not so much the importance of eating bacteria but of eating fibers and long-chain carbohydrates that really give the bacteria along the entire length of your digestive tract work to do. That’s what nourishes them well and makes for healthy, biodiverse communities in the intestines.
There is no single perfect diet for everyone, and it upsets me that there are so many people out there telling people that there is. A related concept is superfoods. The idea that certain foods are superfoods is a huge pet peeve of mine.
BLVR: It seems so consumer-culture-driven, too, to focus on one perfect food.
SEK: Well, it’s also generally some exotic item from a faraway place. How could it be that there’s a single berry from a very particular place on the earth that’s the key to good health everywhere?
BLVR: If you just drink that one bottle of precious exotic juice a day, everything will be perfect.
SEK: Yes, exactly. I actually think that superfoods are everywhere. If we would all look in the lawn outside of our door, we would find the super-est food of all—something that is right there under our feet that we haven’t been paying attention to.
III. THE MATRIX FOR ALL LIFE
BLVR: I’ve heard you talk about spirituality as it relates to DIY fermentation a few times now. Will you please tell me a little bit more about that?
SEK: I think one of the things that is profound about fermentation is that it involves these invisible life forces. The bacteria we’re working with are everywhere but unseen. As we work with them, we’re trying to make them manifest. So I’d say fermentation involves a certain amount of faith. You have to believe the bacteria are there; you have to believe they are going to manifest.
Earlier I talked a little bit about ritual in fermentation, and I think that we could really understand a lot of the indigenous rituals related to fermentation as affirmations of faith. You’re doing this dance, you’re doing this song because you know this thing is going to happen and you believe it’s going to be happening and through your actions you’re trying to help bring it about. Well, I feel that every time that I start a crock of sauerkraut. I know the bacteria is there on an intellectual basis, and I have faith that it will manifest, but until it does I’m a little anxious. I get so excited when it does.
When I was a kid, my dad got into baking for a while. I remember him talking about the rising of the bread in spiritual terms, and I’ve heard so many bakers talk about that, but I think that when you’re working with these sort of subtle energies and invisible life forces, it just forces you to be tuned in in different ways that we’re not accustomed to. I don’t wear my spirituality on my sleeve very much, though. I feel about spirituality the way I do about diet and nutrition—there’s no one spirituality for everyone. Once people get too verbal about articulating their spirituality, I’ll always find something that doesn’t quite resonate for me. It’s all around us and within us and we can’t help but be part of that.
BLVR: In terms of all of your travels here and abroad, have you seen any great shifts in the types of people attending your workshops, talks, and demos, or not so much?
SEK: Not so much. One aspect of this work that’s especially interesting to me is what I would describe as the cultural-survival aspect of it. This is living information and we need to use it or we’ll lose it. Through the practice of fermentation, we are making sure this information stays in circulation. It’s especially interesting to me when I meet people who are from places with a ferment that’s so obscure that I haven’t come across it in any literature.
There was a young woman who is part of the Mohawk tribe in far upstate New York, and she had gotten very involved in food and working to revive her people’s food traditions—partially for health, because they have really high diabetes rates, and [based on] the idea that getting back to a more traditional diet would improve the health of the tribe, and also because of cultural-survival issues. She attended one of my workshops and was very interested in fermentation, but she hadn’t actually been able to learn about any of her people’s traditional fermentation processes because so many of the traditions have been lost or obscured. She wanted a general education about fermentation so she could start figuring out some ways that fermentation could fit in with some of their traditional practices.
BLVR: In America’s food deserts there is sadly much more access to unhealthy junk food and fast food than there is to healthy food. A recent study found that 10 percent of what food-stamp households purchase and consume is wildly unhealthy sweetened beverages, including soda, fruit juices, energy drinks, and sweetened teas. How do we make the healthy choice the easier and more affordable choice?
SEK: First, we can’t blame the people receiving these benefits for the choices they are making. We can’t have one arm of the government subsidizing corn in a way that makes high-fructose corn syrup the cheapest carbohydrate source available and then get mad at the people who are getting government benefits [for] responding to that and buying it. Really, I wish we could reverse the agricultural subsidy programs. We have to reenvision how we help our farmers.
Another thing I would add is that we need to build a different kind of food culture that’s about giving people skills. The notion that poor people are not interested in these types of skills I find absurd, and it totally contradicts my experience. Giving people skills is crucial. I’m not saying to give people skills instead of giving them food stamps, but we need to augment the programs we have with skill-building programs so that people can actually grow some food for themselves, their families, and their neighbors. I think this is especially key for unemployed people who don’t have a big time constraint. It’s the perfect thing to put their energy into.
Let’s talk about centralized versus decentralized. I just think there are a million reasons why local, regional food is better than national or global food, and one reason has to do with freshness. Foods that are shipped one thousand miles or halfway around the world are never as fresh as local food, and freshness of food correlates with nutrition and it correlates with flavor. So food is just intrinsically superior when it comes from close and is fresh and recently harvested or made rather than shipped vast distances. Beyond that, I think the far more compelling reason for local food is that all of the systems we have for distribution are vulnerable to economic disruptions, political disruptions, climatic disruptions. In every region we should have a great interest in maintaining some measure of food security and food sovereignty by maintaining our productive capacity, the human know-how, the seed base, the soil fertility, the water systems—all of these things that make food production possible.
IV. “YOU DON’T NEED TO KNOW ABOUT BACTERIA TO FERMENT.”
BLVR: Will you please talk about the word organoleptic and how it applies to fermented foods?
SEK: Generally, it’s defined as “mouthfeel.” Qualities of food beyond flavor, in many cases textures, are very much transformed by fermentation. For instance, soft, runny cheeses—that’s a unique texture of fermentation. There are Scandinavian fermented milks that are collectively known as ropy milks that are sort of fermented milks with these stretchy, gluey strings, almost like gluten in the milk. Sauerkraut definitely goes through textural changes as it ferments. Natto is this notorious Japanese soybean ferment with a slimy coating on the beans generated by fermentation. So fermentation can transform the mouthfeel—the organoleptic qualities—of food in really dramatic ways.
BLVR: Have you had ropy milk?
SEK: Oh yeah, sure. Viili is a Finnish one—it’s the one I’ve worked with the most. It’s got a mild flavor and a very short fermentation. If you let it go for a while it would become sour, but it gets stringy way before it gets sour.
Viili is similar to yogurt cultures in the US, in the sense that traditional heirloom cultures have long since been replaced by pure culture starters in commercially available yogurts. If you buy yogurt and use it as a starter to make yogurt, you’ll make a great first-generation yogurt [and] a passable second generation, but by the time you get to a third generation it’s no longer recognizable as yogurt. You have to go back to the store and buy another yogurt. In contrast, traditional heirloom starters have much more complex communities with structures that are able to perpetuate themselves over the course of multiple generations. The yogurt culture I have was over one hundred years old when I got it, and I have made approximately fifty generations of it.
BLVR: Fermented food is obviously a very important part of your diet, and I know that over the years you have touted the healthful aspects of it in relationship to you being HIV positive and diagnosed with AIDS. What is so healing and beneficial about fermented food?
SEK: First let me start with a little bit of a disclaimer. I wrote on the back cover of the original Wild Fermentation that fermented foods have been “an important part of my healing,” and people have extrapolated from that that I somehow cured HIV with fermented foods, and I’m trying to be much more careful about the way I talk about that these days. I take anti-HIV drugs every day, and I’ve done that for almost twenty years, since before I wrote Wild Fermentation.
I wish my story could be that I cured, or at least kept at bay, HIV using only fermented foods, but that’s definitely not true. I had a period where I got very sick, [from] 1999 to 2000, and I got on the meds that I had seen turn around the health of different friends who were sick with HIV, and I’m happy to report that my health is reasonably good these days, but I certainly can’t attribute that solely to fermented foods, because I do take these meds every day.
And yet I certainly consider fermented foods to be very powerful in a few different ways. One way is via predigestion. This has to do with the simple idea that while the fermentation is proceeding, while whatever bacteria or fungi are fermenting the original food into the food it’s becoming, they’re digesting nutrients so proteins get broken down into amino acids. Long-chain carbohydrates get broken down into shorter-chain carbohydrates or into various kinds of organic acids or alcohols; chemical bonds that can bind up minerals and make them inaccessible to us get broken down so the minerals become much more available to us. So nutrients in food are often unlocked by fermentation and become more nutritious to us, more accessible to us.
Most of the people I meet who take the kinds of anti-HIV meds that I take experience chronic digestive problems as a result, and I’ve never experienced that. So that makes me think that eating the wide and varied fermented foods that I do along with the medicine I’m taking is part of what’s been keeping me healthy. Certainly the data suggests that.
BLVR: You call yourself a fermentation generalist rather than an expert, and in Wild Fermentation you urge people to “reject the cult of expertise.”
SEK: In general, our society has really prized specialization, and in our conceptions of careers people tend to become very specialized. It’s not that I’m against that, but fermentation is not rocket science. You don’t need to study for years before you can do it. It’s something that’s very simple and it’s been practiced by household generalists forever. I think that because of microbiology people tend to project anxiety onto fermentation these days. We know through archaeology that people have been intentionally practicing fermentation for at least nine thousand years—that’s when the oldest pottery shards have been found to have residue of alcohol in them—however, science has only really had an explanation for fermentation for the last 150 years. So for most of the history of fermentation, nobody knew scientifically what they were doing.
You don’t need to know about bacteria to ferment. You don’t need to have a microscope or a laboratory coat or sterile conditions to ferment food and drink. Since we’ve all grown up in the midst of the war on bacteria, and [with] this idea that bacteria are so dangerous, many people believe that fermentation must be really technically demanding. They think that in order to be sure you don’t have dangerous bacteria growing, and to be certain that instead you have bacteria perceived as beneficial growing, you need to know about microbiology. You most certainly do not. There’s a lot of projection onto fermentation now that most fermentation production in our society has disappeared into factories. And since you don’t see that much household or community fermentation these days, that just adds to the mystique of it.
Back in the day, you would watch your grandma making kraut and learn from watching her so that it just became second nature. But if you’ve been deprived of that sort of learning—growing up, witnessing it and learning how to do it as a kid—at some point you learn you have to get the vegetables submerged under liquid. You learn that that protects the vegetables from the oxygen-loving molds that can grow and favors the lactic acid bacteria. So yes, of course, there’s a microbiological explanation for it, but as long as you understand that condition—that salting the vegetables and pounding them or squeezing them will cause juice to come out, and you can get the vegetables submerged under their own juices, or alternatively you can use big chunks of vegetables and cover them with a saltwater solution—as long as you understand that environmental imperative of getting the vegetables submerged, there’s no need to know [about] bacteria or to measure pH or anything like that.
I think it’s really empowering to play with as many of these food processes as you can, if only because it gives you a greater appreciation of what goes into it. To me “reject the cult of expertise” does not mean don’t respect people who have honed their technique; it means don’t be fooled into thinking you need that kind of developed technique in order to work with food. That would be like saying, Oh, I’m not going to grow any mint in my garden, because I haven’t spent my whole life gardening and I don’t know everything there is about growing food. You have to start somewhere, and all aspects of food production have historically been the domain of generalists. For me “reject the cult of expertise” is a slogan of self-empowerment.