Sandor Katz seems a little like a man out of his own time. The evangelist for fermentation and pickling is perhaps 20 years too young to have been a hippie but that didn’t prevent him from leaving the archetypally urban New York to join a cooperative in rural Tennessee. Born 20 years later and his concerns for sustainability and interest in foraging could have seen him labelled a ‘hipster’. He might be better imagined living in Eastern Europe about 150 years ago, tending a farm and preserving the summer crops so as to survive the notoriously harsh winters. The deep passion for fermentation would keep this historic Katz farmstead equally well-supplied with sourdough bread and beer.
While Katz does in fact grow crops and preserve them, he is also behind a renewed interest in these subjects, teaches them and preaches that fermented foods are beneficial to health and to the economy. In his own words, “Sometimes I feel like a Holy Roller evangelist zealously spreading the word about the glorious healing powers of fermented food.” The politics have a very contemporary resonance.
Katz’s concerns about food come with an interest in sustainability that has led to experimentation with exotic sources of protein such as crickets and chocolate-covered ants. “Given how much anxiety there is about having enough food for so many people, we have to explore areas like that. Insects are an abundant protein source so somewhat ideal in terms of food scarcity,” he says.
Katz hasn’t foraged anything “that exotic”, he says. “Lots of berries, wild blueberries, wild foods in general. The American persimmon is not commercially available at all.” He also often makes sauerkraut, something of an obsession to him, with wild onions or dandelion greens. “I like to augment the cultivated veg with different kinds of foraged greens and herbs.”
Growing up, Katz says he wasn’t overly familiar with the flavours that were to become somewhat of an obsession in later life. “It wasn’t done by my parents or grandparents. No one was fermenting or pickling,” he says, adding that the pickles he was familiar with as a child were those on hamburgers. “In New York City, it was one of my favourite foods.” Later in life he was “drawn to the lactic acid flavour of fermentation” in sauerkraut but the Katz family didn’t follow the East European diet of their Lithuanian and Byelorussian forebears.
For Katz, fermentation and pickling are overlapping concepts in that both processes preserve and produce different types of sour flavours. “Pickles are preserved in an acidic medium. Take any vegetables that you could find in the supermarket and put them in a hot vinegar solution.” Explaining fermentation, Katz says, “Put cukes in a salt water brine with garlic, dill, other seasonings and one result is lactic acid, a byproduct of the fermentation process, not the acetic acid found in vinegar.” Other byproducts of the fermentation process are alkaline.
Katz left his native New York in 1993 for a cooperative in Tennessee, where he grew vegetables for the first time. “My career in municipal government wasn’t that satisfying,” he explains. Growing veg he discovered he had green fingers or perhaps the beginner’s luck of a “naïve city kid”. He found himself with far bigger crops than he had expected, not realising that the cabbages and radishes would be ready to harvest at around the same time. What was he going to do with 16 cabbages? “I had better learn to make sauerkraut,” he decided. So, he turned to one of the Bibles of American cookery writing, The Joy of Cooking and found a great recipe. “I loved it and I’ve been making sauerkraut ever since.” The dish reminded him of the flavours of his East European heritage but unlike many hyphenated Americans, he doesn’t have that almost mystical attachment to the ‘Old Country’. Instead he became interested in fermented food from all over the world, as comfortable talking about Indonesian tempeh as Ukrainian kvass, a light beer that is virtually a sweet, liquid bread.
After sauerkraut came other kinds of ferments, such as yoghurts and country wines made with blackberries and elderberries.
Katz was to spend 17 years on the cooperative, developing his gardening and cooking skills and then teaching them to others. He also spent the time developing his message about food and especially the benefits of fermenting. Katz won’t name the cooperative because, “After I gained a kind of fame, we discussed it and they decided they didn’t want any attention drawn to them.” The fame discussed includes having his work praised by Michael Pollan, a man revered by environmentally-conscious foodies and being called “one of the unlikely rock stars of the American food scene” by no less than the Gray Lady, the venerable New York Times.
Katz also met his current partner at the cooperative. They left the community in 2010 but only moved a little way down the road. His British-born partner is supportive and helped him refine his presentation. When Katz is away, “he holds down the fort”, taking care of the animals – which are domestic pets and not livestock.
Katz’s message on fermentation can be, forgive the pun, distilled into four points. He cites a scholar’s estimate that “one third of all food has been transformed by fermentation before we eat it. It’s integral to the way we use food.”
Fermentation is key to predigestion, allowing humans to take nutrients from otherwise inaccessible sources. For example, in diets across Asia that include soy – as sauce or tempeh – miso, natto and black beans. The process also has a detoxifying effect. Various acids that are harmful to humans and that occur naturally in plants can be broken down by fermentation, making the plants edible. This could be the oxalic acid in rhubarb and chard, the phytic acid in bran and grains or the cyanide in cassava.
“The most profound reason is that live cultures are so significant, the biodiversity in our gut that is so important to our ability to function in the world,” says Katz. He doesn’t quite believe that our own cleanliness is killing us but does say we need to preserve that biodiversity in a world full of chlorine-based detergents and antibacterial agents.
“The loss of biodiversity has costs. Eating living, fermented foods is probiotic,” says Katz. When he joined the cooperative, he followed a macrobiotic diet. Now he is more flexible. “I love food. I’ll eat anything that appeals.”