Fermentation Preserves Us Too!- Sandor Katz
I have always loved to travel. When I think back to some of the travels of my youth, I can see that long before my interest in fermentation began in earnest, traveling primed me to think about fermentation in ways that I likely would not have otherwise. As a 23-year-old, fresh out of college and seeking adventure, I traveled in Africa for several months with my friend Todd Weir. We didn’t drink, or even encounter, any alcohol as we crossed the Sahara Desert overland through Algeria for a month, taking buses as far as they went, then hitchhiking. But after we crossed into Niger and the increasingly tropical West African landscape, we began to see beer and locally produced palm wine—the fermented sap of palm trees.
The palm wine we encountered and tried was wonderful, and we greatly appreciated the renewed availability of alcohol. I was struck by the fact that the palm wine was always served from open vessels rather than bottles, and seemed to be a product of a cottage industry. The beer that was available was made by national breweries, but the palm wine was all made by people at home, or in very small-scale enterprises. Sometimes we bought it, and other times it was served to us as an expression of hospitality. We were also served homebrewed millet beer and other types of homemade alcohol.
I thought of this often eight or nine years later, after I became interested in fermentation. The literature for hobbyists about home beer brewing and winemaking was so technical. I found it somewhat off-putting in all its emphasis on chemicals to purify the fermentation substrate; sanitization at every step of the process; and special equipment, commercial yeast cultures, and yeast nutrients. All of this made me wonder about the people we had encountered making palm wine and millet beer in remote villages with limited technology and resources. Where were they getting their carboys and airlocks? Where were they getting their tablets of potassium metabisulfite and yeast nutrients? How had they been able to ferment these delicious beverages without all of that? What were the simpler, more traditional ways? Without this experience traveling in Africa, I wouldn’t have known to ask such questions. There, as everywhere, fermentation is an essential aspect of how people make effective use of food resources—not only palm sap, but everything from milk, meat, and fish to grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits.
Fermentation is truly a global phenomenon, practiced and of practical importance everywhere, and people in every part of the world make use of fermentation in similar ways. The benefits are numerous. Fermentation is a strategy for safety, producing acids, alcohol, and a range of other by-products that prevent pathogens from growing. It makes many foods more flavorful, and it underlies the beloved flavors of delicacies including chocolate, vanilla, coffee, bread, cheese, cured meats, olives, pickles, condiments, and so much more. Fermentation extends the lifespan of many foods, among them cabbage and other vegetables (sauerkraut and pickles), milk (cheese and yogurt), meat (salami), and grapes (wine). The most widespread form of fermentation is the production of alcohol, from every carbohydrate source imaginable. Fermentation also enhances nutrients and makes them more accessible, and it breaks down many plant toxins and antinutrient compounds. Certain ferments, eaten or drunk raw after fermentation, provide potentially beneficial bacteria, in great density and biodiversity. The process of fermentation confers all these benefits, and more.
We now understand that all the plant and animal products that comprise our food are populated by elaborate microbial communities. There is therefore a certain inevitability to microbial transformation. Cultures around the world have made use of this inevitability, developing techniques that effectively guide microbial transformation, not only in the context of food, but also in agriculture, fiber arts, building, and other realms.
Yet far from a unified set of techniques, fermentation encompasses a wide array of distinct processes, and it manifests in different ways in different places, depending upon what foods are abundant, what the climate is like, and other factors. The ferments of the tropics are altogether different from the ferments of the Arctic, starting with the starkly different available food resources, and then the varying climate conditions and practical needs compound the differences even more.
Even when environmental differences are not so stark, the ways that people work out to make use of microbial activity vary from place to place. Witness the diversity of cheeses, all made from milk, for an easy example. Then, because human migration and the resulting cultural cross-pollination have always been such constants, others’ practices and techniques inevitably influence people everywhere. Like seeds, domesticated animals, culinary techniques, or virtually any aspect of cultural practice, fermentation spreads.
Fermentation may be universal, but cultural continuity is not. Around the world, colonization has wiped out entire demographic groups, and displaced others onto unknown landscapes. Indigenous children have been systematically removed from their families, punished for speaking their native languages, and otherwise forced to assimilate into the dominant culture. In our present neocolonial period, the means of oppression have shifted to poverty, social and economic marginalization, and mass incarceration. I have spoken with people who have been unable to find evidence or information about any of their ancestors’ traditional fermentation processes, because the cultural traditions from which they are descended were destroyed, disrupted, or displaced. Even for those whose cultures have not been subject to such destruction, cultural continuity is frequently disrupted by the allure of certain facets of modern life, such as urbanization, specialization, and mass-produced, mass-marketed food. Cultural practices, knowledge and wisdom, languages and beliefs, are disappearing every year. Like any other manifestation of culture, fermentation practices must be used to maintain relevance and stay alive. We must cherish and celebrate the diversity of fermentation practices around the world, and document and share them.
Excerpted from Sandor Katz’s Fermentation Journeys: Recipes, Techniques, and Traditions from Around the World (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2021) ©2021 by Sandor Ellix Katz
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Sandor Ellix Katz’s books Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation, which won the James Beard award, have helped to catalyze a broad revival of the fermentation arts. A self-taught experimentalist who lives in rural Tennessee, Sandor was honored in 2014 with the Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southern Foodways Alliance. His most recent book is Sandor Katz’s Fermentation Journeys: Recipes, Techniques, and Traditions from around the World.