Food & dining

Ancient ways to ferment modern foods

WHO

Alex Lewin

WHAT

This month, the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts alumnus, Boston Public Market Association board member, and blogger (www.feedmelike
youmeanit.com) released “Real Food Fermentation: Preserving Whole Fresh Food With Live Cultures in Your Home Kitchen.” In the photo-rich cookbook, which he calls “the prettiest fermentation book, all modesty aside,” Lewin offers step-by-step recipes for fermented foods and drinks from kimchi to mead.

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Q. What hooked you about fermentation?

A. In order for fermentation to proceed properly, you need to come to an agreement with microbes about which microbes are invited to the party and which aren’t. You need to create the right conditions for them to do their thing. And there’s really an element of faith to it all, an element of magic and alchemy. I like the fact that you can take something boring like raw cabbage and turn it into something interesting that gets your attention, like sauerkraut.

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Q. Why has the movement gained such momentum recently?

A. Sandor Katz and his first book, “Wild Fermentation.” He really is the grandfather of modern fermentation and the energy he put into that is a huge factor. In the past 10 years, we’ve seen a rise in interest in cooking and food in general in the US. We have, I don’t know, how many cooking channels, shows, celebrity chefs. Another part is a renewed interest in local food. Finally, the focus on healthy food and the perils of processed food.

Q. What health benefits does fermentation provide?

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A. I’m going to channel Sandor Katz because he said it best. The war on bacteria that we’re currently engaged in is a losing battle. Antibacterial soap is a disaster. The human immune system is a very complicated thing that nobody quite understands, but it’s pretty clear that the microbes living in your intestine form a large part of your immune system. And so if you start killing them, selectively or broadly, with antibiotics and antibacterial soap and toxic chemicals, then you’re going to have problems. And I think we’re starting to see some of these problems already. Something’s changed with our immune systems. We’re getting all sorts of diseases we never got before. I think that has a lot to do with bacteria and a misguided obsession with killing germs. So when you eat fermented foods like sauerkraut and yogurt, you’re rebuilding your own internal ecosystem and fortifying your immune system. And these microbes, in the process of fermenting foods, make the foods more digestable and more nutritious.

Q. You also write that these can be necessary skills in case the food industry goes belly-up.

A. The question in the back of my mind is always, what if? What if we run out of something? Where am I going to go? Can you survive in New England without infrastructure? The answer is yeah, of course you can, because people did a few hundred years ago. But can you survive in Nevada, the desert, without infrastructure? Probably more difficult. There’s some chance that we’re going to run out of energy within our lifetimes and if there’s a dramatic infrastructure discontinuity, also known as a calamity or meltdown of modern society, we’re going to need these sorts of skills. And it’s nice to be able to preserve food in ways that people have been doing for literally thousands of years without having a lot of external, industrially manufactured input like synthetic preservative chemicals.

Q. Of course, there’s a lighter side to your book.

A. I realize I sound terribly serious and concerned, but I don’t want to lose sight of the fun aspect of fermentation. There’s something slightly mischievous about leaving things out on the counter and not putting them in the fridge where, quote-unquote, they belong. I like the playful aspect of it. There’s a fun to creating food in general, but especially fermentation, like when you open a jar that’s been fermenting awhile and it squirts all over the counter. It makes people laugh and it surprises them. It gets their attention in a way that going to the supermarket usually doesn’t.

Glenn Yoder

Interview was condensed and edited. Glenn Yoder can be reached at gyoder@globe.com.
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