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DEVRA FIRST

The philosopher of fermentation

Sandor Ellix Katz taught us how to make sauerkraut and kimchi. His new book helps us think about them.

Long before kombucha became the new Coke, Sandor Ellix Katz was teaching people to appreciate the bubbly, funky, flavorful landscape of fermented foods.
Long before kombucha became the new Coke, Sandor Ellix Katz was teaching people to appreciate the bubbly, funky, flavorful landscape of fermented foods.Joel Silverman

Fermentation is everywhere. It’s in the yogurt and beer in our refrigerators, the sourdough bread on our counters. It’s on the menus of high-end restaurants, embraced by top chefs. It’s on every list of food trends compiled over the last decade. But long before kombucha became the new Coke, Sandor Ellix Katz was teaching people to appreciate the bubbly, funky, flavorful landscape of fermented foods.

Born and raised in New York, Katz returned after college to work in politics; as a kid he wanted to be a senator. In the early ’90s, after testing positive for HIV, he moved to a queer commune in rural Tennessee, where he started making sauerkraut to use up the cabbage they grew in the garden. Soon enough, he began teaching others to ferment, too, traveling around the country and the world. Katz, 58, calls himself a fermentation revivalist. Others call him by his well-earned nickname, Sandorkraut. If there is such a thing as a fermentation celebrity, he is it.

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In 2003, he published the influential book “Wild Fermentation.” A follow-up, 2013′s “The Art of Fermentation,” won a James Beard Award. Both have guided countless readers in creating their own fermented foods, instruction running alongside Katz’s thoughts about the beauty and utility of microbes. In a new book, the aptly named “Fermentation as Metaphor,” Katz’s focus is philosophical. He spoke with the Globe about the growing interest in fermentation, the war on bacteria, what happens when we interrogate our food, and our culture’s deep need for bubbling change.

Sandor Ellix Katz, also known as Sandorkraut.
Sandor Ellix Katz, also known as Sandorkraut.Kitti Gould

Q. Let’s begin at the beginning. What led you to fermentation?

A. I had a huge change of life in 1993. A year earlier, when I was in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, I ended up hanging out with some people from a queer community in Tennessee. I couldn’t quite believe such a thing existed. The next time I had a chance to take a trip, I visited. I was very enchanted and visited again. The prior year I tested HIV positive, and I was feeling something had to change in my life. I didn’t know what it was. It just fell in place to move to the community. I had always been interested in cooking. I always liked pickles and sauerkraut, but I never had reason to make them myself until I had a garden. I was such a naive city kid. It never occurred to me that all the cabbage or radishes would be ready at same time. That first year, we had a nice row of cabbage, and when I saw how much there was at once, I decided I should learn to make sauerkraut. I looked in “Joy of Cooking.” That led me down the rabbit hole: What if I tried this with an assortment of other kinds of vegetables? What about yogurt? Sourdough bread?

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Q. Fermentation has become much more visible in recent years, often called a food “trend.” What do you think of that?

A. I’d like to point out that fermentation has always been popular. Maybe people weren’t doing it at home or thinking about it, but the products of fermentation have enjoyed really enduring popularity throughout history. I grew up in a household where my parents were drinking beer and wine. We always had yogurt in the fridge. We always had pickles. We had vinegar. We ate cheese. Fermented foods were part of the landscape. I think you could say that about most people, no matter where their families were from. Once you count in bread and cheese and cured meats and chocolate and coffee, everybody is eating and drinking products of fermentation all the time. I think the only thing that has shifted is that people are paying attention to fermentation, are interested in fermentation, and want to be able to do some fermenting for themselves.

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Q. Why that shift?

A. I think there are two main reasons: No. 1 would be the [National Institutes of Health’s] Human Microbiome Project and the growing awareness that bacteria are important for us. It’s no longer possible to regard all bacteria as dangerous enemies. A lot of people are realizing how important bacteria are to our health and wellbeing. The second reason is a little bit more nebulous. For my mother’s generation — she was born in 1936, and my grandmother was born in 1909 — supermarket processed foods were liberations. By the time I was coming of age, many people started critiquing the foods our system of mass food production was generating. People were seeing a lot of the food was nutritionally diminished, produced in ways that were cruel to animals, or polluting water, or eroding soil. People have started interrogating their food, wanting to know where it was grown and how it was produced. Once people start asking questions about food, fermentation is part of the answer.

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Q. It’s also an effective metaphor, as you ruminate on in your new book. There are a lot of different levels on which we can talk about and examine fermentation.

A. I’ve always remarked about other connotations of “fermentation” and how we use the word. When I was first getting obsessed with fermentation, I’d laugh out loud reading an article in a magazine talking about artistic or cultural ferment. It jumped out of the page, and it wasn’t infrequently. In English, we use it to describe any bubbly agitation. That’s always been interesting to me. I had the idea at some point to reflect more deeply and write about it. I created a book that nobody knows where to put it. This is not a book that is going to teach you new variations of how to make sauerkraut. It’s connecting all these disparate dots. I’ve always tried to get people to expand their context for thinking about fermentation. Even within literal fermentation, people come to it for different reasons. I meet chefs sometimes who say, “All I care about is the flavors. I don’t want to hear about the health benefits.” Then I meet these people who are following some specific diet, maybe they’re interested in probiotics, and they don’t care what it tastes like: “How many days do I need to ferment this to get the optimal benefits?” Well, you care, because if it tastes terrible you won’t eat it and won’t get any probiotic benefits. As much as I’m excited about food and beverage applications and love to talk, teach, and learn about that, I’m also fascinated by the larger context for our food — food traditions, the food system. Then also I’m interested in these other aspects of fermentation, how it fits into our minds as individuals and our collective existence as people.

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Q. How are you thinking about fermentation in the context of COVID-19?

A. The COVID-19 experience relates to this larger cultural project I generally call the war on bacteria, but maybe now it’s the war on microbes. It’s interesting seeing the range of different approaches people take. Some people are fatalistic and think, “We never can 100 percent prevent transmission, so there’s nothing we can do, I guess.” A lot of people are approaching it with a harm reduction approach. “OK, it’s possible. There are things I have to do, but I can wear a mask or wash my hands and keep my distance to try to minimize exposure.” A lot of people want a magic naturopathic bullet: “Sauerkraut will save you from COVID” or whatever. I don’t know that that’s not true, but I haven’t seen any indication that it is true. Right now, the woman who wrote the forward to “Wild Fermentation,” Sally Fallon, who is something of a nutrition guru [she is the author of the cookbook “Nourishing Traditions,” among others], she’s become a virus denier. It kind of infuriates me. I really appreciate people who have a skeptical viewpoint. I like people asking questions, but when people are dogmatic, when they are certain their critique is the truth, I feel like: You’re not skeptical anymore.

Q. There is a slice of the community that comes to fermentation as an alternative to Western medicine, a cure for what ails. Your own perspective is much more nuanced, though: You take antiretroviral drugs, for instance.

A. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about the role of fermentation because on the back cover [of the first edition of “Wild Fermentation”] I said that fermented foods have been part of my healing. Some people took that to mean I cured HIV by sauerkraut and yogurt. I had an awful time around ’99-2000. I got really sick and ended up getting on HIV medications. My health completely changed as a result of taking those medications. At the same time, I don’t discount the value of live-culture fermented foods. Almost everyone I’ve ever met who takes the medications I take has digestive problems, which I’ve never had. The way I try to talk about it to people is that it can potentially help anybody, with things like immune function, mental health, potentially. That’s different than saying it’s a therapy for any disease. I try to emphasize the general benefits rather than the specific claims.

Q. You talk a lot about the concepts of purity and contamination, and how they’re misguided.

A. I can’t tell you how often people have been shocked I’m taking a vessel and not using chemicals to sterilize it. They assume you need to start with purity, otherwise you’ll be stuck with contamination. I think it’s misguided because there is no purity. Sure, you could go to a laboratory or university somewhere that has a really specialized ventilation system and hermetically sealed doors, but nobody’s kitchen is like that. There are all kinds of products you could buy, chemicals that would kill all microorganisms they come into contact with. Then you’d rinse things off with nonsterile water, put them in your nonsterile dish rack, and have nonsterile air blowing over them. We can almost create that, and then it disappears as quickly as it comes. It’s an imaginary concept, an aspirational concept, but we don’t need it. All these processes are ancient processes. They didn’t have chemicals they could kill all the organisms with. There’s a critical mass of the organisms we want that drive the fermentation. In the right kind of environment, they will proliferate and dominate and protect the food from the random organisms that are everywhere that could potentially make people sick. It’s about understanding the environment, not shock and awe and using intensive chemical warfare to create purity. That’s the magic of fermentation. If these foods were a Russian roulette game, they would not have survived for so many hundreds and thousands of years.

Q. Fermentation can be seen as a form of change, you say. That feels like something this country is hungry for right now.

A. In our politics, in our culture, we are desperate for fermentation, we are desperate for bubbliness, we are desperate for new ideas and inspiration, for new common ground to find. I think fermentation can really be potent as a metaphor. I don’t think there’s any foregone conclusion about where it would lead people. People’s bubbly excitement about things can go any which way. We could certainly see the huge mobilized mass movement that emerged this summer against police brutality, for Black Lives Matter. That certainly would be a form of social fermentation. But I would also say that an emboldened movement for white supremacy could be seen through the same lens. The status quo just isn’t working. And for so many reasons. For me the biggest thing would be climate change. We need to confront that. Also white supremacy, no less so. In a culture that is desperate for change, fermentation is just hope. It is the idea that these forces, the bubbliness and agitation, can lead us out of the old tired forms that have exhausted themselves and into some new ways of thinking.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


Devra First can be reached at devra.first@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.