Food: Alive, Wild and Free: An Interview With Sandor Ellix Katz
By Kelpie Wilson
t r u t h o u t | Environmental Editor
Thursday 23 August 2007
"What do almost all of the foods you find in the gourmet aisle of a good grocery store have in common?"
Food activist Sandor Ellix Katz asks the question rhetorically at a workshop I am attending at the Spiral Living Center - a permaculture garden and learning center near Cave Junction, Oregon. The title of Katz's workshop is "Wild Fermentation," so we know the answer is that all of these foods are fermented, but Sandor is ready with the details.
"Think about it," he says, "the olive bars, the stacks of fancy cheeses, meats like pastrami and salami, the vinegars. Also bread, wine, chocolate, tea and coffee. They are all fermented foods."
"Cabbage does not become sauerkraut on its own." Sandor Ellix Katz shows the difference between a moldy cabbage left to rot and the controlled bacterial decomposition that produces a delicacy like Korean kimchi pickle.
(Photo: Kelpie Wilson / Truthout)
Sandor tells us that some of these foods use special cultures, like yogurt, but other foods, like kimchi and sauerkraut, ferment with the help of bacteria that are naturally present on raw vegetables. To make them, all you have to do is create the right conditions to keep out the bad microorganisms and help the yummy bacteria grow. But, "cabbage does not become sauerkraut on its own," Sandor says, holding up a moldy, desiccated cabbage. "There is a fine line between fermentation and rot." That line is also culturally subjective, as you know if you have ever been served a cheese you find enticingly aromatic but induces the gag reflex in your partner.
I have come to the workshop because I love sauerkraut and the Korean fermented vegetable pickle known as kimchi, and Sandor is going to show us how to make it. I am also interested in learning how people preserved food before the age of refrigeration. The refrigerator is the biggest energy-consuming appliance in many homes, including mine. I ask if it is possible to do without a refrigerator. Sandor, who has a wonderfully direct and non-dogmatic approach to his passions, says, "I don't recommend that you get rid of the 38-degree box in your house. It's a nice thing to have."
Still, as the day progresses and we get in up to our elbows cutting, salting and pressing vegetables for kimchi, I become convinced that it is possible to do quite well with a considerably smaller refrigerator. I think about all the spoiled vegetables I have thrown out over the years and I realize that I could have cut them up, salted them, packed them in jars and made the delicious pickle Sandor and his friends served us at lunch.
Sandor Ellix Katz has had two books published by Chelsea Green. The first one, "Wild Fermentation," is a how-to that will guide you through making your own fermented foods. The second book is titled, "The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America's Underground Food Movements."
Following the workshop, Sandor sat down with me to answer some questions for Truthout readers about fermented food and the healthy-food revolution that is sweeping the country.
Kelpie Wilson: Besides the way they taste, what's so wonderful about fermented foods?
Sandor Ellix Katz: Fermentation is really important for making certain kinds of foods digestible or more digestible. It makes the nutrients that are present in foods much more accessible to our bodies. In particular, minerals become more bio-available to us. In food-scarce regions of the world, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is campaigning for people to ferment their food. So, if all you have to eat are cassava roots, which contain some calories but pretty marginal nutrition overall, if you ferment it, you get a much broader range of nutrients out of that food.
There is also the live-culture food aspect. Not all fermented foods have live cultures. Some of them have been cooked, like bread, but the bacterial foods that contain live bacterial cultures, particularly lactobacillus and other acidifying bacteria, are the same kinds of bacteria that we all require in our bodies - primarily to effectively digest food, but also as part of our immune strategy because they create a competitive situation for the pathogenic bacteria that we inevitably encounter. So, I would say that the most important reasons for people to eat fermented foods and care about fermentation have to do with nutrition and health. Of course, people are motivated by exciting, strong, complex flavors. I think that flavors, for me, were my way into my interest in fermentation, because I go crazy for some of the flavors of fermentation.
KW: And it's a long tradition, right? This isn't something new, fermentation?
SK: No. People have been fermenting ... I mean, really, all of the most ancient texts that we have refer to fermentation. It's present in virtually all culinary traditions. I say virtually all because I don't know about all of them, but I have yet to encounter any counter-example. It seems like every culinary tradition that I have come across incorporates some aspect or another of fermentation.
KW: So, quickly, what is the definition of fermentation?
SK: The broad definition which I would use is that fermentation is the transformative action of microorganisms. Mostly, we talk about it in terms of delicious foods that we like to eat, but a compost pile is as much an example of fermentation as a crock of sauerkraut is. It is dead plant and/or animal matter being digested into more elemental forms by microorganisms.
KW: Can you give me some examples of fermented foods, because, when we speak of fermentation, we mostly think of alcohol.
SK: Yeah, sure ... alcoholic beverages, absolutely. That is certainly the most widespread and famous form of fermentation, but virtually all cheeses are fermented, virtually all breads are fermented, chocolate is fermented, coffee is fermented, as well as meats that we refer to as "cured meats," like salamis and pastramis and corned beef. "Corned" is an English expression for salted, so it is brined meat. That's what corned beef is. Sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, kefir - there are lots of examples. All of the soy foods like miso, tamari, tempeh, natto. I think a lot of people have an understanding of yogurt as being something important for health. People know that after you take antibiotics, you should eat yogurt, but it is a much broader group of food, really, that feeds these beneficial bacteria into our bodies.
KW: I've got your book here, "The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside American's Underground Food Movements." What are these underground movements and how are they different from just the push to get people to eat healthy and eat organic?
SK: Well, the underground aspect of it has to do with the fact that the laws that are in place in the name of public health and hygiene were written to serve the needs of mass producers and create a situation where small-scale cottage industry producers can't function in a legal way. An example that I use in the opening of the book is a bread club that started off with this fellow who was a very enthusiastic sourdough baker. He spent several months building a beautiful brick oven, wood-fired. It's a gorgeous oven, one of the most beautiful ones I've ever seen. He built it outside of his house, and he started baking a hundred loaves of bread once every two weeks. He didn't want this to become his life. He didn't want to become a slave, waking up at four in the morning every day and baking bread. He did not want to borrow money from everybody he knew to invest in a kitchen with stainless steel surfaces that would meet all of the codes. Then he would be in debt, and then he'd have to bake every morning, and he would feel like a slave to his business.
What he wanted to do is make a couple of hundred dollars every couple of weeks and provide bread to the people he knows and use his skill and his oven and just make the dough in his home kitchen. It is not that unreasonable. It is sort of a model, historically, that a lot of people with skills and no capital have been able to work themselves, by creating food that they sell. Think of somebody making fifty tamales and taking them out to where people have a lunch break and selling them. It is a brilliant way for people to support themselves and use their skills, but our laws around food hygiene don't allow this anymore.
KW: On the other hand, you can have a dinner party and feed fifty people, and you don't have to have a certified kitchen.
SK: You can. You're not selling anything to them. But here's another example. My sister, who lives here in Oregon, and a friend of mine, who lives in Tennessee, have both received notices from their schools telling them that, when there are special events, if they want to send food to share with their kids' class, they can't send homemade.
KW: So, moms can't bake cupcakes anymore and send them to school?
SK: It needs to be something that was purchased at a store that came through a commercial kitchen. In Tennessee, a couple of years ago, there was a bust at a farmers' market, where the Department of Agriculture came in, and the people who were selling zucchini bread and jam and things like that, they wanted to see their licenses, and they didn't have licenses. These were small, diversified farms that were just supplemental income for people, and they don't have a licensed kitchen. They are generating $5,000 a year from their farm products. They don't have $20,000 to invest in a kitchen for this stuff.
KW: So how are you fighting back? How are you organizing?
SK: Well, basically, this book is about the fact that there are all of these underground movements. Another example would be raw milk. There are people who are waking up to the fact that pasteurized milk might be safer than unhealthy milk that is not pasteurized, but milk from healthy animals is really much more beneficial for your health.
KW: Raw milk from healthy animals is more beneficial than pasteurized milk?
SK: Yes. I would definitively say so, and there is a growing movement of people who are waking up to this and finding ways to access raw milk. I would say that this is the largest civil disobedience movement in America right now - the raw milk movement. There are thousands of people, and they're in every state, and, unlike many other food movements where people are motivated by individual health and family health concerns, this involves community organizing because one person can't just manifest access to raw milk. Groups of people are getting together and organizing what are known as cow shares or goat shares, where they buy an animal and then contract with a farmer to maintain the animal on their behalf. They are circumventing the laws, and there is no sales transaction for the milk. Instead, the transaction is more of a service transaction: paying the farmer to care for the animal on behalf of a group of people.
SK: So this book is about a lot of different underground food movements, and they are quite varied. Another one that is very widespread is the dumpster-diver groups, like Food Not Bombs, which has been popular all around this country and way beyond.
KW: What is the statistic? Every day, America throws out as much food as Canada eats?
SK: Actually, there is a shocking statistic that I learned from this fellow who is an anthropologist at a university in Arizona, and his area of specialty is dumpsters. He has really explored the food waste of businesses and households, and he has come to the conclusion that fully half of the food that is produced in this country goes to waste, starting with stuff that doesn't get harvested from fields for purely economic reasons and going on through food service businesses, which are effectively structured around the idea of overproduction and waste. If you are going to have a restaurant with a menu with a hundred choices, you have to have all those on hand all of the time, even though people aren't ordering them all the time.
There is a certain amount of waste intrinsic to a convenience-oriented system such as we have. In addition, there is a panic about food safety, so people throw away food pretty much as soon as it gets to its prime. So there is a huge amount of food waste, and people are trying to tap into that waste stream and redistribute it, because we have this overproduction and waste at the same time as we hear all of this propaganda suggesting that there is scarcity and that we need all of this intensifying technology for agriculture in order to produce enough food to feed everybody. We have all of this contradictory information, but one thing is certain, and that is that hunger remains in our midst, even though there is all this overabundance. I greatly admire people who are doing the work of redistributing wasted resources.
Another important aspect of the underground food movement is that increasing numbers of people are waking up and recognizing that the quality of food that is being produced through the global corporate food system is not always so good. So, they are seeking to create alternatives.
KW: This is really being brought home now with the food we are getting from China and the lack of controls over that, because I think a lot of people assume, "Oh, the FDA is looking out for us, and they are making sure our food is safe," and it just isn't true anymore.
SK: What people have to realize is that - I'm sure that there are problems with some food from China - it's not unique, and it's not like food that's produced in the United States is necessarily so safe either. Think of last year's scandal with the spinach - the E. coli spinach scare that affected people. People got sick in 20 different states. When you have a food system that is built around massive supplies of food being centralized and then distributed widely, the potential for problems is enormous.
The E. coli scare was accidental, but E. coli 0157 is purely a product of the industrial style of agriculture, and most of these contamination problems that people have been worried about lately - salmonella in peanut butter, E. coli in spinach - are really manifestations of the factory style of agriculture. It's not like a nationalistic movement such as "I only want to eat American food" is going to make anybody safer, because we have all of these other kinds of scares going on with our food. The only thing that is going to make people safer is disengaging from this globalized food model and becoming part of local food systems - becoming food producers, getting to know people who are farmers, and doing some grassroots quality control, rather than relying on federal agencies, which are underfunded, subject to corruption, etc.
KW: How would you do grassroots quality control?
SK: Get to know farmers, visit their farms, become better informed about different styles of agriculture, and ask questions about how people are doing it.
KW: This seems to also relate very much to the local food movement - the people who are trying to eat within a hundred miles, the 100-mile diet, and they're doing that, somewhat, for reasons of energy conservation. So, all of these things are somehow intersecting, is that right?
SK: Sure. I think there are a lot of reasons why people would choose to do that. For myself, I'm just fundamentally not dogmatic. I can't really get into never eating a pineapple again. If historical forces conspired, and that were the case, so be it; I would survive, but I think that, rather than thinking "all globalized food commodities" or "no globalized food commodities," we have to think that, okay, well, international trade is not a bad thing. It gives everybody a chance to have special treats that don't come from their areas, but what's absurd to me is that even the most basic foods - even the foods that could easily be grown in any environment - are being shipped for thousands of miles. We need to reorient our priorities so that most of the food that we're eating comes from our local area. That really creates more security for everybody. It invigorates economies because it gets money re-circulating locally, rather than going so far away.
I have in my book here a chart that the USDA puts out, and, of the average dollar spent at a supermarket, 19 cents of it goes to farmers. No wonder we are in a farm crisis where farmers are not able to survive and we're losing farmland. We're making it economically impossible, but when you buy directly from farmers and give them that whole dollar, that completely changes the equation for the farmers. It makes farming a viable profession, and we need more farmers. Every region needs to have farmers. We can't just have certain regions of the country that are the "farm regions" providing the food to everybody else because, well, that just puts us in an extraordinarily vulnerable position if those regions have climate changes, where their crops fail, or if there are transportation difficulties, shipping the food for thousands of miles, which is certainly contributing to climate change and everything.
KW: At the workshop, you talked about the ferment, and I wonder if you can explain what you mean about being part of the ferment and the culture and what the average person can do to join this revolution.
SK: Sure. The word fermentation ... when we started out, I said that it is the transformative action of microorganisms, and the Latin word that it comes from is ferverae, which means to boil, and it is because the visible action of fermenting liquids is the same bubbling as we see in boiling liquids. But, there is this other connotation of the word "fermentation," and people talk about political ferment, cultural ferment, spiritual ferment, intellectual ferment, and it's that same bubbly action. It's when people are excited about ideas and they want to talk to other people about them; they want to spread the ideas, they want to use those ideas to propel change, and, as they tell people about it and the people they tell about it tell other people about it, the ideas shift a little bit, and that is the fermentation of the culture.
That's really one of the engines of social change - people getting excited about ideas, their excitement about ideas motivating them to action so, you know, we get more people at farmers' markets, we get more people growing gardens and trading vegetables with each other, we get more people fermenting their own food and thinking about starting a little cottage industry making 30 pounds of tempeh a week and selling it to their friends to supplement their income.
KW: Even though it is sort of an act of civil disobedience to do that.
SK: Yeah, well, I think it's an honorable act of civil disobedience to make nutritious food and make it available to people you know.
KW: Do you have any sort of vision of the future? I like to call my positive vision a techno-peasant society, and I don't know if that evokes an image for you; it does for me. But, how would you describe your vision of the future?
SK: Well ... as a big question mark. I mean, I have no idea what the future will look like. I don't feel especially hopeful that it's going to be pretty, but I try to not get caught up in my despair. I would rather put my energy into doing the things that I think it will take to create a better future.
KW: But what's your vision for that - your positive vision - not your projections of your fears, but your positive vision?
SK: It has to do with decentralization and devolving. I think that, in a mass society of 300 million people, the only decision-making that can happen at that scale is by actors who have concentrated a lot of resources, and, so, I feel like we have to just let that fall away and put our energy into creating community at a more modest scale, creating democratic decision-making structures at a smaller scale, and decentralizing agriculture and having a lot more locally produced foods. I definitely reject the model of personal self-sufficiency, but I think that - as communities - self-sufficiency can be real and can be a positive thing. So, those are some ideas.
KW: Great, and maybe there is a role for technologies like the Internet, in sharing information between communities?
SK: Sure. It's not like I think the Internet has only been good. I think that the Internet has created some good possibilities and created some problems also, but I can definitely see that there is a lot of potential democratization coming from that, and, certainly, for people with obscure interests in things like fermentation, the Internet is a terrific thing, with lots of great resources. You know, just people putting their old family recipes up on the Internet is the way that I've learned a lot of what I've learned about fermentation.
KW: You're in Tennessee. Are there still some old-time farmers there that you are able to learn from?
SK: Fewer and fewer, but yes. When I first moved to Tennessee, 14 years ago, there was a fellow named Alan Byford, who was a sorghum farmer, and we used to come and take the spent sorghum stalks, after his horse going around in a circle, powering his mill, would press the syrup out of the sorghum stalks; we would take them and use them as mulch in our garden. I remember, the first year I lived in Tennessee, I couldn't understand a word that Alan Byford said. You know, he just had such a strong local twang, but, after a couple of years, I could start to understand him. But, I don't know anybody in our area who is doing sorghum anymore. I mean, there must be some old-timers who are still doing it, because I do buy sorghum that is locally produced, but I haven't met any of those folks.
KW: So, people like you are going to be a crucial link, it seems to me, between the old culture that knew how to do these things and the new culture that's coming. You're like the yogurt culture that's getting passed along, right?
SK: Yeah, and I think that these aren't brand new projects. I would think of the Foxfire series. And I also think of the WPA documentary projects. But I think, whatever historical moment we are in, it is really important to respect the elders and try to learn what they know and document some of their information so that it can be propelled into the future after they're gone.