Book Review: The Art of Fermentation, an In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World by Sandor Katz (Chelsea Green Publishing: White River Junction, VT, 2012) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Sandor Katz reminds us in The Art of Fermentation that fermentation is a natural process. For millennium it has been used in every culture to preserve food, to increase the nutrients in food and drink, to make the flavors of food more complex and palatable, and to transform toxic food to something that is life giving and desirable.
The War on Bacteria
Modern science and the industrial food system wage war on bacteria. Since Pasteur first documented the existence of bacteria and revealed that heat could render a liquid bacteria-free, industry has equated bacteria with disease. For decades we, as consumers, believed the propaganda. We bought antibacterial soaps, we ate antiseptically packaged food-like substances, and we walked in step with the myth of “food safety.”
In our desire for food safety we’ve given up something else. Possibly something we didn’t intend to give up. We’ve given up culture, relationships and nourishment. And in its place we’ve accepted a system that is “destroying the earth, destroying our health, destroying economic vitality, and robbing us of our dignity by breeding dependency and reducing us to the subservient role of consumer.” (Katz, p. 415)
Katz suggests that the answer to this dilemma is not to give up eating all animal products, as put forward by the creators of “Cowspiracy,” but rather to look deeper. Not just remove meat and eat beans and rice, which really just substitutes one kind of ecological and cultural damage for another. Rather Katz’s call to action is more radical.
“We must reclaim our food. Food is much more than simply nourishment. It embodies a complex web of relationships. It is a huge part of the context in which we exist. Reclaiming our food means actively involving ourselves with this web.
The foods that fill our contemporary supermarket shelves are products of a globalized infrastructure of proprietary genetic material, synthetic, and often dangerous chemicals, monocultures, long-distance transportation, factory-scale processing, wasteful packaging, and energy-sucking refrigeration…We need to cultivate a different set of relationships. p.415″
Cultivating New Relationships
The Art of Fermentation suggests several ways to cultivate new relationships, beginning with our relationship with the microbes in our guts. Katz travelled around the world documenting the fermented food in many regions. But he isn’t just reporting on how other cultures do it. He re-masters those recipes for us using our modern kitchens and the equipment that we have on hand.
The book begins with an explanation of why microbes are so important to our survival as humans. Then Katz covers equipment and basic concepts of fermentation. Chapter 4 deals with alcohol, mead, wine, and cider with a long discussion of capturing wild yeasts to begin the ferment rather than using single species commercial yeast. Chapter 5 introduces us to a plethora of fermented vegetables, pickles, kraut, olives, mushrooms, as well as beverages that begin with vegetable ferments like kvass. In chapter 6, there are illustrated recipes for ginger-bug, kombucha, water kefir and other traditional beverages. Do you see a pattern here? In all, half the food chapters are on fermented drinks. Distillation is briefly touched on. Fermentation of meat, fish, beans, and grains are also discussed in depth in other chapters.
One thing that stands out in Katz’s work is the daily rhythm necessary to feed the microbes. This act of nurturing microbes so that they will, in turn, nurture us slows down our fast-paced modern lives. Whether this is the daily feeding of sourdough, the weekly replenishing of Kombucha tea, or the annual nurturing and culturing of vegetables in season, the necessary slowing down helps us rediscover who we are.
This book is not just a cookbook. It is a manifesto. This book is no less than the restoration of the culture of food to our kitchens. Katz wrests the right to cook back from the multinational corporations and offers it to you and I as a gift. Let’s begin this new relationship with food, with our communities, with our gardens, and with our economies. Katz says, “Fermentation is one way in which we may consciously cultivate this web. This is the daily practice of cultural revival. By engaging life forces, we rediscover and reconnect with our context.” (Katz, p. 417)