If you’re a foodie or a farmer, a DIY enthusiast or home kitchen tinkerer, or merely a conscientious objector in the battle to standardize, industrialize and globalize every last human commodity, you may already be familiar with Sandor Ellix Katz.
For close to a decade, Katz has been traveling the world, preaching the lost art of fermentation, the process through which invisible microorganisms (such as bacteria and yeast) transform ordinary fruits, vegetables, grains and beans into some of our most prized foodstuffs: beer, wine, bread, yogurt, soy sauce, pickles, chocolate and much more.
Katz first made a name for himself as a fermentation evangelist in 2003, with the publication of “Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods” (Chelsea Green Publishing). Since then he has conducted countless workshops, fielded thousands of troubleshooting emails and acted as something of a sage to the growing corps of home fermenters. This May, Chelsea Green will publish his accumulated wisdom in “The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World,” a 500-page exegesis on the basic principles and practices first laid out in “Wild Fermentation.”
While it can’t hope to be comprehensive — subtopics like bread and beer can scarcely be exhausted by a shelf’s worth of books, let alone a single volume — the book marks a substantial leap forward in Katz’s effort to convince the world of both the wonders and the essentialness of fermentation.
Fermentation is much more than a neat culinary trick; it is, to hear Katz tell it, the very stuff on which human life depends. Human culture is inextricable from the other kind of culture, the collection of microorganisms that brewers and bakers and cheese mongers have learned to manipulate in the service of their marvelous concoctions. But instead of cultivating an appreciation for this invisible, teeming horde, we have made war on it through excessive use of antiseptics and antibiotics.
“If we succeeded in wiping out all the bacteria, we’d just be committing mass suicide,” Katz said last May at the Freestone Fermentation Festival in Northern California. “That’s the context in which all life exists. That’s why fermentation is so universally practiced.”
In the era before refrigeration, fermentation allowed humans to store food for long periods without the risk of spoilage, which likely explains its ubiquity in world cuisines. But today, with most Westerners purchasing these marvels at the grocery store, the alchemical processes underlying their creation — and the knowledge necessary to manipulate them — have largely vanished from our cultural repertoire.