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Wild Fermentation

Fermented “live” foods are the next bacon. There’s Kombucha, the fizzy health tonic made from a Himalayan fungus. Homemade sauerkraut is being served as a side at artsy barbecue joints in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. You’ll find kimchee stuffed inside a croissant at New York City’s Milk Bar. These unpasteurized, rustic preparations, made, essentially, by purposefully letting food rot so the beneficial bacteria in the air leave behind sour flavors and a healthy zing, are ancient. Live fermentation and old-fashioned pickling, using just salt and the air rather than vinegar, were ways of preserving foods before refrigeration, from meat to milk to vegetables. But the recent fermentation craze among chefs and DIYers can be directly traced to Sandor Katz, whose 2002 book, Wild Fermentation, is still the most exhaustive, info-packed exploration of the topic ever written.

Katz, who calls himself Sandorkraut, lives off the grid in a queer intentional community in the mountains of Tennessee and teaches workshops all over the world. His book, which is a cross between a cookbook and a science-experiment manual, is a compendium of years of research from cultures around the world. Besides covering pickles, sauerkraut, kimchee, miso, tempeh, beer, and breads of many kinds including sourdough, there’s obscure stuff like chicha, a Latin American corn beverage made with human saliva now being adapted by the brewery Dogfish Head (see Sam Calagione). “There’s a hunger for this information,” says Katz, whose recent Portland, Oregon, workshop saw 25 people approach him with samples [of fermented things] they’d made. “A mystique, and a little fear.”

If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
“I would be spending more time cooking and gardening. My cooking really is just all about the garden—what there’s a lot of. Over the summer I made pesto every other day. I’ve been playing with some new ways of cooking squash. I recently saw Julie & Julia, and I can’t wait to make boeuf bourguignon!”

What would you change about your industry?
“A lot of the laws that are ostensibly in place to protect the public health in food production actually have the effect of inhibiting and preventing small entrepreneurs from starting food businesses. There is no reason why people in Georgia need to be drinking Kombucha that comes from California.”

What was the most humbling moment in your current profession?
“I’m continually humbled by being reminded just how limited my knowledge is. This woman emailed me about her cucumber pickles turning pink. I know there is a phenomenon of pink sauerkraut—there’s a great research paper written in 1925 about that, concluding that it’s a different bacteria than the usual ones, regarded commercially as an inferior product, but harmless. I don’t know whether the pink growth on the cucumbers would be the same thing.”

Matt Timms Novella Carpenter Duane Sorenson Sandor Katz Josh Viertel Richard Blakeley and Jessica Amason Ryan Farr Deborah Madison Roy Choi Sam Calagione Bryant Terry Christina Tosi

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