A Conversation with Sandor Katz
Talking to the fermentation revivalist about his new book and "humble geographies."
You're listening to From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy, a food and culture podcast. I'm Alicia Kennedy, a food writer based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Every week on Wednesdays, I'll be talking to different people in food and culture about their lives, careers and how it all fits together and where food comes in.
This week, I'm talking to Sandor Katz, whom you likely know from his books Wild Fermentation, The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved, The Art of Fermentation, Fermentation As Metaphor, and now Sandor Katz's Fermentation Journeys, which maps fermentation practices around the world, to show how traditions that preserve abundance have been maintained. It's perhaps my favorite of his books, because it tells so many stories through fermentation and introduces you to so many people around the world.
Katz has become a legend for his work, but he maintains humility as a conduit of knowledge rather than a keeper. His approach is a real inspiration to me. It was wonderful to get to talk to him about how he organized this book by substrate rather than nation, that why he names the ills of neocolonialism, and a lot more.
Alicia: Hey, Sandor. Thank you so much for being here with me today.
Sandor: It's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
Sandor: Well, I grew up in New York City, on the Upper West Side. And we ate all kinds of things. I feel very lucky that my parents liked different kinds of foods. They liked vegetables. We ate lots of different kinds of fresh vegetables.
But I mean, I would say that my mom did most of the day to day cooking. She had her repertoire. I remember she liked to make pot roast. Sometimes she made great lasagna, but also lots of kind of simple things that she would leave me a note as I got older, just to reheat something. ‘Set the oven to this temperature, put this in the oven.’ My father also liked to cook. He was more of the classic weekend chef. But that also meant that he could be—He was very creative in his cooking. And he's 87 years old now. And he still loves to cook.
And we were in New York City, and we ate Chinese food a lot. China-Latina food, the Cuban Chinese restaurants, we ate them a lot. My mother's parents, who I was close with growing up, were immigrants from what's now Belarus. And my grandmother was a great cook. And she would come over from time to time and make blintzes for us, I mean, she would make dozens of them. And we’d eat some fresh, and then she’d wrap them up and put them in the freezer. And we would defrost them and fry them to eat them. She made a chopped liver. She made matzah ball soup, gefilte fish, all these kind of classic Eastern European Jewish foods. We ate really beautiful versions of them at home.
Alicia: And you've written mostly about fermentation now, to kind of fast forward in life. But I also love your book The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved, which came out in 2006. And I wanted to ask, because I recently reread it, how do you feel about the food movement it described in 2006 now in 2022?
Sandor: Well, I guess one thing I would say is that it doesn't describe a food movement. It describes a lot of different, grassroots movements. And I mean, I guess, some of them have been more successful over time than others have been. I mean, I think very much, it's not a centralized movement with a singular aim. I think people who get involved in grassroots movements or organized around food have a lot of different ideas and a lot of different objectives.
I mean, certainly the local food movements have been very successful. And there's a lot in most parts of the U.S. at any rate, there's a lot more variety of locally grown foods available. In some places, I think that there have been more successful efforts to make that accessible. I've visited some farmers’ markets where they take EBT card, and they have some sort of a grant so they're able to double the value of the EBT purchases. So at least in some places, people have been making strides towards making that higher quality locally produced foods accessible to people.
In the seed-saving movements, I mean, I think that there's sort of been amazing strides. And a lot of different people doing seed saving at different scales with different emphases. But I’m really inspired by this project called Truelove Seeds. I buy a lot of seeds from them. And they're working primarily with immigrant and refugee gardeners and with African American farmers and trying to save and spread seeds of different kinds of culturally important crops.
If we look at the big picture of centralization of production and retailing, that's only getting worse. If we look at issues of wasteful packaging, that's only gotten worse. So I mean, I think, as much as in 2006, more so than in 2006, we need grassroots activism around food.
Alicia: To get to your latest books, Sandor Katz's Fermentation Journeys, it begins with drinking palm wine in Africa and talking about how traditional techniques are so different from the sterile, literally and figuratively, approach in the West. And this inevitably related to how people respond to fermentation, as well as alcohol.
And so, how in your work have you adapted the traditional, more organic approaches to talk to an audience that might be skittish about fermentation? You talk about this in the book, when you go see the Chinese Chef Guan, who stirs in mold that forms on the top of his pickles, when many people new to fermentation would throw the whole crock out.
Sandor: Well, I mean, honestly, this is really what drew me into fermentation education. And the first time I was invited to teach a fermentation workshop was—which was in 1998, just because I had gotten interested in fermentation and not particularly had any fear about it. It really struck me at that first workshop, when one of the students picked up a jar of the vegetables that we just shredded and stuffed into the jars. And she said, ‘How can I be sure I have good bacteria growing in here, and not some dangerous bacteria that might make me sick, or even kill somebody?’
And I started to realize how easy it is, for people who've grown up with the idea that bacteria are so dangerous, it's easy to project this generalized anxiety about bacteria onto the process of fermentation, which actually is and always has been a strategy for safety in food. So I feel that's part of what drew me into fermentation education was the idea of demystifying this process for people.
So I'm always trying to tell people that like, ‘Oh, you can just skim off the top layer if it gets funky.’ But I also like to let people know that they have options. There do exist very effective technologies for, let's say, protecting the surface of your fermenting vegetables from oxygen. I tell them why I don't use them. Because if you like to smell it, and taste it as it develops, every time you open it up, you're letting the air and the oxygen in and kind of defeating the purpose of your specially engineered vessel or system. But there are options. And people who are really squeamish about that, they can ferment anyway. And there are ways that you can avoid that. But I also try to emphasize that, really, it's harmless, and just skim off the top layer. Don't throw the whole thing away.
Have people gotten a little bit more, as fermented products have become kind of more commonplace, especially in the US. Everyone's eating kimchi all the time. Everyone's drinking kombucha. Have people gotten a little more easygoing about fermentation, or a bit more interested in it?
(9) Sandor: Well, sure, sure.
I would say since roughly 2011, maybe every year I've seen lists of the hot new trends in food that include fermentation. That always makes me chuckle a little bit, because fermentation is ancient. The products of fermentation have had enduring appeal. And if you think about ferments like bread, cheese, beer, wine, vinegar, they were just as prominent in our great-grandparents’ time as they are now. It's just that more people are aware of the process by which they are created. They're aware of fermentation. And I think that has everything to do with the microbiome and growing awareness that bacteria are not just our dangerous enemies, but they actually are our symbiotic partners, and we need them in order to function well. But people don't always know when to welcome them and when to fear them.
Alicia: Of course, yeah.
Well, I'm so struck. And this, I think, is related to the fact that fermentation is this ancient practice that no one can really own. But your writing and practice has such an openness that reminded me of Samantha Saville's concept of humble geographies, which asked geographers to pursue knowledge without assumptions of mastery.
And so I think that in this book, you really approach a humble geography of fermentation globally, without pretense, without expectation. And I love that humility is reflected in calling yourself a fermentation revivalist rather than an expert. And so, why has that manner of working been important to you? And how did you develop your approach to being a revivalist of fermentation?
Sandor: Well, I've never heard of this phrase humble geographies before. But I feel humbled.
I was 30 years old when I first learned how to make sauerkraut. I'd been eating sauerkraut and pickles since I was a kid. But my interest in fermentation really came in the middle of my life. And there are sort of so many people living in different cultural contexts where it just was part—Fermentation practices were just part of the landscape the whole time. And they're watching their grandmothers ferment something and their mothers ferment something, and they learned as a kid how to do it.
So, I mean, I do feel humbled. I mean, I have developed this sort of wide ranging, sort of broad knowledge of fermentation. But in any particular format, I mean, there are just so many people with more experience than me. And that sort of forces me to be humble.
Now, in terms of calling myself a fermentation revivalist, I mean, I guess that really came about because I have such a strong feeling that fermentation has been such an integral part of how people everywhere make effective use of whatever food resources they have available to them. But in recent times, as more and more people have moved away from direct involvement in the production of food, fermentation has largely disappeared from most people's households and from easy community views, so it sort of becomes mystified by disappearing into centralized production facilities.
And then people sort of project all of this, I guess, technical mystery. ‘Oh, it must take a laboratory. It must take a microscope. It must take the ability to absolutely control conditions’ and imagine that they can't do it. So what I'm trying to revive is people's intimacy with this process. And people feeling it's something that they can bring into their culinary practice.
Alicia: Well, you bring up abundance often in the text as the origin point for so many global ferments. And do you think it's possible to reclaim that concept of abundance in the West to be less about having ‘choices,’ and more about using every bit of things, sharing. There's a clear focus on gift economies and friendship as a means of knowledge building in the book that celebrates a different kind of abundance than what we're sold in the U.S.?
Sandor: Well, yeah. I mean, I hope so.
I mean, I really perceive what I'm doing, I—Fermentation, for me, is not the ultimate point. It's a means of reclaiming our food. And reclaiming our food means me coming closer to the source of its production. And I mean, for me, that means having a garden and trying to really primarily eat out of my garden. And share when I have too much of, and ferment what I have too much of to use at a given moment so that I can enjoy it down the road.
I mean, I think of it in terms of just reclaiming a relationship to food, that food is not sort of simply a commodity that you can get according to how fat your wallet is. Food is something more than that. Food is our connection to the biological world that enables us to physically sustain ourselves.
Food is a relationship to cultural lineages. I mean, sure, in that context. I mean, I would love to see people think of abundance in this sort of different way. What are the food resources that are around me that are abundant? ‘Ok, there are all these oak trees dropping chestnuts. How can I sort of learn how to turn that into food?’ I mean, I just think that that's so important because that's what food is. And all of our elaborate systems that we've set up, turning food into a commodity turn out to be extremely vulnerable. And we're seeing sort of more and more disruptions to that.
Alicia: Colonization, cultural continuity, documentation. These are cited as significant concerns of yours in your fermentation work. And they seem, are so fundamental to food as a whole. And so I wanted to ask—And then, you've been publishing for nearly 20 years. Have you seen the dominant food narratives change to reflect the significance of how colonization and cultural continuity are necessary parts of talking about food?
Sandor: Well, I mean, I'm not sure that I could say that I've seen the dominant narratives change, but certainly I'm seeing a broadening of the voices that are talking about food. And I'm seeing more people who are kind of bringing up the ways in which food is related to these sort of larger historical processes that form us and form our society.
I mean, I think that there's a lot of people, whether it's in the form of articles and books, whether it's in the form of videos that people are posting on YouTube. But I definitely think that there are much more varied voices that I'm finding, and I don't believe that they are sort of the dominant voices at all. But they certainly are present.
And your introduction mentions the ills of what you call our neo-colonial period. Poverty. Social and economic marginalization. Mass incarceration. Why was it important to you to name these explicitly in the book?
Sandor: Well, I mean, I'm writing about all of these cultural traditions, but I think it's important to acknowledge that not every cultural tradition has been able to have as much continuity as certain other cultural traditions, because we're part of these sort of larger historical processes. If you were in a native culture, where there was an active government policy to sort of destroy the culture by taking children away from their families and forcing them into schools to assimilate them, well, it's a lot harder for those cultural traditions to be able to continue because there's been such an active agenda of destroying them.
Alicia: And I think that's related to how the ferments in the book are grouped by substrate rather than national approach, which kind of demonstrates differences and commonalities between how these various cultures approach fermentation. I wanted to ask if you could elaborate on your choice to group the fermentations that way, and how you basically organized such a breadth of information?
Sandor: Well, I mean, I certainly started the project with a geographic outline and imagining that I was going to organize it geographically. But as it went on, as the project developed, I guess I realized that my strength is connecting the dots. And the fact that I've had this broad exposure has enabled me to compare and contrast how people in different cultures that are fermenting vegetables are fermenting the vegetables. And honestly, there's more similarity than there is difference. But there's a lot of very particular distinctions.
And it just evolved that way, so that rather than being, ‘This is my trip to China, and this is what I learned there. This is my trip to Colombia. And this is what I learned there.’ It just felt it worked a lot and certainly illuminated the fermentation processes a lot more to weave them together in a more thematic way.
Alicia: Well, yeah.
And another thing I was struck by is that you had acknowledged the incompleteness of your cumulative impressions from your travels. And so, I wanted to ask if you have advice for other writers, documentarians, people who are working in cultures that aren't necessarily their own, on how to approach being honest, I guess, about how you are documenting the work and the people you've met?
Sandor: Well, I think you just said it. I mean, you just have to be honest. [Laughter.] I mean, when you're going into a situation where you're brand new and other people have been doing this all along, they're the experts and you're just the witness. So I mean, I just think that that's the reality.
I see writers who are just trying to always assume the stance of the expert. But I mean, I just think that's ridiculous. I mean, it makes me bristle when I, I've been introduced as ‘the world's fermentation expert.’ And that, that's just utterly ridiculous.
As I said at the beginning, I mean, I started exploring fermentation when I was 30 years old. I've been doing it for about half of my life. But the world is full of people who have been making idlis or dosas, or in Puerto Rico making maví, or lots of different formats, just as a, as an every day thing in their lives. And all of them know more about the particular ferments they're engaged with than I know about any of them.
Alicia: I think that's such an important lesson, too.
I mean, if I have an expertise, I mean, it's just that I have this sort of broad general exposure. And it's always incomplete. I do not believe that it would be possible for a human being to possess encyclopedic knowledge of fermentation practices, because they're so disparate. And it's not a unified set of practices. It's these very disparate practices that really only in the 20th century did we realize that they were unified by the fact that they all involve the activity of microorganisms that we didn't know about.
Alicia: For you, is cooking a political act?
Sandor: Well, I mean, not intrinsically, certainly. I think it can be, but I—As I was saying earlier, in the context of reclaiming food, that's what can make cooking or other forms of food preparation of a political act. It's the spirit that we bring to it, not the act itself.
Alicia: Well, thank you so, so much for talking today.
Well, thank you for your excellent questions. And also thank you, just thank you for your appreciation of a lot of the nuance in my work. I really appreciate that.
Alicia: Oh. Thank you. Thank you.