Saturday, July 8, 2017

A Review of Sandor Katz's The Art of Fermentation

When searching for new food-related books to check out, I—ever the twat-snob—always peruse the James Beard awards from years past. That's how I ended up with a copy of The Art of Fermentation, which currently sits on the desk in front of me. The book is emphatically not a cookbook, as it's remarkably devoid of fine-tuned recipes and detailed step-by-step instructions. Instead, it serves more as an exploration of and a testament to the endless variety of possibilities that fermentation presents. For me, a scientist who clutches to the notions of measurement and reproducibility, this could be considered a hard sell. But judging from my countertop and fridge, which fucking runneth-over with fermenting veggies, hot sauce, cultured butter, buttermilk, vinegars, and a cherry country wine1—all wild-fermented—I'd have to say the book is wildly2 successful.

First let's be clear here: I'm squarely within the target audience for this book. I've been brewing beer for years, have sporadically maintained sourdough starters since I was in college, and am all-around DIY-curious. However, I'm also uptight (just ask my fiance) and am in sore need of Sandor Katz's coaxing to 'fucking loosen up a bit, jeezus' 3. Katz has a way of convincingly portraying just how easy it is to get started fermenting, and this isn't the usual disingenuous "cooking is easy" (if you ignore 80% of the work) BS. It's actually dead simple to get started once you get past the typical post-Pasteurian hangups about "spoiled" food. Fermented vegetables are an ideal place to start because of their inherent safety, as Katz reassuringly points out4. Take some vegetables. Chop them up (or not). Add some salt to taste, maybe some water too if you want a brine. Cram it all in a jar, make sure the solids are covered in liquid. Check it every day and wait until it smells and tastes funkily delicious. THAT'S IT.

And while vegetables are a great point of entry, they're only just the tip of the barrel of bananas. Most everything you'd imagine fermenting is covered here, from alcoholic beverages to grains and starchy tubers, dairy products, seeds and beans, meat/fish/eggs, and more. There's probably even an anecdote tucked away somewhere on how to ferment an old Rugrats VHS tape, I just haven't stumbled across it yet.

Of course, along the way Katz also includes some discussion of the purported health benefits (and dangers) of fermented foods, and for a man who is clearly a fermentophile he gives a fairly even-handed and credible account. The book is well-researched, and it's heartening to see him reference a number of peer-reviewed scientific studies. In some of these modern "food revolution"-type books, science gets treated as some sort of vaguely malevolent ooze that's seeped into our food system, trashed our way of life, and (apparently) socked the author's mother square in her poor innocent mug. Not so much of that here, I'm glad to say.

On some level, Ferm's5 about getting back in touch with Nature and all that woozy hippie shit. It's like camping indoors. Just try to ignore Nature when that jar of fruit scraps and sugar water comes alive, frothing and gurgling at you6, or when the paste of flour and water rises to spongy attention. Each process is like making something out of nothing, some kind of near-magical transformation, the same thing that's at the heart of so much of cooking. In his chapter on beer, Katz writes, "There is a section ahead covering malting barley, for those like myself who are obsessed with directly experiencing all these different transformational processes." These little transformations, so often hidden from our everyday lives, are great fuel for the fires of curiosity.

But Ferm ain't just about physics and chemistry and biology. It's about Us. Fermentation traditions, oddly enough, emphasize both the variety and the commonality of human cultures. There is an enormous diversity and inventiveness—the history of shepherded fermentation is largely one of circumstance, availability, and ingenuity. And yet, emerging from this patchwork is a common set of patterns, one of which Katz makes explicit by coining the term "Kraut-chi". But in addition to its globally unifying nature, Ferm is intrinsically local and communal. Take whatever you have in abundance right here, right now, and preserve it in a sort of humble/edible time capsule. Transform it for your satisfaction and sustenance.

Anthropologist John G. Kennedy, writing about a variety of indigenous Mexican corn beer called tesguino and its neighborly labor-rallying effects, here dryly notes that "A man may choose to perform any task alone or to make tesguino7, but the latter method is much preferred because of the time and effort saved, and because of the euphoria of group participation which is so lacking in the relative solitude of everyday life. This group camaraderie is of course considerably enhanced by the effects of the alcohol." And while pyschoactivity is great and all, it isn't a prerequisite for Ferm's camaraderie: old ladies (and others, I'm sure) get a kick out of sharing their sourdough and kombucha starters, while Katz himself mentions having lived in some sort of vaguely communistic-sounding arrangement in Tennessee. Ferm's communal pull also reaches through time and place, reconnecting us to forebears who experimented and explored, or diligently carried on their traditions that have since been refined and commercialized, for good and ill.

If you haven't figured it out yet, I'd highly recommend this book. And as a final note, I'll leave you with this quote from Katz, buried in a parenthetical in a section about—and I quote—"Chewed Potato Beer". It's apt as an epigraph for the whole damn book:

"I offer this not so much as a recipe as a point of departure for adventuring experimentalists."

P.S. Stay tuned for future posts on fermenting

  1. In the time since writing the original draft, I've added more multicolored vegetable pickles, ginger bug (and subsequent ginger beer), two jars of wild-fermented experimental beer, a batch of cherry-scrap vinegar, and a sourdough starter. 

  2. See what I did there? 

  3. Those aren't his words exactly. 

  4. He quotes Fred Breidt, a microbiologist employed by the USDA, as saying, "As far as I know, there has never been a documented case of foodborne illness from fermented vegetables…Risky is not a word I would use to describe vegetable fermentation." 

  5. I can call you Ferm, right? 

  6. and later sits there looking like some kind of grim infant open-heart surgery. Vaguely malevolent indeed… 

  7. To bring all the boys to the yard(work), so to speak. 

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