Sandor Katz is literally brewing up a revolution in his kitchen. The Tennessee man has authored two books on food. The first, “Wild Fermentation,” mixes Katz’s experiments with kraut, sourdough, wine and other fermented foods with the politics of self-sufficiency. His most recent work, “The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved,” tackles the food industry and introduces readers to activists who are taking personal responsibility for what they eat.
While Katz grew up on the 14th floor of a New York apartment building, his father was raised in rural upstate New York. Frequent visits to relatives exposed Katz to gardening and helped him make the connection between nature and the contents of urban grocery stores.
“I always saw where food came from,” he said.
Then at age 30 he met members of Short Mountain Sanctuary, an off-grid intentional community in rural middle Tennessee. A year later Katz joined the community.
At his new home, which is located on the grounds of an old farm, Katz found a crock which had been used for making sauerkraut. He cleaned the container, chopped and salted cabbage and discovered a new passion. His enthusiasm earned him the nickname “Sandorkraut.”
Katz didn’t stop with cabbage. He looked to the culinary traditions of his own and other cultures. From his Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, Katz was inspired to make sour pickles and rye breads. Korean sources informed his making kimchi, a savory ferment of cabbage and other vegetables with garlic, hot pepper, onion and ginger. From Mexico came corn processed with lime or wood ash. A Cherokee recipe ferments the corn, creating a thick, milky drink with sweet and sour flavors. Kefir, curd-like colonies of yeast and bacteria which turn milk into a tangy, effervescent drink overnight, finds its roots in the Central Asian Caucasus Mountains.
Katz, who calls himself a “fermentation fetish” likes the way the word “fermentation” can be used to describe not only the changes foods undergo in a crock but social change.
“The word has other connotations - spiritual, social, political, intellectual,” Katz said.
He traces the English word back to its Latin root “fevre” which means “to bubble.”
“People who are excited about ideas, they exhibit a bubbliness,” he said.
That excitement means they share their ideas and from there others contribute.
Unlike contemporary food preservation processes which use fast acting chemicals, traditional fermentation methods typically draw on bacteria, often lactobacilli, which are naturally available in the air and on the surface of some fruits and vegetables. Taking the time to learn the process has been meaningful for Katz.
“It’s a very powerful act of reclaiming to break out of our confining and infantilizing roles as consumers,” he said.
While technological advances in farming and food processing were meant to free people from time intensives tasks, Katz believes that instead of liberation the technology has brought health, environmental and economic crisis. Katz says he’s not advising everyone to leave their jobs to farm but to take small steps - buying from local growers and planting a few vegetables. The garden can get larger as ordinary folks learn more each season.
“Each small step each of us takes ads up,” he said.
While Katz and other traditional foods advocates are introducing another generation to time tested methods, Katz says there are people in rural areas who never gave up those same techniques.
“Some of the old timers never stopped,” Katz said.
Because of the naturally occurring bacteria in traditionally fermented foods, these are often referred to as “cultured.” Katz connects that to the larger definition of culture, the passing down of language, literature and science through the generations. This is illustrated in the sourdough starters that many immigrants carried with them from Europe to the United States.
Katz’ travels conducting workshops in western North Carolina and across the country. He has developed an appreciation for the food ethic of the Carolina hills.
“Western North Carolina really stands out to the degree local food exists compared to the rest of the region,” he said.
Katz cited the large number of farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture and other types of farming operations and the prevalence of cheese makers, bakers and brewers.
Across the country he’s seeing hopeful signs.
“Everywhere I go there is a tremendous amount of interest in food issues,” he said.
Kraut, kimchi and kombucha, a gelatinous colony of bacteria and yeast which is mixed with sweetened black tea, are particularly popular with first time fermenters because of their ease in preparation. Katz says people are also interested in the health benefits like increased immune functions and more diversity among microbial cultures in the body.
While health is a consideration, other fermented brews have another set of benefits.
“Mead, beer, wine, they are enduringly popular,” Katz said.