King of fermentation brings together microbiology, food & community

Author and fermentation expert Sandor Katz. (Photo by Sean Minteh)
Author and fermentation expert Sandor Katz. (Photo by Sean Minteh)

A fermentation specialist recently visited Homer. He’s making his way through Alaska, teaching about the crossover among food preservation, microbiology and community. He taught an intensive fermentation workshop on a local farm.

It’s a sunny day over the Caribou Hills. A group of more than 50 people are milling around a large, green farm, lunch plates piled high with pungent food that saturates the summer breeze.

Sandor Katz is sitting on a log near some chickens, wearing a white shirt with a pattern of bright red radishes. He’s the King of Fermentation.

“I ended up being given the nickname ‘Sandorkraut’ because I was always showing up with sauerkraut and evangelizing about the healing powers of sauerkraut,” says Katz.

Yes, sauerkraut.

“You can make it in dazzlingly bright colors, or contrasting colors, or different sizes and shapes of cutting up your vegetables. It’s actually an incredibly versatile food,” says Katz.

Despite the teasing for always being that guy, the one who brings fermented food to a dinner party, he truly has a deep passion for this process. Through his eyes, the complex world of microorganisms and bacteria at work take on new and beautiful life.

“Before I see anything, I smell this delicious sourness,” says Katz. “I taste this sourness that speaks to me in this very deep way. What I see is last season’s garden that’s still feeding us and nourishing us. It’s actually never occurred to me that sauerkraut could be ugly.”

And his art is gaining popularity. In the pushback against processed and packaged foods, do it yourself preservation methods are becoming more popular.

“People are waking up to the fact that a lot has been lost by severing our connection with producing food and so they’re interested in figuring out how they can play a role in producing their own food,” says Katz.

Charles Meredith, who goes by Chaz, is active in the local farmers market and independent growing community. He says he’s seen a resurgence of traditional food ways, like canning, pickling, dehydrating and fermenting.

“I feel like in rural places, in general, the older traditions stick around more and are more appreciated by people in those areas,” says Meredith. “So, I think it’s partially holding onto the past where you can obviously see it slipping away.”

Like many people in Homer, he’s comfortable with lots of types of food preparation. Over by the picnic tables, Marcee Gray is scooping up sticky sourdough starter with a spoon.

She finishes packing it into a mason jar, picks up some lunch at the buffet and settles down in the shade with friends.

“In our culture we do have a little bit of a fear of things like mold and bacteria,” says Gray.

Gray’s friend, Mary Lou Kelsey, says she likes the mystery of fermentation.

“I was somebody who asked him, ‘So how do you know what organisms are in there?’ If you were really worried about trying to identify all the organisms, it would be difficult … so you kind of have to [accept] that it tastes good and it’s a great mystery,” says Kelsey.

Katz says in fermentation, microorganisms exist in communities — kind of like the people who are once again taking an interest in these complex processes.

“If you think the baker and the cheesemaker and the sauerkraut maker as some archetypal fermenters, and we can’t forget the beer makers, then these are all products that give rise to exchange and informal barter and economies of community,” Katz says. “I think the revival of local food systems is all about building and strengthening community ties.”

That revival can be seen in Katz’s own work. He brings people with common interests together, to eat communal meals, to trade containers of their homemade concoctions, and he does it all through his teaching of the art of fermentation and one jar of sauerkraut at a time.

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