A conversation with fermentation luminary Sandor Ellix Katz

Illustration—Franco Égalité

Sandor Ellix Katz — AKA Sandorkraut — is a fermentation expert whose writings and workshops have inspired thousands to nurture and devour their own at-home microbial cultures. From bread and beer to sauerkraut and kombucha, Katz helps people to tap into “the great, unmediated life force” of fermented foods.

“Wild fermentation is a way of incorporating the wild into your body, becoming one with the natural world,” Katz writes. The simple and flexible techniques he teaches “are a powerful connection to the magic of the natural world, and to our ancestors.”

For Katz, the lessons of fermentation go deeper than gut health and kitchen empowerment. In his latest book, Fermentation as Metaphor (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2020), he explores the wider insights he’s gleaned from the transformative action of microorganisms: for ourselves, our communities, and the cultures of which we too are a part. 

We reached Katz to find out more about fermentation as a force for change and why there’s nothing that can’t be fermented.

You say that fermentation is a fact, not a fad. What do you mean?  
Fermentation, which I define as the transformative action of microorganisms, is a natural phenomenon. It occurs with or without our participation, and it can decompose our food, or elevate it into the world’s greatest delicacies: alcohol, bread, preserved foods, condiments, marinades, and much more. Human cultures have developed incredibly elaborate and varied techniques for harnessing and guiding this inevitable force. Fermentation predates humanity, predates history, and is practiced everywhere.

You’ve fermented so many different things. By now, which parts of your practice are steady and predictable and which parts feel fresh and new? 
I continue to experiment in my kitchen with fermentation processes I read about or witness in my travels. Fermentation is so expansive that there are always more variations to try. Lately I’ve been pickling vegetables in a turmeric and garlic medium, which I love. I’ve also been enjoying lots of naem, a Thai style of fermenting pork in a paste of rice, garlic, and salt. I’ve been developing recipes for a new book I’m working on called Fermentation Journeys, making and drinking lots of rice alcohol and chicha. 

In the background, I have old standbys like kraut and kimchi, miso, my 25-year-old sourdough, yogurt, idli, and acaraje. Fermentation is very much part of my routine, but with those routines well established, it’s easy to experiment with the regulars, and to incorporate new projects into my routine.

What recipe have you fermented the longest? 
I have a crock of soy sauce on my kitchen counter that I or someone has stirred almost every day for just about 2 years. I’ve aged meads, wines, and misos even longer than that, up to around 10 years.

What has fermentation taught you about time?
In fermentation, as in our relationships, and as in so many areas of life, we get to see what incomparable and complex gifts come only with time.

You say that fermentation is a metaphor. How so? 
In the English language, we use the word fermentation to describe anything that is bubbly or in a state of agitation. It gets applied to very widely disparate contexts. In metaphor, as in the literal phenomenon, there is nothing that cannot be fermented.

Why are bubbles so important?
The word fermentation itself arises from bubbles. When carbohydrate-rich liquids ferment, a by-product is carbon dioxide, which manifests as bubbles rising in the fermenting liquid. The word fermentation comes from Latin fervere, “to boil,” because the visible action of fermentation is bubbles, just like the visible action of boiling. The bubbles are how we can tell that the fermentation is coming alive. 

In our social lives, bubbliness is dynamic, a manifestation of new ideas. In the social realm, fermentation is an engine of change, as bubbliness breaks down old ideas and inspires new ones.

You’ve said that as a force of change, fermentation is both gentle and unstoppable. How can this idea be applied to our current social and political situation?
Our society is desperate for change, and social and cultural processes that we can describe as fermentation are going on all around us. Fermentation breaks down old ideas and generates new ones. From Black Lives Matter to the Green New Deal, transformational movements are part of social fermentation. 

What does fermentation teach us about valuing diversity?
Literal fermentation is a manifestation of biodiversity. The complexity of the most beloved of flavors is due to the accumulation of metabolic by-products by a variety and a succession of microbial actors functioning as a broad community. If we celebrate the flavors of fermentation, then we celebrate microbial biodiversity. Similarly, the bubbliness and agitation of metaphorical fermentation grow out of the cross-pollination of cultural diversity, and we must celebrate that diversity as well.

In fermentation, the boundary between life and death — or between delicious and repulsive, beauty and rot — is so thin. But in our world, these things seem very far apart. What can we learn from that?
Categories may seem absolute, but they never are. Edges and membranes are always permeable, and support smaller structures. Categories inevitably shift and overlap. Living organisms die, to become food that enables other organisms to thrive. I take great inspiration from the microbial realm. The idea that death is not only an ending but a new beginning gives me comfort.

You have written about “emotional composting.” What does this idea refer to?
It’s using the process of composting as a model for grappling with our emotions. The compost pile is a living example of renewal. We pile our food and garden scraps with manure, leaves, sawdust, any organic materials, and through the magic of microbial transformation, they break down into humus and help build soil fertility. In emotional composting, instead of food and garden scraps we have our traumas, our self-doubt, our hurt, and rather than denying them or being paralyzed by them, we process them, facing them and breaking them down into new forms that better serve us and propel us forward.

Our Transformations

In BESIDE Issue 10, Sandor Ellix Katz discusses the social powers of fermentation with David Zilber, author of The Noma Guide to Fermentation and a Harvard lecturer on the creative use of bacteria for a new generation of cooks and scientists.

Preorder now!

Share if you liked this story