On Our Fermented Lives
Thoughts on Books, and Fermentation Past and Future
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As I embark on my next writing projects and on the next leg of events for Our Fermented Lives, I'm revisiting my notes from my last few book talks. Increasingly, I'm shaping my book talks explicitly around the themes of each book chapter, which allows me to pull out favorite anecdotes and gives the audience a good framework through which to understand both the book's structure and to hopefully spark questions around specific themes.
I wanted to share an adapted version of my recent Bookmarks talk to perhaps spark some questions and conversation from you.
I end with my thoughts on the future of fermentation, but am curious: What, to you, is the future of fermentation?
In Our Fermented Lives, I consider fermentation through the lens of the many different ways we have interacted with the fermentation process through history and, in so doing, the many ways it has shaped our lives and world.
Fermentation is powerful to me because it's a part of every single community, and while we as humans take lessons from fire, water, and the many other elements we draw upon to prepare our food, our collaboration with these unseen beings makes fermentation something extra magical. To ferment is to engage in a practice that feels both otherworldly and rooted within our own world, all at once.
What is fermentation?
I often point to Sandor Katz' definition of fermentation as "the transformative action of microbes," which work to shape our food and, by extension, our bodies and communities.
But what does this mean exactly? And how has it shaped us?
To start with some practical examples, these transformative actions give us a wide range of foods including chocolate, vanilla, coffee, sauerkraut, cheese, yogurt, kimchi, bread, vinegar, alcohol, and more. Every culture on earth makes and eats ferments, and you almost certainly eat or drink something fermented every day.
We have been intentionally fermenting foods for at least 10,000 years, though the fermentative action of microbes itself predates our evolution as humans. Because fermented foods have such a ubiquitous presence, there is an incredibly rich history to explore.
I wrote Our Fermented Lives because nothing else pulled together the history in one place: I wanted to gather what I could find and share it, because documenting and sharing our culinary traditions is so important.
If there's one thing I want you to take away from reading this, it's that the food you make matters, and recording and preserving traditions matters.
We often think these traditions will be around forever, so why should we record our version?
But many culinary traditions have been lost to time, particularly those practiced by people that those in power considered "unimportant": enslaved people, Indigenous communities, and others.
When you preserve and share your culinary knowledge, you're investing in the future and in the resilience and creativity of the community.
I hope that my book is one starting point in the process, and my dream is that it inspires others to start recording their own fermentation stories too.
Our Fermented Lives organized by several themes: Across the world, ferments support our health, strengthen our communities, flavor our food, and more. Originally thought I might organize it geographically, but what I found was that there is so much overlap in how we create and share ferments.
And it was this overlap that most interested me.
We can learn more about who we are, by learning more about what fermentation is.
Let's explore some of those themes, and how they help me define fermentation.
Fermentation is life
Our bodies coevolved with and from microbes: The first life forms on the planet were bacteria, later diversifying into the incredible variety of life forms we have on earth today.
As this happened, our prehuman ancestors' bodies became hosts to microbes that, in turn, help us fight off infection and stay healthy.
We intentionally started fermenting food around 10,000 years ago, but we've been eating fermented food for much longer. In fact, our ancestors' bodies evolved to metabolize alcohol millions of years ago and, since fermentation microbes live and thrive in our guts and keep us healthy, it's clear they've been a part of our diets since well before we were human.
Our very lives and histories, then, are inextricably intertwined with these beings, and it's no wonder they've captured our imaginations and woven their way through our meals.
Fermentation is preservation
For most of human history, we've not had access to the variety of year-round foods we have in supermarkets today. Eating in season, and preserving food for later, have long been two critical components of food security, and around the world, fermentation has been a critical part of preservation.
Fermentation preserves food in a variety of ways, depending on the type of ferment:
For example, through acidifying the brine for sauerkraut to prevent spoilage, or turning grapes into wine rather than letting them rot. At its simplest, fermentation creates a selective environment that favors certain beneficial microbes, allowing them to multiply while preventing the growth of harmful microbes.
When we create sauerkraut, for example, we start with brine (salt water) and the salt inhibits the growth of many microbes that can't tolerate it. As long as we keep the cabbage completely submerged in the brine, we also prevent the growth of mold, which is aerobic (requires oxygen) so can't thrive under the liquid.
Fermentation allows us to enjoy, and receive needed nutrients from, fruits and vegetables even out of season. I teach a class on reducing food waste called Preserving Abundance, and I gave it this name because when we adopt the mindset of using what we have, and applying our creativity to what would otherwise be waste, we bear witness to the abundance already present around us.
As I've talked about before, cutting down on food waste is a form of preservation: When we use every part of our food that we can, we honor that food and the labor that went into raising it and all the hands that touched it on its journey to our plate.
Fermentation is a really important tool in your low waste toolbox: I give scraps new life by infusing them in vinegar, shredding them into sauerkraut, or using them to flavor mead, for example. The possibilities are endless, and I'm inspired by fermentation's versatility every day!
Fermentation is flavor
Fermentation gives us the tangy bite of sauerkraut, the sour zing of vinegar, the deep umami of soy sauce, and the sweetness of amazake.
I love fermentation because it adds complexity and depth to our dishes: Because we are working with microbial communities, different community members will bring out different flavors in our foods. For example, acetobacter ferments alcohol into vinegar, but perhaps the wild yeasts used to brew that alcohol added some funky, almost savory flavors too.
Instead of a one-dimensional flavor profile, you're invited to experience something complex and delicious, that asks your palate to feel its way across a range of flavors in one bite.
I find that many people think our ancestors just ate flavorless gruel and had little variety in their diets or their palates, but that simply is not true.
As I say in the start of my chapter on flavor, our ancestors could discern flavors and develop their own preferences just as we can, and were as creative in the kitchen as we are today.
They ate a variety of foods, and certainly did not always have a wide range of foods nor enough of it, but they were inventive and creative with what they did have, and fermentation was a part of that.
Flavorful garum, or Roman fish sauce, not only helped people stretch their supply of salt, it added a burst of savory flavor to dishes (for more on garum history, check out Sally Grainger's work).
Rice wine vinegar is not only used to pickle and preserve, but also as a seasoning that adds a mellow yet multidimensional tang to many different regional cuisines across China, Japan, and Korea.
Here in the southern Appalachians, sour corn offered a simple way to add some tangy flavor to meals.
All of us probably have examples from our own kitchens and our family traditions of ferments adding flavor, too. Perhaps you fold a bit of miso into cookie dough, or add beer to a stew,
or season a dish with soy sauce. Fermentation offers us nearly limitless possibilities for building flavor, so there's always a chance to learn something new.
Fermentation is health
For thousands of years, fermented foods have been an important part of traditional medical systems. Flavor plays an important role in these systems, which offer highly individualized advice based on one person's health, using overarching guidance that focuses on bringing balance to the body.
That flavors are associated with different health-promoting properties also shows that the different ways we might approach fermentation history are not discrete: There's a lot of overlap between each of these ideas.
Sourness is used to strike balance in humoral medicine, Chinese medicine, and Ayurveda (and I would imagine in other traditional medical systems as well). In humoral medicine, for example, sour flavors are considered dry and warming, so are used to balance cool, moist foods like pork or fish.
This balance is at the root of some of our popular flavor combinations, like lemon and fish or prepared mustard and pork. Sour foods would also be recommended for people with phlegmatic temperaments to help balance their bodies.
Traditional medical systems also change dietary advice based on the seasons. In Chinese medicine, for example, sour food was recommended in the spring, to wake our bodies up after the cold of winter.
Today, we're learning more and more about the microbiome, and its impacts on our overall health.We know that our microbiome plays an important part in our immune system and our digestion, for example, but we're also learning that it has more far-reaching influences, for example on our mood. Researchers are learning more every day, so much so it can be hard to keep up with! And I'm excited to see what we continue to learn from here.
Fermentation is community
Fermentation helps us build community in a variety of ways, and this community focus is one of my favorite things to talk about when I talk with folks about Our Fermented Lives and fermentation history in general.
Community here can mean communities of fermentation microbes or our human communities.
With fermentation, cooking is a collaboration: We are working together with a community to transform our food into something new.
Often it works, sometimes it doesn't, but we always learn something new either way. With fermentation, you're never cooking alone.
Fermentation strengthens our human communities, too: It helps us repurpose food that might be wasted, and use it to feed ourselves and others. It gives us a chance to flex our creative muscles, and share our kitchen creations with each other. And it gives us the chance to strengthen our connections to each other in real time.
There are many long traditions of making ferments in groups, like Korean kimjang (kimchi making parties). In these gatherings, families and community members come together to preserve food during harvest season to feed themselves through the winter.
When we prepare ferments in a group, we build community in two ways:
-As we prepare: Come together to talk, share stories, learn from each other, catch up with friends and neighbors
-Making ferments now supports our community in the future, by ensuring we have food to feed ourselves even in lean winter months.
Making ferments together strengthens community bonds, allows us to pass on cultural knowledge, and builds community resilience.
Fermentation is the future
Thinking about the future of fermentation, and how we might shape it, is another key point of my book. Yes, it's about history, but it's also about how we as individuals make choices to record, share, and practice traditions, and how those choices help shape the future.
We sit at the intersection of our ancestors traditions and a future yet to be realized.
We get to decide what from those traditions we want to carry forward into the future, and what many of us are realizing is that the culinary traditions that kept our ancestors alive are enduring traditions for a reason.
When we see supply chain shortages and rising grocery prices, we dive into simple, budget-stretching dishes, we cut down on food waste, we preserve what we can, or we grow what we can. In short, we begin to cook more like our ancestors.
A resilient future and resilient communities rely on us drawing on the traditions of the past, and viewing them through the lens of today (say, by combining flavors from multiple traditions or by applying modern technology to ancient techniques) in order to make a tradition that's all our own.
We can help build the future we want by recording the traditions from our homes and communities now, and by continuing to learn and share alongside these incredible microbial collaborators.
So how do I define fermentation?
For me, and for many fermenters, the definition of fermentation considers transformation across many levels, including:
-The transformation of our food by microbes to preserve and flavor it, and
-The transformation of ourselves and our communities through our encounters with fermented foods and fermentation traditions.
To me, fermentation is expansive and beautiful: A chance to learn, a chance to play and explore, and chance to create and share with others.
And, it's an ancient knowledge that makes me feel connected to my ancestors and is a beautiful gift I want to pass on to the future.
This is something that helped to keep our ancestors alive, wherever they are from, and they've passed this gift on to us so we can care for ourselves too.
Each ferment we make is a chance to open that gift anew and to share its bounty with the people we love.
How do you define fermentation? And how might your kitchen practice today shape the future?
· I've been nominated for Georgia Author of the Year for Our Fermented Lives. Winners will be announced in June: Cross your fingers!
· I appeared in the New York Times for my MOFAD talk with Sandor Katz and KC Hysmith. Very exciting!
· My calendar is filling up for the rest of the year, BUT I do still have room for a couple consulting projects.
If you would like me to offer food history research + recommendations for your novel, film, or other creative project please reach out!
(some examples from past projects: what would people be able to grow and eat in an apocalypse? What cookbooks would a Midwestern housewife have used in the 1940s?)
As last month's theme was all about food waste, I've been revisiting the articles I've written on the subject (there are quite a few!) including this one.
I enjoyed this conversation between Hannah Grieco and Sarah Fawn Montgomery about Montgomery's new book, Halfway from Home, particularly because they talk about recipes (metaphorical and actual) that represent facets of the book.
Tripe and Drisheen is my must-read newsletter for all things Cork, and I especially love their profiles, like this one of Kenny Morris.
Vittles is another must-read newsletter: This piece by Aaron Vallance, with its layers of family stories, is a good example of why.
Make: Lactofermented Basil Pesto
This very lightly fermented pesto is a favorite springtime and early summer treat. The secret is in the timing: You want to ferment it just long enough to start to bubble, but pull it before the leaves get funky and slimy. I usually ferment it just a day or perhaps two. It's a nice way to get a little bit of savoriness, particularly for folks who don't want to add parmesan to their pesto (another option? Make regular ol' pesto but add in a bit of white miso paste).
1 quart room temperature water
1 1/2 tbsp sea salt
2 c packed basil leaves
Extra virgin olive oil
-Stir salt in water until dissolved.
-Pack your leaves into a pint jar, and pour brine over the top until completely covered.
-Allow to ferment overnight to 48 hours, until just beginning to bubble.
- Strain and press water from leaves (save the brine as a base for chilled herbal soups, for smoothies, etc. I've even used it in the bath before!)
-In a blender or food processor, blend up your leaves, slowly adding olive oil, until it forms a pesto.
-Store in the fridge.
If you make big batches at once, freeze into ice cube trays, covering with olive oil to prevent freezer burn, for single-use pesto servings to stir into soups and sauces.
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