A fermentation fetish

Sandor Katz has an ongoing love affair with saurkraut. Author and full time instructor at Short Mountain Community, Katz launched a genre of fermentation cookbooks in 2001 with Wild Fermentation. Katz spoke about his latest book, The Art of Fermentation, last night at Malaprops. He monologed only for a few minutes before engaging the audience in a wide ranging discussion. Juggling travel stories while demystifying microbiology and food science, he even troubleshooted fermented creations gone awry.

This self-avowed “fermentation fetishist” skillfully steered loaded questions seeking health advice and concerns about food safety by discussing risk. “We drive cars, go out in the rain, constantly take risks that we accept. All our choices have risks associated with them. We cannot completely eliminate risk.” Katz continued that fermentation practices have been used traditionally for many years. Now contemporary medical studies have validated health claims like minor improved digestion and immune response.

Katz cautioned against cure-alls and medical knowledge at the same time, sharing 21 years ago he tested HIV positive and takes antivirals prescribed by his doctor. “I don’t know about you but I don’t live my life in a lab changing one variable at a time. I’ve had some health crises but I feel great now. Digestion issues are a common side-effect with antivirals that I have never experienced. Will eating 2 lbs of sauerkraut a day cure cancer? No, but it might lower your probability from getting a tumor in the first place.”

Our bodies consist of 10x more bacteria cells than human cells. Our DNA is responsible for only a small fragment of our genetic material. To be human means having a symbiotic relationship with thousands of species of bacteria on our skin and in our bodies. We are literally a microbiome, an ecology of microorganisms that works together to survive. Bacteria can exchange genes with their environment. As Sandor said, it’s like us being able to just got to a hardware store and grab whatever tools we need. Lactobaccillus cells from fermented cabbage might not take up residence in your gut but it might positively influence the genes of the bacteria cells already there.

What do you think?