Fermentation as Metaphor, by Sandor Ellix Katz, Chelsea Green Publishing, 128 pp, $25, ISBN: 978-1645020219
He calls himself a fermentation revivalist. With several award-winning books on the subject and a very large following on YouTube, Sandor Ellix Katz is part fermentation expert and part fermentation superstar. But I wondered: why revivalist? Did fermentation ever go out of fashion? Where I spent my adult life ‑ in Japan ‑ fermentation has always stood centre-stage. From soy sauce to miso and from sake to tsukemono, it is hard to imagine Japanese food without it.
I was inducted into the Way of Pickles early on in my Japan days. The first time I visited my ex-husband’s hometown in Shizuoka, the family egged me on to stick my hand into Grandma’s pickle jar. It was kept underneath the sink, and every day someone had to put their hand deep into the large ceramic jug and stir things up to keep the fermentation process going. This was called nukazuke, and Grandma Ogasawara was an expert. The nuka “bed” ‑ made from rice bran, salt, seaweed and some water ‑ required regular stirring for oxygenation. Why this had to be done with a human hand remained a mystery, one among many. Grandma would toss in cucumbers, radishes, eggplant, carrots, little onions or anything else she had on hand and then a few days or weeks later, eat accordingly. Because she never tossed out the nuka bed, the flavours became more complex over time. Or so the story goes. In the end, I did stick my hand in and give it a stir ‑ to everyone’s great delight. And his grandma rewarded me with the best pickles I had ever tasted.
One could no more easily imagine Japan without sake, mirin and soy sauce than Korea without kimchi or gochujang. And how about thinking of France without bread, cheese and wine? In Europe and beyond, you can still find wines made with naturally occurring yeasts. Indeed, there are purists who refuse anything other than biodynamic wine. It is part of the fight to reclaim cultural identity and part of the magic of terroir. Proponents of natural wine say industrial wines are not alive.
Katz also asks us to consider the Catholic Mass and the sacrament of bread and wine. If that’s not fermentation than I don’t know what is, he says. Indeed, many rituals and rites found in traditional cultures incorporate fermented beverages. Made from grains, fruit, and honey ‑ as well as yogurts and cheese ‑ these drinks can be traced back more than eight thousand years. And recently, the mold-based fermentation known as koji, used in Asian soy and fish sauces, miso, sake, vegetable pickling, and spicy sauces such as doubanjiang and gochujang, is gaining popularity in America and Europe. It is valued for its umami impact, that indescribable taste supercharger.
While his previous books, like the New York Times bestseller The Art of Fermentation, describe the concepts, processes, and health benefits of fermentation, in this book Katz explores fermentation as a metaphor.
What kind of metaphor? Well, you name it. Fermentation has long been used as a metaphor for societal change, cultural changes, political changes, economic changes ‑ it is even used in terms of spiritual changes. The English word is derived from the Latin fervere, which means to boil. But while fire consumes everything in its path, fermentation brings transformation. “Driven by bacteria that spawned all life on earth and continue to be the matrix of all life, fermentation is a force that cannot be stopped. It recycles life, renews hope, and goes on and on.”
And what is the fermentation metaphor without the bubbles? “Bubbles create movement,” Katz says, “literally exciting the substrate being transformed by the fermentation, bringing it to life.” When our ideas, our spirits, our thoughts bubble up, it shows that something exciting is taking shape, he continues. This is something that was not lost on physicist Richard Feynman, who once suggested that “All life is fermentation.”
I used to believe that all life is translation. I am a translator, you see. And if you stop and think about it, so much does come down to translation and interpretation. But then again, how much more comes down to fermentation!
Bubbles in the plural are, of course, different from bubble in the singular, and Katz talks a lot about the wonders of the former and the dangers of the latter. In particular, while bubbles thrive on soupy situations that require a multitude of microorganisms and elements, the singular version relies more on concepts of singleness or purity. For example, living in a liberal bubble might suggest an absence of other voices, unpleasant or otherwise. Concepts of racial purity, binary sexuality, or food purity have gone down even more slippery slopes of false categories and unscientific thinking. I know I personally hesitate when making mold-based pickles because I have a fear that I will create a Frankenstein’s monster in my pickle jar. I am wary of things not purchased on a supermarket shelf, such as wild mushrooms. I was therefore surprised to learn that pickled vegetables are among the safest items you can make at home.
In the same way that we now know that childhood exposure to diverse microorganisms can help protect against allergies, asthma, and other autoimmune diseases, so exposure to a diversity of different people can inoculate against racism and closed-mindedness. As Joan Harvey has written in her review of the book in 3 Quarks Daily: “Katz reminds us food is not clean, children are not pure, sexuality should not be suppressed. He even has sections on body odors and farting, though he does not go so far as to use farting as metaphor. Purist fantasies of race, blood, nation, culture, are just that, fantasies.”
It is true that our lives are governed by stark and absolute categories. “There’s good and bad, hot and cold, clean and dirty; there’s kindness and cruelty; there’s heaven and hell. In political reporting we hear about red states and blue states, though everywhere there is a diversity of opinions, even where the vast majority feels one way or another.” This seems like an obvious point, but in moving, for example from a Japanese language mindset to that of an English one, I have been struck again and again by the way dualism and dualistic categories dominate the way people think in English. And so I appreciated Katz driving the point home that life exists more along a spectrum ‑ and that bacteria are not possible in a pristine environment. Some level of contamination is required to achieve those bubbles.
Thinking back in terms of biodynamic wine, for example, Katz talks about the way that the modern approach, which uses chemicals to sterilise the crushed grapes in order to introduce a single strain of yeast is a serious departure from the long history of winemaking that always worked with the groups of microorganisms already present in the fruit.
Purity is impossible and contamination is inevitable. Katz repeats this several times. In a completely sterile environment, for example, fermentation would be impossible. While humans may single out particular bacteria or organisms to work with in their food labs, in nature they exist in interdependent clusters that are breaking down parts to give rise to new forms, and those in turn break down as well. This is an apt metaphor for social change as well, “which works as a source of mutation, transformation, and regeneration”.
Despite his strong opinions, Katz is not in favour of categorical stances. Having been diagnosed with HIV in his early life, he is kept alive by certain anti-viral medications. So, while he is the first to say that antibiotics and anti-viral drugs are good things to have around ‑ a very good thing indeed! ‑ their overuse is wreaking havoc on the natural ecosystems in the soil and in our bodies. His vision of the world is one of interdependence, where the boundaries between organisms are not quite as solid as we normally imagine. To illustrate this, more than half of the book is filled with gorgeous full-page photographs of the microbiotic world that were taken using an electron microscope. The images are artificially colorised to highlight the complexity of the structures and membranes. Not unlike our own human skin, the dividing line between the organisms appears porous and blurred. Scientists tell us that we are ourselves composed of a multispecies crowd with microorganisms making up 1-3 per cent of our body mass and comprising a vital role in human health.
So how can we better live in harmony with the natural world? How can we slow down and eat in a healthier and more sustainable way? Can we ever move beyond simplistic binary notions, including that of racial purity, food purity, language purity to get beyond the us versus the world mentality? These are all questions tackled by the great rock star of fermentation, who reminds us that,
Food offers us many opportunities to resist the culture of mass marketing and commodification … We do not have to be reduced to the role of consumers selecting from seductive convenience items. We can merge appetite with activism and choose to involve ourselves in food as co-creators.
It all reminded me of Richard Feynman, who also liked his fair share of bubbles. Feynman wrote about a nameless poet who said that the whole universe was in a glass of wine:
If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts ‑ physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on ‑ remember that nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let it give us one more final pleasure; drink it and forget it all!
How wonderful it must be to hold your wine glass up to the light and see stars and galaxies refracted there! And I do think that happiness demands this kind of slowing down and really seeing things. That is because when you slow down and become attentive to the world, you come to belong to the world as much as the world belongs to you ‑ even if just in that moment. The world is no longer a resource to be efficiently consumed but instead becomes lit up and embodied with voice and with sentiment, we and it an inseparable whole.
Leanne Ogasawara has worked as a translator from the Japanese for over twenty years. Her translation work has included academic translation, poetry, philosophy, and documentary film.