The Wild History Of Fermentation


It’s hard for historians to pinpoint exactly when humans began an active partnership with microbial fermentation because, much like fire, fermentation was a discovery rather than an invention. We don’t know, for instance, how long it took humans to figure out that they could make mead, the mind-altering drink made from honeycombs that had come in contact with water, widely considered one of the first fermented beverages. But it’s safe to say that our ability to observe, understand, and eventually manipulate the fermentation of plants and animals is inextricably linked to our success as a species, and the development of human culture. And speaking of “culture,” isn’t it fascinating that we use this word to describe both the collection of things people make when they come together, like literature, music, painting, and philosophy, as well as the community of microbes used to ferment food and drink?

Traditional ceramic pots for fermenting kimchi

The word culture comes from the Latin cultura, and from colere, which means “to tend, guard, till, cultivate.” Although the earliest records indicate that human-controlled fermentation predates agriculture, the cultivation of land necessitated the acceleration of the craft so surplus crops could be preserved. A good fermented beverage may have also been a motivating factor; some anthropologists even speculate that agriculture was first conceived so humans could procure a steadier supply of alcohol. There certainly does seem to be a connection between imbibing and great works of art. In fact, Horace said, “No poems can please long or live that are written by water-drinkers.”

Many of the formulas in this book rely on salt to kick-start a fermentation process that favors a community of bacteria called lactobacilli, and is commonly referred to as lacto-fermentation. Historians speculate that one of the earliest salt ferments of the ancient world may have originated in Rome, where fish scraps were fermented into a thick, dark sauce called garum. It appears that at about the same time, a similar sauce called jiang was popular in Southeast Asia. The Chinese added soybeans to the ferment and later eliminated the fish, calling their version jiangyou, better known today as soy sauce.1 Coastal Mediterranean foragers in Asia during the primitive pottery age (8000 to 3000 BCE) stored vegetables in seawater in large pots, which produced the earliest versions of kimchi, the Korean-style cabbage ferment.2 The domestication of cattle in the Middle East around the same time likely led to dairy ferments such as cheese and yogurt. Next came cucumbers, which are thought to have been first fermented around 2000 BCE in the Middle East, and are also mentioned several times in the Christian Bible.3 The European-style sauerkraut most of us are familiar with was transported by the Mongols in their thirteenth-century invasions of Central Europe.

We may have first employed fermentation to alter our state of consciousness and preserve food, but it couldn’t have taken long to comprehend that the process also created incredibly compelling flavors. I am awed by those early fermenters, whose ingenuity and persistence helped to create so many of the foods and drinks we cherish. Sourdough bread, cheese, certain cured meats, chocolate, coffee, vanilla, soy sauce, miso, olives, sauerkraut, pickles, beer, wine, spirits—this is just a sampling of the thousands of fermented products available worldwide. In fact, fermentation is still employed to produce as much as a third of the world’s foods.

There is a distinction, though, between a fermented food and a ferment that retains live cultures. While all live-cultured foods are fermented, not all fermented foods that end up on your plate are alive. For example, fermentation is employed in the processing of many foods such as chocolate, bread, and coffee to enhance flavor, give rise, or neutralize harmful phytonutrients, but they do not retain live cultures. With very few exceptions, the recipes in this book are “alive” with the ancient microbes that we humans have coevolved with over millennia. Learn also about the basics of home canning.

Unfortunately, the war on bacteria over the last century has resulted in a radical shift in our perception of live-culture foods, and many of these beloved foods and beverages have either disappeared or been replaced with sterile versions. Although Louis Pasteur’s research on germ theory saved countless lives, it also led to the belief that all microbes are “germs” and should be feared and eradicated. As a result, many of us grew up completely unaware of live-culture foods. Canned sauerkraut was simply, well, sauerkraut. Perhaps it would have been different if we all had grown up in the Midwest, where many families still make homemade sauerkraut, or in New York City, where pickle and sauerkraut shops were once abundant.

Rows of aging fermentation pots in a dark room

At the turn of the twentieth century, there were more than eighty such shops and carts on New York’s Lower East Side, but when I (Kathryn) visited the neighborhood in 2008, only one shop remained: Guss’ Pickles. Rather than the “pickle emporium” full of tourists that I had imagined, the tiny basement shop was barely noticeable from the street. I was met with a gruff “hey” by a guy in a royal blue smock giving a sample to the shop’s lone customer, who was clearly a local. When it was my turn, I sampled everything, from the full- and half-sour pickles to a strange, sweet sauerkraut from a big blue barrel. Curious about the sweet kraut, I asked the sample guy how it was sweetened. “I put my finger in it!” he bellowed before breaking into a deep belly laugh. A year later, Guss’ closed their Lower East Side shop and moved to Brooklyn. I still smile when I think of my visit, and am glad I was able to experience the last of the great Lower East Side pickle and kraut shops. Sadly, during the twentieth century, nearly all these types of shops were replaced by large-scale production where pasteurization is the norm. But a health renaissance that would breathe life back into sauerkraut and pickles was around the corner.

In the 1960s, a hippie exodus to rural communities in the US and Canada was under way. Educated and determined, these hardy souls learned self-sufficiency from scratch. They took Rachel Carson’s 1962 environmental treatise Silent Spring seriously, and not long after, with the help of J. I. Rodale, birthed the organic farming movement. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Rodale was from New York’s Lower East Side.) These back-to-the-land communities experimented with communal living, became vegetarians, and created food cooperatives (many of which still exist). Their interest in wholesome, unprocessed foods, like brown rice, tofu, naturally leavened breads, and fresh sauerkraut, represented much more than nourishment. It was a response to the tumultuous times, the Vietnam War, and the food corporations whose dead, overprocessed foods had come to symbolize everything that was wrong with our culture. Also learn about the topic of canning basics.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the godfather of modern fermentation, Sandor Ellix Katz, found his inspiration in a back-to-the-land community in rural Tennessee. Originally from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Katz grew up loving the garlicky sour pickles from Zabar’s but didn’t “find” fermentation until a bumper crop of cabbage and radishes found him. I (Kathryn) first met Katz at our booth at Slow Food Nation in San Francisco on Labor Day weekend in 2008, and like a giddy schoolgirl, I could hardly contain my excitement. When he declared my Smoked Jalapeño kraut “delicious,” I thought I had died and gone to heaven. His first book, Wild Fermentation, demystified fermentation for an entire generation of eager fermenters, but it went further than instruction and a handful of recipes. Katz helped us make the connection between the microbes in the soil, the crock, and our guts, and outlined how making a quart of sauerkraut could help heal this ancient relationship and, ultimately, heal ourselves and the planet. In the book’s foreword, nutritionist Sally Fallon Morrell captured the spirit of the people drawn to the movement:

  • Wild Fermentation represents not only an effort to bring back from oblivion these treasured processes but also a road map to a better world, a world of healthy people and equitable economies, a world that especially values those iconoclastic, free thinking individuals—so often labeled misfits—uniquely qualified to perform the alchemy of fermented foods.
  • We “fermentos” were part of something bigger than ourselves; we were part of a movement that was fueling a cultural revival, both microbial and human, and we all believed the world would be a better place for it. It turns out, we might have been right.

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