Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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On a cold winter morning I drive a couple of hours south of Nashville, Tennessee, to a farmhouse where I am greeted by a curly-headed, mustachioed man bundled in a colorful knit sweater, hat, and scarf. This is underground food aficionado and author Sandor Ellix Katz. In the kitchen he is preparing our lunch: roasted squash, watermelon-radish kimchi (spicy Korean pickled vegetables), and pan-fried buckwheat tempeh (soybeans fermented with a special fungus) — all homegrown and homemade. Katz also spends a few minutes checking on a day-old batch of miso, a Japanese soybean paste made with fermented grains. I’ve brought a bottle of dandelion wine that I made from a recipe in his book Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods (Chelsea Green).
As the lunch menu suggests, forty-seven-year-old Katz is a self-proclaimed “fermentation fetishist.” He believes that such foods enrich our cultural heritage and improve our health, and since the 2003 publication of Wild Fermentation he has traveled the continent and the globe teaching people to make their own sauerkraut, yogurt, and pickled vegetables. The farmhouse where we are having lunch is the future home of Katz’s new teaching kitchen, where he looks forward to spreading his gospel without having to get on an airplane. After we eat, we drive a few miles to Short Mountain Sanctuary, an off-the-grid intentional community where Katz lives in a solar-powered cabin without running water. He shows me around, and I meet the goats and chickens and check out the beehives, the large organic garden, the bathhouse, and the sauna.
A New York City native, Katz was in most ways a typical city kid growing up. His family lived in a fourteenth-floor apartment on the Upper West Side, and he attended public school with his two siblings. But on weekends his family would pile into the car and visit his father’s farm upstate, where Katz helped pick peas and blueberries. Katz graduated from Brown University in 1985 and worked as a high-school teacher, legal proofreader, and political organizer. His life changed in 1991 when he learned that he was HIV-positive. He left Manhattan and wanted to change the way he lived, but he was unsure how. Then he heard about a community of homosexuals in a remote area of Tennessee who called themselves “faeries,” embracing the word and moving beyond its negative connotations. Katz was familiar with gays leaving the country for the city, but he’d never considered doing the reverse. Hoping that country living would keep him healthy, he moved to Short Mountain Sanctuary in 1993, and he has lived there ever since.
One of the major benefits Katz saw to living at Short Mountain was the homemade, and often homegrown, cuisine. New to growing his own food, he soon encountered a problem that has always plagued gardeners: what to do with a surplus harvest. All of the cabbages and radishes were ready to be eaten at once, and Katz was determined to make good use of everything. So he learned to make sauerkraut. This led to other fermenting recipes, including miso, kimchi, wines, and more, but it’s the sauerkraut that he’s best known for and that earned him his nickname: “Sandorkraut.”
Katz has appeared on National Public Radio’s Science Friday and been a U.S. delegate at Slow Food International’s biennial Terra Madre gathering. His second book, The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements (Chelsea Green), garnered praise from those inside and outside the world of eating local, including the late cultural historian Howard Zinn, who said, “It points us not only to eating in a new way, but thinking in a new way.”
My tour of Short Mountain ends in the basement of the main cabin, which is lined with hundreds of jars, crocks, and bottles filled with everything from cherry-blueberry mead to pickled beets and plums. In the root cellar Katz shows me a salted and wrapped leg of venison, cured in the style of prosciutto. He is currently working on a new book about fermentation, incorporating new processes he has learned and exploring the role of fermentation in humanity’s biological and cultural evolution.
Crain: What are some examples of fermented foods or drinks?
Katz: The most famous ferments are alcoholic beverages, but we also have dairy ferments like yogurt; vegetable ferments like sauerkraut, pickles, and kimchi; and meat ferments like salami. If you look at the foods that we consider “gourmet,” virtually all of them are the products of fermentation. Imagine you’ve just stepped into a gourmet-food shop, and you see the olives. You can’t eat olives off the tree because they’re toxic and contain bitter alkaloids. They have to be cured first. There are a number of methods people use to cure olives, and many involve fermentation.
Take a couple of more steps into this gourmet shop, and you see a cheese counter. The vast majority of cheeses — and certainly any cheeses with strong flavor — are products of fermentation. Then there’s the bakery with all those delicious breads to put your cheese on. If bread weren’t fermented, it would be a dense brick. And many of those condiments that we love to slather on food are products of fermentation. The mother of all condiments is the fish sauce we find in Southeast Asian cuisine. Classical Rome and Greece also used fish sauce, and the word for Americans’ favorite condiment, ketchup, comes from the Chinese word for fish sauce: ke-tsiap. Vinegar — from the French vin aigre, meaning “sour wine” — is always a product of fermentation, and most of our favorite condiments are based on it. Continue this tour of fermented gourmet foods, and you’ve got chocolate, coffee, vanilla, and cured meats, including pepperoni, pastrami, and corned beef. So fermentation creates extraordinary flavors in addition to preserving foods.
Crain: What are some more-unusual fermented foods you’ve come across during your studies and travels?
Katz: Well, you’ve seen my venison leg curing in the cellar. My inspiration for that was a food that I encountered at Slow Food’s Terra Madre event in Italy in 2008: violino di capra — “violin of goat.” It’s the cured thigh of a goat that’s too old to milk. Most goat flesh is tough, unless it’s from a very young goat. This traditional food uses fermentation to turn the meat of an old goat into something tender and delicious.
You may have heard of the fermented tea called “kombucha.” I’ve also been making jun — a cousin of kombucha that’s prepared with honey rather than sugar. The jun culture is more active at a lower temperature than kombucha. Through the winter it produced a wonderful, refreshing tonic.
I’m continually in awe of the cleverness of people around the world in developing fermented foods. The range of methods used is incredibly varied. There’s no end to it.
Crain: What is fermentation?
Katz: Broadly speaking, fermentation is a transformative action of microorganisms that digest plant and animal matter and turn it into more elemental forms. Any compost pile is an example of fermentation, but we can also make fermented foods. Over millennia people have figured out, through observation and trial and error, how to discourage the growth of certain types of microorganisms and encourage the growth of other types: acidifying bacteria and alcohol-producing yeasts. These microbial transformations preserve food, making it more stable, more digestible, and more delicious.
Right now we’re well into the winter here. We have a few fresh greens and root vegetables, but we also need food that we’ve preserved from autumn. Fermentation enables us to keep food from seasons of plenty to use in periods of relative scarcity. Agriculture makes no sense without it: why put all our energy into crops that are ready at a certain time of year unless we have a strategy to enable us to continue eating them year-round? By creating these biopreservatives — acids and alcohol — fermentation made agriculture viable, which led to an enormous shift in human culture.
As far as I can tell, there is no food that does not have some history of fermentation, and there’s no region of the world that does not use it. It’s more critical in temperate climates with shorter growing seasons than it is in equatorial climates with longer growing seasons, but it’s still found in every part of the world.
Crain: Why are fermented foods good for us?
Katz: Beyond simply preserving food, fermentation predigests it by breaking compound nutrients down into simpler forms that are easier for our bodies to assimilate. This is hugely important when it comes to dense nutrients such as those found in soybeans, which have lots of concentrated protein. Our bodies aren’t capable of extracting the protein from soybeans unless they’ve been fermented and the proteins broken down into more-accessible amino acids.
Fermentation also adds nutrients. There are higher levels of B vitamins in fermented foods than in the raw foods they’re made from, and there are many unique micronutrients found in ferments that are only beginning to be understood. In fermented vegetables, compounds called “isothiocyanates” are actually thought to be anticarcinogens. Miso contains dipicolinic acid, a compound that functions as a magnet for heavy metals, carrying them out of the body. Nattō, a fermented soybean dish from Japan, contains a compound called “nattokinase,” which is used to prevent aneurysms and other blood-clotting disorders. There’s some speculation that it could help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
What I consider to be the most profound nutritional benefit of ferments is found in “live-culture” foods. These ferments aren’t cooked after fermentation, so the bacterial cultures remain alive. These acidifying bacteria are the same kinds of bacteria that we have in our gut that allow us to effectively digest food and extract minerals and nutrients from it. The bacteria in live-culture ferments also strengthen our immune function by creating a competitive environment, making it difficult for potentially pathogenic bacteria to establish themselves in our bodies.
Not all fermented foods contain live cultures. Some, like bread, must be cooked. Others, such as sauerkraut, are routinely canned for a long shelf life. That’s one reason why it’s great to make ferments yourself. If you don’t make them yourself, it’s important to make sure that what you’re getting is alive, so its bacterial population is intact. It’s more important than ever to replenish the bacterial populations in our bodies, because our culture today is fighting what I call the “war on bacteria.” Our weapons are everything from the chlorine in our water, to antibiotic drugs, to antibacterial cleaning products. All of these amount to a constant assault against the bacteria we need in our bodies in order to function effectively.
Crain: Do yogurt, sauerkraut, and other fermented foods and drinks that we buy at the store generally have live cultures?
Katz: Pretty much all yogurt that’s commercially available contains live cultures, and there’s a yogurt-industry seal on most containers advertising this. Most commercial sauerkraut has been pasteurized and canned, however, making it sterile. If you’re looking for live-culture sauerkraut, you need to read the label very carefully. You’ll typically find live-culture foods in the refrigerated section. Live-culture fermentation is a dynamic process, and respiration continues, causing pressure to build up in the food containers. Refrigeration slows that process. The old-world method was to sell these ferments out of open vessels that could breathe. The kraut or pickles would be put into a smaller container for you at the point of purchase.
I really encourage people to make their own ferments. When we make ferments at home, we are embracing the bacteria that we share our space with and inviting them into our bodies as allies. This integrates us into a larger web of organic relationships.
Crain: Do you consider fermented foods an important part of your personal healing and your health?
Katz: Before I answer, let me say that I’m not a strict practitioner of any type of diet. I eat pretty much anything. But I prefer food that is fresh, and especially food that is in some way alive. That’s the kind of food that makes me feel good and tastes best to me. I don’t suggest that anybody eat only live-culture foods, but I would say that eating fresh foods and ferments makes me feel better.
Some people think I’m promoting fermented foods as a cure-all or claiming that they cure HIV. I am not. There are some snake-oil salesmen out there. I’ve seen websites that tell diabetics that if they drink kombucha, their diabetes will go away. I think that’s terrible. Diabetics need to stay away from kombucha, which is based on sugar, though there are other wonderful live-culture foods that can enhance their overall health.
When I first came to Short Mountain, I was hoping that clean living and fermented foods would prevent my HIV from developing into any kind of symptomatic illness, but that was not the case. I had a period in 1999 and 2000 when I got really sick, and that convinced me to go on HIV medications, which I’ve been on for ten years now. I will say that almost everyone who takes these drugs experiences chronic diarrhea as a side effect, and I’ve thankfully never gotten that. To me that’s evidence that live-culture foods are keeping my digestive system in good shape.
Whether you’re healthy or living with a chronic disease, your digestion can be improved by the regular ingestion of live-culture foods. People with high blood pressure may want to make sure they eat low-salt versions. People with candida, a yeast overgrowth, should avoid ferments that are carbohydrate based. But in general live-culture foods can help improve anybody’s health.
Our culture today is fighting what I call the “war on bacteria.” Our weapons are everything from the chlorine in our water, to antibiotic drugs, to antibacterial cleaning products. All of these amount to a constant assault against the bacteria we need in our bodies in order to function effectively.
Crain: Not all fermented foods are health foods. Alcohol is actually pretty unhealthy, isn’t it?
Katz: I hesitate to answer yes or no. Alcohol has had an enduring role in many human cultures. And the alcohol level in fermented drinks maxes out at around 18 percent. The high alcohol content of liquor is a product of fermentation and distillation, a much more involved process.
I don’t think that alcohol is intrinsically unhealthy. I actually think that in moderation it can be very healthy. The problem is that it’s easy for people to become immoderate and addicted, but I don’t believe we should demonize alcohol the substance.
Crain: While traveling here, I reread Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. He writes: “Instead of bite the hand that feeds you, shake the hand that feeds you.” That seems to sum up the ideal relationship between grower and consumer.
Katz: Food is about a web of relationships. One of those relationships is with the farmer. In a biological sense the pursuit of food integrates us with our environment, but we have partly removed ourselves from that, and at great cost, I think. We need relationships with the animals, plants, and microbes around us. We need to get our hands dirty in the soil and interact with the web of life on a daily basis.
Crain: But if you eat only local, seasonal produce — and what you manage to preserve — don’t you get tired of eating the same thing all winter?
Katz: Sure. Before there were global corporations that brought pineapples and mangoes to your supermarket, there was less variety in any given place during any given season. There are rewards to that, though. A tomato is more special if you anticipate it for a few months before enjoying it. And when tomatoes are local and in season, they taste much better than the cardboard, flavorless tomatoes available in supermarkets year-round. Eating primarily what can be grown or preserved locally will definitely result in a more limited menu, but the food we do have will not only taste better and be more nutritious; it will also not carry the invisible price tag of environmental destruction and a huge carbon footprint.
Crain: What meaningful action would you like President Obama to take in terms of food?
Katz: The whole food-subsidy system is a scandal. I would love to see it reworked. The U.S. government is paying farmers to produce corn to be turned into syrup, which gets turned into the cheapest calories at the store, in products such as soda. That’s not an accident of the market. There are penalties against farmers who take acreage away from corn and other subsidized commodities to grow something else. Say you want to devote a few acres of your thousand-acre corn farm to diversified crops to sell locally; you’ll get penalized for taking those few acres out.
Crain: In the current recession do you think more people will turn to gardening?
Katz: Yes, seed sales last year were unprecedented, and a certain amount of that has to do with food prices going up and people looking to stretch a dollar. Less disposable income means that more people will have to rely on the informal economy that has always existed on the outskirts of the official economy: people growing food for themselves and trading it with other people.
Crain: In The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved you write that Americans on average spend about 10 percent of their household income on food, as opposed to 20 percent in Japan, 55 percent in the Philippines, and 70 percent in Tanzania. Why should our food be so cheap?
Katz: Because of our current economic crisis, food costs aren’t quite as low as when I cited those statistics. That aside, I think cheap food is a hallmark of economic stability. In a subsistence economy people are earning or producing just enough to feed themselves. The more developed an economy becomes, the fewer people have to work directly on the land producing food, and food becomes a relatively insignificant portion of personal spending.
Cheap food isn’t intrinsically bad. I love a bargain. But I think if food becomes too cheap, we stop valuing it. If we super-charge cows to produce more milk and give them recombinant bovine growth hormones, then we have cheaper milk, but that milk is of inferior quality and has an increased somatic-cell count, which means high levels of pus in the milk. The cows suffer, and our health suffers, all in the name of increased production and lower costs. And if we eat garbage food, we develop health problems and have to spend more to address our healthcare than what we save. It’s penny-wise and pound-foolish. If we value our health and well-being, we must be willing to pay more for better-quality food. We are worth it.
Eating primarily what can be grown or preserved locally will definitely result in a more limited menu, but the food we do have will not only taste better and be more nutritious; it will also not carry the invisible price tag of environmental destruction and a huge carbon footprint.
Crain: Large-scale producers use techniques to keep fruits and vegetables looking fresh for retail. Does this destroy flavor and nutritional value?
Katz: I don’t think we’re better off eating food that appears more vibrant than it is. Some fruits routinely get dyed in order to look better in the supermarket. There’s also irradiation: applying high levels of radiation to food in order to kill any bacteria present. Irradiation was developed by the Department of Energy, which is responsible for figuring out how to get rid of radioactive waste. As with any other form of food sterilization, we have to ask: What else are we killing along with the bacteria? And why are potentially dangerous bacteria on our food in the first place? The reason has to do with the conditions of factory farming: Residue of the manure from animals raised in confinement periodically gets on fruits, vegetables, and nuts, making people sick. So rather than cleaning up the methods under which this food is produced, the industry solution is to sterilize and irradiate everything. Irradiation means “dead” food, devoid of normal, healthy bacteria and enzymes. I think a better strategy is to deconcentrate agriculture. We’ll have fewer problems with contamination, and we won’t be tempted to sterilize our food.
Crain: If you could bring about a worldwide food revolution, what would it look like?
Katz: The revolution I would like to see is a devolution of agriculture. We have to let go of the notion of mass-producing food. It just doesn’t work. Cars and computers may lend themselves to mass production, but with food it has been a disaster. We have to revive small-scale food production and relearn the art of food processing, including fermentation, so we can stop relying on these huge and vulnerable food infrastructures.
The centralization of food systems creates the possibility that, if our food supply gets contaminated, hundreds or even thousands of people could get sick and possibly die before we figure out the source of the contamination. That’s just plain wrong. A few days ago we heard about salmonella in peanut butter. A few months before that it was tomatoes, and spinach a few months before that. Who knows what it will be next? A decentralized food system won’t make it impossible for contamination to occur, but it will make the source much more obvious, so the impact of a single contamination event won’t be nearly as big.
But food safety isn’t the number-one reason for changing the food system. I think the environmental destruction, the inhumanity to animals, and the lack of nutrients in the food being produced are ultimately more compelling arguments.
Devolving agriculture has to be a grass-roots effort. Federal policy changes will come later. There’s this notion that the fewer people who have to work the land, the better, because we’re free to do other things, but systems that enable one person to produce enough food for a thousand people are destructive. We need more people who want to get involved in growing food, and we need to match those people up with land and get them trained. There’s already an exciting revival of local farmers’ markets and a lot of promising signs that people are waking up and wanting to change our food systems.
© Matt Kollasch
Crain: You came upon fermentation rather naturally as a way to keep food from spoiling. What led you to teach others how to do it?
Katz: The desire started when I realized how afraid people are of bacteria and microorganisms. We think that bacteria in general are our enemies, that our lives would be better without them, but bacteria are a part of us. According to the theory of evolution, all forms of life come from bacteria, and no life-form has ever been able to live without bacteria.
Almost everyone I talk to about making sauerkraut has an underlying fear that if they do it wrong, they might make their family sick. It goes back to the fact that the local health departments say it’s intrinsically dangerous to eat perishable food that has been outside of refrigeration for more than four hours. That seems like a reasonable guideline for a restaurant to follow, but if you think about it, there were no refrigerators until about a hundred years ago, so it can’t be intrinsically dangerous for people to eat food that has sat out for more than four hours; otherwise our ancestors would all have died from food contamination. Instead they were able to figure out strategies to make their food more stable so it didn’t rot. And we can still use those methods today. Fermentation is not the only way, but it’s a good, healthy way.
Crain: What are some alternatives to fermentation for preserving food?
Katz: One is freezing, but it takes a huge amount of energy to keep food frozen, and some nutrients are lost from freezing and thawing as cell walls burst.
Canning is another method of preservation. A lot of us think of canning as a very old practice, maybe because we saw a grandparent or even a great-grandparent doing it, but canning was invented in the nineteenth century. A Frenchman named Nicolas Appert devised the process, and in France they call canning “appertization.” The problem with canning is that the food is sterilized using high heat. It’s an effective method for preserving food, but anytime you apply high heat to food, you destroy a significant portion of the nutrients and enzymes.
Drying is another method of preservation, but if you dry foods using high temperatures, then, again, you get diminished nutrients and enzymes.
I do a little bit of canning. I love to can tomatoes. I do a little bit of drying, too. I love to dry herbs to make teas. But fermentation is my primary food-preservation method, because it preserves food for a reasonably long time and maintains the most nutrients — and even enhances nutrients.
Crain: Which forms of food preservation do you think are most practical for people to do at home, especially in a small living space?
Katz: Fermenting vegetables is the easiest. If you want to can, you need a pressure cooker and a specific kind of sealable jar. If you want to dry foods, you need to buy a dehydrator. (You can dry them in your oven at high temperatures, but there’s that nutritional diminishment.) If you want to make yogurt, you need a starter culture. But fermenting vegetables is easy. All you need is a cutting board, a knife, a grater if you like, a little salt, some vegetables, and a jar. And it takes only as much space as a kitchen counter. Even someone in a tiny studio apartment or a dorm room can ferment vegetables. You just chop up the vegetables, salt them lightly, squeeze or pound them to force the juice out of them, stuff them into a jar, and press down until liquid rises to the top. That’s the key: submerging the vegetables for a few days, weeks, or months, depending on what flavor you’re after. Every time vegetables get submerged in liquid, acidifying bacteria grow, and there’s no possibility that something can go wrong and make you sick. It’s easy and safe, and you end up with something totally delicious.
Crain: Is sauerkraut the first fermented food that you prepared?
Katz: Yes, other than bread. I learned to make it when I moved to Short Mountain sixteen years ago, and I’ve made it continuously since. It’s become my trademark. At potluck dinners, when people ask what I brought, and I say, “Sauerkraut,” there’s always a little groan, as if to say, Doesn’t he know how to make anything else?
Crain: Most of your fermentation seems to use pretty lowbrow foods.
Katz: Well, I definitely don’t dislike foods that are highbrow, but I don’t have that much money, so I haven’t explored the world of gourmet foods too much. I love cheese — especially stinky cheese. And I’m just getting interested in cured meats, such as prosciutto and pancetta. I guess some people would consider that highbrow, but it’s all about perceptions. At one point in history a food could be considered peasant food, and then later it becomes gourmet. Lobster was fed to slaves in colonial America. Something like prosciutto might be fancy food these days, but it’s been peasant food for much longer. When you slaughter an animal, you need to eat off it for a long period of time. Poor people are the most innovative fermenters, because it’s a survival strategy. Later some of the ferments that are perceived as creating improved flavors get adopted by elites. But it’s always been necessity that has driven the innovation.
Crain: You mentioned that you attended the 2008 Terra Madre in northern Italy. How was it?
Katz: Exciting and overwhelming. Thousands of farmers, food processors, and educators from 154 different countries came together in a former Olympic building in Turin. I met some wonderful people who are reviving fermentation in other parts of the world, and we’ve kept in touch.
I do wish there had been more diversity. The focus was mostly on the same foods that already dominate the global marketplace. Local-food movements need to figure out what grows easily in each region. There are Tennessee vineyards struggling to grow grapes like the ones in Europe when there are other grape varieties that grow easily here, like scuppernongs. They produce a very different flavor of wine, of course, but we can’t all reproduce this gold standard of wine that originally came from somewhere in the Middle East. Reviving local food production means letting go of some of these tastes we’ve acquired through globalization and opening ourselves up to ingredients that we can grow easily wherever we are. The sign of a good cook is someone who can figure out how to make the most of what he or she has.
As a society we’ve gotten used to foods that are so processed they’re almost disguised. I see little kids eating these mini-carrots. I guess children are more receptive to those than to big carrots, but farmers are not growing mini-carrots; the big carrots are being carved into mini-carrots. (I hope they’re using the rest of the carrot that they’ve sliced away.) And there are pre-sliced apples and chicken nuggets. The flesh is separated from the bone, so we don’t have to confront the fact that it’s the flesh of an animal. We’re becoming used to all this unnecessary food processing. We have to reverse that. We have to teach our kids that carrots are not uniform and tiny.
Crain: What kind of food did you grow up eating?
Katz: My parents introduced me to fresh fruits and vegetables at a young age. Both were good cooks, and my dad was especially experimental and innovative. But I was brought up in the sixties and seventies, and we definitely ate our share of TV dinners and frozen chicken potpies. We were also living in New York City and availed ourselves of the restaurant culture. We ate Chinese food pretty regularly. I never saw anyone in my family do any fermentation apart from bread baking.
Crain: Can you tell me more about Short Mountain Sanctuary, where you live?
Katz: Short Mountain is an intentional community. There are fifteen or so of us living here right now, ranging in age from twenties to sixties. We all self-identify in some way as “queer,” but we welcome other types of people as visitors. We host potlucks twice a week, and a large circle of friends and neighbors come together at our place.
We maintain our water system ourselves, and our electricity is solar. We have a lot of food production going on, but I wouldn’t say that food production or even sustainability is the central organizing theme of our community. Some of us are primarily on a spiritual quest, and others are artists.
Reviving local food production means letting go of some of these tastes we’ve acquired through globalization and opening ourselves up to ingredients that we can grow easily wherever we are. The sign of a good cook is someone who can figure out how to make the most of what he or she has.
Crain: Does the sexual orientation of residents affect life at the sanctuary?
Katz: Well, sure. We have a lot of dance parties. [Laughter.] Our kitchen easily converts into a dance club. We even have a disco ball in there. One of our enduring cultural traditions is a room in our barn that we call the “goat boutique.” It’s like a communal drag closet where we put clothes we’re ready to share with the others. It’s not all drag finery — you can also find practical items to keep you warm or keep the water off — but it’s primarily a drag resource. I think everything about our community is informed by the special aesthetics that we bring to it as queer folks. On the other hand, the classic problems of communal living are really no different for us. Anyone living with a roommate knows that dirty dishes are the number-one issue: how much of a mess can people tolerate before they’re moved to action?
The most emotional decisions we have to make involve our animals: What’s appropriate medical care for an animal? At what point do you choose to end an animal’s life?
Crain: Are decisions by majority rule?
Katz: No, and sometimes our consensus decision making can be extremely slow, but that’s one of my favorite things about communal living: being forced to find common ground with people. It’s valuable work. It forces us to think about better ways of sharing resources and resolving conflict. I think the whole idea of the household as an autonomous entity is perhaps not sustainable.
Crain: The last time I talked with you, you were gearing up to make the switch to biodiesel. Have you made that switch, and, if so, are you converting spent vegetable oil, or are you using biodiesel produced from crops?
Katz: I did set up a biodiesel processor. I found a restaurant in Murfreesboro that was thrilled to have us take their waste oil, and I made quite a few batches. But I was away more than I was home, so I was pretty irregular about picking up oil, and the source dried up. Plus I found I wasn’t very suited to it. Processing biodiesel requires working with harsh chemicals and isn’t a sensuous experience. When I work with food, I love the smells, feels, and tastes. When I was working with those horrible chemicals, I had to avoid touching them and protect my eyes.
I think that a lot of the talk about biofuels is hype. Yes, it makes sense to turn used fryer oil into fuel, because otherwise it’s just going into the waste stream. Researchers are looking into making fuel out of algae — which isn’t being used as a food resource and is easy to grow. But the idea of turning corn and soy directly into fuel when there are people who aren’t getting enough food is convoluted and a net loss.
Still, we have to figure out ways to use less. Our lifestyles are going to have to change. Just think if suddenly there were no more refrigerators, how many fewer nuclear or coal-burning power plants there could be. That’s a huge energy hog in everybody’s home. I’m not preaching that we need to get rid of all refrigerators, but I’m not convinced it’s sustainable for everybody to have one. That’s why we need to keep alive the knowledge of how to preserve food without refrigeration. If we lose that knowledge, then people will really be in trouble when it becomes impractical for everybody to be running a refrigerator. We need to keep these skills and pass them down so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
Crain: In The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved you encourage people to become food producers themselves. How practical is that for most of us?
Katz: I don’t mean quitting your job and becoming a farmer, but if each of us could find one way to become a food producer, then we’d have produce to trade with each other. Everybody could be growing a couple of tomato plants or some herbs in their window. It helps us break out of this infantile role of consumers who expect someone else to do everything for us. If enough people don’t have a yard in which to grow plants, maybe it will force us to create more community gardens.
And of course anyone can buy food from local farmers. When you spend money at the supermarket — even if you just buy vegetables — only nineteen cents of every dollar ends up in the hands of a farmer. Eighty-one cents goes to this huge system that includes transportation and retailing and distribution and refrigeration and all of that. If we want farming to be sustainable, the farmer needs to get most of the dollar.
Crain: Are you working on another book?
Katz: Yes. In the years since I wrote Wild Fermentation I’ve had the privilege of hearing thousands of stories about people’s fermentation methods and experiences. It’s fascinating that we use the same word, culture, to describe both communities of bacteria and the totality of all human traditions. Fermentation appears in the myths of tribal peoples and even in the iconography of the dominant world religions. Fermented foods have historically had this magical power associated with them, a mysterious engagement with life forces. My new book, in addition to offering practical advice and troubleshooting information, will attempt to broaden the context of our thinking about fermentation as a force in both biological and cultural evolution. I feel strongly that these foods are not incidental culinary novelties. They are somehow at the core of what it means to be human.
I would love to spend the day in Sandor Katz’s kitchen [“Countertop Culture,” interview by Liz Crain, May 2010]. We have gotten too far away from wholesome food in this country. I was at a large supermarket recently and kept asking myself whether I could feed this or that product to my family in good conscience: MSG in soups, corn syrup in everything from sweet pickles to jam, and a two-inch-long list of ingredients for a bread that has the word nature in its name.