Fermentation and Food Justice: Q&A with Sandor Katz

Sandor Katz, celebrated fermentation revivalist and author, recently released a revised and updated edition of Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods. On October 19th, the Tisch Food Center at Teachers College and Just Food are hosting Sandor for a demonstration, discussion and book signing (tickets and more info here). We caught up with Sandor to share his thoughts on the intersection of fermentation and food justice. 
Just Food: You’ve written about the word ferment as both a biological and social process of transformation. Can you tell us more about how you connect personally as a fermentor to social movements?
SK: The word ferment is used to describe metaphoric bubbling of ideas as well as literal bubbling of foods and beverages, for instance social ferment. cultural ferment, creative ferment, religious ferment, intellectual ferment, political ferment, etc. Fermentation is by its nature transformative. You take a product of agriculture and through microbial action turn it into something different and better: grapes into wine, milk into yogurt or cheese, cabbage into kraut. Fermentation is an essential element of how people make effective use of their food resources, manifesting in distinctive ways in culinary traditions everywhere. In the contemporary context of food mass-production and the severing of our connection to land, plants, animals, food production in general, and all the tradition and skills that come with that, fermentation has become an act of cultural survival and resistance. The fermentation revival is a social movement, and engaging in relationships with microorganisms transforms us and reverberates in bigger ways. Fermentation is not an end, but rather a means to becoming more connected to the multiverse in and around us, and dedicating ourselves to being agents of change. We are starter cultures.
Just Food: At Just Food we see access to culturally appropriate food as a big piece of food justice. Can you tell us a story of where you’ve seen people connect to the cultural value of food through the craft of fermentation?
SK: Fermentation is an integral aspect of food cultures almost everywhere. Sometimes it is the thing that gets someone interested in exploring their roots. Or sometimes vice-versa, an interest in exploring traditional food culture gets someone thinking about fermentation. Years ago a young Korean-American woman sent me pictures of making kimchi with her mother, an event of family reconciliation after some years of estrangement. Recently a young Mohawk woman interested in helping her people reclaim their traditional food culture came to one of my workshops to try to piece together ways that her people might have used fermentation before so many of their traditional practices were lost. A young Senegalese immigrant who came to one of my workshops was so thrilled that I asked him about samboula, a fermented legume condiment important in Senegalese cuisine, that he sent me some that a relative had brought from Senegal. When I led a discussion about fermentation with incoming foreign students at the University of British Columbia, the staff remarked at how the topic got so many students from so many disparate lands talking to each other about something they all have in common. Over and over, I get to see how fermentation affirms culture and cultural identity.
Just Food: You’ve written about the impacts of policy on small-scale agriculture and the production of traditional foods. What are some the top policy issues affecting our food system that you feel should be priorities for the good food movement?
SK: We must encourage more smaller-scale food production, in terms of both agriculture and all forms of processing. It is healthier for us and healthier for the land, the water, and even for the economy. We can do this by shifting subsidy programs to encourage smaller scale diversified production, with zoning to protect farmland in and around cities, with purchasing policies that encourage local procurement by public and private institutions, and more. As we encourage greater local food production, we must also expand access to good food with mobile markets, farmers markets in dispersed locations, multiplying the value of EBT for farmers market purchases, prioritizing healthy school food, and more. The policy issues are definitely not simple or easy, but with clear objectives, there are many policies that influence the quality of the food available to us. That said, we cannot wait for policy-makers and we must support local producers and grassroots movements for a fairer, healthier, and more sustainable food system.
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Photo by Sean Mintehsm