Q&A: Food Activist Sandor Katz

More and more, Santa Cruz is a hotspot for locally grown food: the county is dotted with small farms and farmers markets, it seems every third lawn has been ripped out to make space for growing food and our elementary schools are surrounded with edible gardens.

But what about the other traditions around food—how we preserve it, prepare it and enjoy it? How do these elements affect the health of our economy, our environment and our bodies?

These are the issues that interest food activist and fermentation specialist Sandor Katz. While Katz is most noted for his work around home fermentation through his books, workshops and speaking events, he frequently broadens the focus to bigger issues in our food system. Katz implores us all to break out of the role of consumer and reclaim an active place as producer in our food system.

Katz will share his food insights on Monday at UCSC, where he’ll host the talk “Fermentation: Coevolution, Culture and Community” at the newly opened Common Ground Center. The Center, in its first year of operation, aims to “create cultural change for social justice, environmental regeneration and economic viability.” Katz’s talk will delve into cultural aspects of fermentation, weaving the co-evolution of humans and microorganisms.

On Friday, Jan. 25, Katz will also be speaking at the EcoFarm conference in Asilomar, then hosting a World Cafe conversation there. The following Saturday, he will be hosting a workshop and fermentation feast at Happy Girl Kitchen in Pacific Grove. More information can be found on his website, He spoke to Santa Cruz Weekly about his philosophy and upcoming visit.

SANTA CRUZ WEEKLY: What do you think is important about home food production and processing?

SANDOR KATZ: With these everyday foods, I think it’s important to point out to people that there are qualitative differences in how they are produced. They are available as mass-produced commodities, and there are also versions that support our physical health, the health of the land and economic health. You can buy factory-produced, individually sliced processed cheese, or you can enjoy cheese in a much more traditional form, from local cows, eating grass on local pastures, transformed with indigenous microbes by local artisans. The traditional forms are very much tied into local environments, economies—all of the daily realities of the places where these foods are produced.


What is the benefit of these local economies?

We can’t rely on food resources to be shipped thousands of miles; it takes a huge amount of energy and is vulnerable to disruption. We have newer preservation technologies, such as refrigeration and freezing, that can make traditional methods such as fermentation seem antiquated. Right now, we have plenty of cheap energy to sustain household refrigeration. [With] all of this talk about peak energy, do we really want to lose the connection with the food that our ancestors ate, the traditions that enabled them to eat well and thrive? I think it behooves us to hold onto that wisdom, which is part of our cultural legacy. Each fermented food evolved in response to a particular environment. Each of us must find ways to reconnect with our environment and this vast cultural legacy. We can ferment foods at home, and we can also support local fermentation enterprises. And I hear that Santa Cruz has a great economy around this!


I really love how you bring out the rich cultural and historical contexts of foods. Do you have some favorite stories about these?

Just the other day, I got an email from a Russian woman who came across my book. She was telling me about the malted and fermented rye porridge that her grandmother used to make called solodukha. The word solud out of that means malt, and it also means sweet. Also, a particular style of soured milk called ryazhenka. It’s not that this story is unique, it’s that almost everyone across the world has a story of some fermentation practice that was in their family…These are poignant stories about traditions that were in families at one point in time, but have generally not been continued.


You draw beautiful lines between DIY fermentation and bigger issues in our food system. What are the connections between these two elements?

Fermentation exists in a broader context of our relationships to our food… and the cultural legacies of our ancestors. It is about trying to reclaim those connections. I would go so far as to say that agriculture would not be possible without fermentation. It is our ability to store crops that are ready at a certain time that enables us to rely upon agriculture for our food. As we have evolved with the crops and animals that we have now, we have also evolved with the microorganisms that live on them…Without them, it wouldn’t be possible to feed ourselves as we do. We need to reestablish this broad web of relationships that is embedded in the food we eat.

You have made a name for yourself as “the fermentation guy.” How did you get involved in fermentation?

My own interest in fermentation developed in a few different stages, the first being my childhood in New York City. As a kid, I loved fermented pickles; I was drawn to the flavor of the sour lactic acid. In my mid-twenties, I spent a few years following a macrobiotic diet. That diet puts some emphasis on eating fermented pickles to stimulate digestion. I experienced improved digestion and started noticing how fermented foods supported that. I didn’t really practice fermentation until I moved from New York City to rural Tennessee and started keeping a garden. I was presented with the practical necessity of dealing with all of this fleeting abundance. The cabbages were all ready at the same time…Faced with the challenge of what to do with them, I remembered how much I loved sour pickles and sauerkraut, and started experimenting. That led me into a bit of a personal obsession. I started combing resources for information. When I had my first opportunity to teach, around about 1999, I learned that there is a huge terror widespread in our culture: people are terrified of bacteria. They are afraid that if they do something wrong, they won’t be able to recognize it, and they might kill someone or themselves. I got interested in sharing the simplicity of fermentation, and demystifying it. From there, I wrote a zine about it. I got good feedback, then wrote my first book, Wild Fermentation.

Wild Fermentation is a how-to on fermentation. You just came out with a new book, The Art of Fermentation, last year. What was your objective in writing a second book?

Well, the thing about writing a book is that it ends up being a bit of a time capsule. Wild Fermentation is a great introduction to fermentation. When I wrote it, I had been fermenting for barely eight years. The publication of the book opened the door to many more opportunities to teach. With the teaching that I have done, I have had the ability to hear a lot of stories about fermentation in people’s lives, about the traditions of their families…And, of course, since The Art of Fermentation has come out, I continue to accumulate more information. The topic of fermentation, far from being a specialized niche, is actually vast, much more than I or any other single person could every fully master. It really is quite infinite and gorgeous. I love seeing all of the inventiveness people around the world have applied to fermentation.

If you had one message for the world today, what would it be?

I think that our system of food mass production, in which less than 1 person in 100 is a farmer, is completely unsustainable. The technology that allows people to produce food the way we do is very destructive. We need to break out of the confining role of consumers and become producers. We need to get more involved in our food.