Monday, August 19, 2013

Guest Speaker: Sandor Katz

by student blogger Leah

photo credit:

It’s not often that I wish I had a mustache, but when I encounter one like this…I am reduced to pure jealousy.

As a kid, Sandor Katz loved those tangy pickles that were famous in his Jewish NYC neighborhood: Kosher Dills. When he moved to Tennessee, he started growing his own vegetables in a garden and overlooked one small detail….when the cabbage was ready to be picked, all of it would be ready to be picked. For those of us who have only ever produced 10 lbs of tomatoes or carrots or cabbage or whatever produce in an entire season from a small kitchen garden, this may not seem like such a bad thing. It would be hard to be sad at the stunningly fresh 10 lbs of cabbage he had, but he didn’t have 10 lbs. If I remember correctly from his lecture, he had over 30 lbs. And that’s simply too much to be happy about eating alone before it all rots. So he made sauerkraut.

That first batch of sauerkraut started a long, beautiful journey with fermented foods. He is now a published author with his latest book, The Art of Fermentation, occupying a permanent spot on my coffee table. Sandor Katz speaks his mind about subjects and topics that are important to him and run the gamut from sourdough starters to the importance of living in a community in rural Tennessee. Some people disagree with him and he has been called a rabble rouser, but there is something insightful, inspirational, and respectful about his demeanor that should not be dismissed.

Soy sauce, beer, bread, wine, and yogurt are all examples of fermented foods that we encounter on a daily basis and they offer an expansion into a whole new realm of health and flavor possibilities that are not accessible to fresh foods. There are health and wellness benefits from certain fermented foods and also an opportunity to participate in traditions as old as time. Some people credit increased immune function and digestive health to the mystical powers of fermented foods.

Fermentation also plays a rich role in history and tells an important story for many people. Ancient Egyptians and Romans demonstrate the use of fermentation for beverages (mead, wine, or beer) and the significance of those ferments is evident in their use during ceremonies. Pieces of pottery from thousands of years ago exhibit their role as fermentation vessels.

In addition to addressing the history of fermentation, Katz also addressed the safety of fermented foods that is a top concern in our hyper-hygienic climate. People fear the fact that fermentation can make you sick and create toxins. That is entirely true. BUT, in all of recorded Food Borne Illness in America there has NEVER been a case of illness from fermented vegetables. How bout them apples?

So what brings this fine gentleman to our neck of the woods? Well, every once in a while the CIA hosts different speakers as part of the Dooley Lecture Series held in our Danny Kaye theater. There doesn’t seem to be a strong pattern for who gets the pleasure of addressing a room full of white chef jacket-clad students but one thing is always the same. The speaker is always interesting and has something important to say, Sandor Katz was no exception.

photo credit: my basic cell phone

Fermentation is a magical process that transforms humble foods. It takes patience and practice, but the important part is to start experimenting. I could not be more thankful to that initial abundance of cabbage, because out of that abundance a fermented food guru was born.

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