Third-year university in 1983, and things started to click.
I was bored, angst-ridden and wondering what am I doing here.
Then I took an industrial microbiology class.
(And no, Michael Pollan didn’t invent bragging about fermentations either).
The next year I took a virology class and suddenly realized: we humans are hosts on a microbiological planet.
The way these bugs move genes around, invade others, and have been crucial to the evolution of humans has intrigued me ever since.
Kim Painter of USA Today writes that Americans used to find yogurt yucky. But the creamy dairy food long ago joined beer and cheese on the list of our favorite things produced by fermentation — an ancient preservation process in which bacteria transform food and drink, creating new flavors and, many consumers believe, enhanced health benefits.
So maybe it’s not surprising that thousands of people now show up at fermentation festivals around the country to make sauerkraut and sample kombucha teas, Korean kimchi and Japanese natto. The same folks flock to pop-up “kraut mobs” and study books such as Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation, both by the movement’s guru, Sandor Katz.
“I would say that virtually every event I do these days is at capacity, and I’m not accepting every invitation. I can’t physically do it,” Katz says. He spoke from China, where he was on a quest for more fermentation wisdom.
Fermentation is the hottest trend in plant-based eating, according to recent survey of registered dietitians by The Monday Campaigns, a non-profit organization that promotes healthy lifestyles.
Jeremy Ogusky, a Boston pottery maker, sees it firsthand as founder of Boston Ferments, the host group for a summer festival that drew a few hundred people four years ago and 14,000 this year. “It’s just grown every year,” he says. “It’s kind of crazy.”
And what about safety, especially for foods fermented at home? After all, the process typically requires leaving jars of foodstuffs sitting out for weeks, without the final sanitizing steps used in standard canning. (Heat processing can be added for some foods, but purists generally frown on that.)
The history of fermentation, especially with vegetables, is mostly reassuring. When properly done, fermentation produces acids that kill most worrisome microorganisms, says my barfblog.com friend, who also shares a love of fermentations, Benjamin Chapman, an associate professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University.
“We have lots of data showing that if you get the correct pH drop, the correct acidity level, you can create a really, really low risk product,” he says. But he says risks are not zero, and some cases of home fermenters making mistakes and creating unsafe foods have been reported. That’s why he urges people to use only long-tested recipes and techniques.