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The Politics of Fermentation

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2013 October Issue Newsletter

By Jeremy Ogusky

In Sandor Katz’s book, “The Art of Fermentation”, Michael Pollan writes that, “To ferment your own food is to lodge an eloquent protest against the homogenization of flavors and food experiences now rolling like a great, undifferentiated lawn across the globe. It is also a declaration of independence from an economy that would much prefer we were all passive consumers of its commodities, rather than creators of unique products expressive of ourselves and the places where we live.”

I couldn’t agree more! To ferment in your home is a counterweight to the rise of fast food and fast life. And making sauerkraut, kimchee, miso, traditional pickles, or other live fermented foods keeps us healthy. By eating these foods, which have live and wild cultures, we are promoting diversity among microbial cultures in our bodies and continuing ancient food traditions.

I have come to fermentation in a circuitous fashion. I have been a full-time studio potter for the past four years; previously, I worked in the public health world as a Peace Corps Volunteer, community health educator, and public policy advocate. And throughout I have loved tasty & healthy food. Fermentation, I believe, combines my varied interests nicely, as it lets me craft my own healthy food out of handmade vessels that I in fact created! I believe that good handmade, slowly-made sauerkraut using quality ingredients should be created in an equally high-quality, artisan-crafted fermenting crocks. And the crocks that I make are often stamped with the words ‘ferment’ and ‘foment’ on the sides. According to Merriam, “foment” means, “to promote growth or development,” and is synonymous with instigate, incite, or provoke. These words all nicely describe what is happening inside the crock, where microorganisms are fomenting, growing, creating lactic acid, and changing the veggies into nutritious & tasty fermented food.

On a deeper level, to foment can mean to provoke change as in, “fomenting a revolution.” And cultivating wild microorganisms in your food is revolutionary. It is a transformation of both our food and largely homogeneous food system. Fermentation--as the opposite of homogeneity and uniformity--helps us foment both health and diversity.

Making fermentation crocks has led me to lead fermentation demos around the Boston area as friends have asked me for short tutorials. It is great that fermentation is becoming rediscovered, and I am always happy to comply. The occasional workshop or demo inspired me to help spread the fermenting gospel to more folks--and so I organized the first ever Boston Fermentation Festival on September 28. With a small group of volunteers, we organized a successful festival attended by over one thousand fermenting enthusiasts!

This being Boston, we organized a speakers series with, among others, Harvard microbiologists, sake experts, and nutritionists all connecting the fermentation dots. We also had demonstrations by local chefs and fermentation aficionados; and we invited a dozen small local start-up fermentation-related businesses that sampled & shared their products. Authors also attended to speak and sign books and there was even a culture-sharing table where folks could swap starters. The festival was a huge hit that helped build community and introduce many people to something they could do themselves that is healthy & easy. And this is what I believe is the best of fermentation: the opportunity for folks to learn about and share their ‘cultures’, to learn from new people, and even to broaden our collective culinary and political perspectives! Learn more about the Boston Fermentation Festival at www.eglestonfarmersmarket.org/fermentation.

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