First appeared on Food Riot, by Amanda Feifer
Do you hear that buzzing sound? It might be the sound of everyone talking about fermentation. Or maybe it's the pressure being released from my crock of sauerkraut. Nope, it's definitely people talking about fermented foods. If you want to be in on the conversation, here are a few things you should know about the fermentation trend:
1. Fermentation is not a trend. Fermentation predates written history, and probably predates human history and the history of all of the more complex forms of life on the planet. It has definitely been in popular use by humans for millennia and there are even animals that intentionally ferment their food (here's looking at you, pentailed tree shrew). So I'm waiting for the day when a hipster tells me that they liked kimchi before it was cool so that I can share the documented evidence of kimchi's thousands of years of rich and diverse history. Then I will kick said hipster in his kimchi-hating mouth.
2. Fermentation isn't preservation. Ok, fermentation is sometimes preservation. However, there are some kinds of fermentation that have nothing to do with making a food last longer and everything to do with making the food healthier, boozier or more delicious. So if you're expecting to put something in a jar or crock and come back to a fresh batch of whatever in a year or two, you've chosen the wrong preservation method. Some ferments take a long time (others do not) and some forms of fermentation will slow the inevitable decay of your food, but they are all living foods, so expect them to change throughout the fermentation process and even after you have stored them. Like all living things, they will change, mature and, eventually, die.
3. Microbial life is a thing. A good thing. So put down the hand-sanitizer. Bacteria are an essential part of many kinds of fermentation. Actually, bacteria are an essential part of human life. I'm not a person who thinks we shouldn't ever use anti-biotics. I think they're pretty great when I have strep throat. But when I hear that someone is taking antibiotics for a cold, I start getting my hipster-mouth-kicking foot ready for action. It appears that we've done some solid damage to the human ecosystem through the overuse of antibiotics and the targeting of "good" or "neutral" bacteria in and on the body, and the evidence on that seems to be mounting every day. Your body contains ten times more bacterial cells than human cells. You are bacteria. Hate bacteria, hate yourself.
4. Fermented foods probably gained popularity because they taste amazing. It stands to reason that if people were fermenting something a super long time ago, they were doing it for a reason and it wasn't just preservation (see number two above). I'm guessing that reason was flavor. If you only got to eat bland, maggoty scraps of bread or chunks of rice and someone came along with a perfect sauerkraut or pickle, you'd be like, "What is this magic? Give me more!"
5. You already love fermented foods. Freaked out by the thought of ingesting all those bacteria and wild yeasts? It's the sad trombone for you then, my friend. You are eating them. Unless you eschew bread, beer, cheese, wine, vinegar, soy sauce, sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, miso, yogurt, chocolate and a whole host of other wondrously flavorful foods, you are already getting some ferment in your diet. So why not add some more of the homemade variety?
6. It's not just for hippies anymore. Some very serious people are very into fermentation: think Jean-Georges, David Chang and Marc Vetri just for starters. Besides being hip chefs and masters of their trade, these guys, and so many of their peers, cure meats in-house, make cheeses in-house or pickle their own vegetables. It's not just them, though. The press loves fermentation now, too. NPR, The New York Times and many other laudable news agencies have done lots of writing about ferments in the past year, with nary a "nourishing" descriptor in sight. (PS-Hippies are great and I love being nourished.)
So keep an eye on those menus. I bet you'll be surprised by how many fermented foods you'll see there if you know what to look for.
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