I get a lot of books for review, and for the most part, they are wonderful surprises. Because I receive and read so many books, I rarely sit around saying “Hey, where’s my review copy of…X?” Generally I’ve got a giant pile of books that I need to get to anyway, so I’m much more likely to say “Oh, I didn’t realize X was out.” So let us first note that I was so anxious for my review copy of Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation that I actually sent emails to beg for a copy – only to find that UPS had stuffed this book and another in a really weird place and it had been waiting for me for weeks.
Katz’s Wild Fermentation has had pride of place on my (ridiculously extensive, remember i wrote a book about food preservation) shelves of books on food preservation and storage. Not only does it sit there, but I pull it out ALL the TIME (which honestly cannot be said about most of my cookbooks) and after years of looking at it, still find new ideas. So to say I was excited to receive The Art of Fermentation, three times the size, hardcover and unbelievably comprehensive was an understatement.
It does not disappoint. If you are totally new to fermentation, I’d really recommend (unless you like to dive deep to start) that you start with Wild Fermentation which is much more accessible, but if you’ve made your pickles and sauerkraut and want to know what’s next, this will tell you ALL your options. It is astonishingly comprehensive and fascinating. It includes some revisions of the recipes in Wild Fermentation (I’m particularly excited about the revised suggestions for Nuka Japanese pickles, which I’ve never quite gotten right), as well as many, many, many new ones from cultures all over the world. It includes a lot of detailed information about what microbes you are seeking to attract and unbelievable amounts of knowledge from Katz and many other’s direct experience.
Fermented foods are a huge part of food preservation, a bigger part that most of us know. I think sometimes we underestimate fermenting as a means of keeping things alive because it doesn’t hold foods entirely in seeming stasis as canning or freezing do (yes, canned and frozen foods degrade too), which is what many of us really want. But what fermented foods do really well is work with the seasons to keep food cyclically – they are the ultimate preservers gift for people who want to be regularly engaged with their dinner.
I love Katz’s sense of balance as well – HIV positive, he explicitly repudiates overblown claims about fermented foods and their health benefits – while generally arguing that living foods are good for you. The distinction between “good for you” and “cures cancer’ is not that small, but it often seems to escape people in a culture that lives for hyperbole.
Katz asks you to try this stuff because it is cool, because it offers us access to our food past, because it tastes wonderful, because we co-evolved with these micro-organisms, because if you don’t do it yourself, this is food money literally can’t buy. He does not make excessive claims, but balanced and graceful ones. He will tell you if he thinks something tastes bad too, or doesn’t recommend something, but he won’t say “don’t try it yourself” – in fact, that’s what Katz wants to do – put the power to experiment with herds of microorganisms in everyone’s hands.
You will learn something (unless you are already incredibly knowledgeable about this) on just about every single page. I’ve been teaching fermentation for years, and I still had “aha!” moments over and over again in the book. I’ve rarely read a book that was as genuinely enlightening, inspiring and fascinating as this one. I can’t wait to make Acaraje, try some new Dosa recipes, make a new kind of fermented soy sauce, or try sourdough chocolate devastation cake.
Katz is impressively comprehensive, which probably means that there will be at least one thing that makes you go “Ugh” in the book – but would you want it any other way? One woman’s ‘ugh” is another man’s food of the gods, which, of course, is kind of the point.
Besides the incredible history, recipes, cool pics of the microorganisms you are playing with, ideas for experimentation and socio-culture of food (and there’s a chapter on non-food uses of fermentation from ethanol to inks as well), there is Katz’s basic manifesto – we are not better off, safer, healthier or happier when we hand off the tools of food production and preservation to others. In _Independence Days_ I argued that one of the reasons to keep on preserving food is that that’s what humans do and have done for all of human history – there has never been a moment when did not have to, want to devote ourselves to that work, and thus, it is part of us. Katz takes that argument even further, making the connection between culture in the biological sense and culture in the human sense fully explicit, and issuing a defense of cultures that most of us may not have even realized we needed. The erasure of things rendered invisible by industrial society is something that most of us don’t even know to miss, until we look up and wonder why our indefinable sense of loss is so vast. Katz takes the invisible world of cultures in every sense, and invites us to claim them and bring them home.
I don’t recommend my readers buy a lot of $40 hardcover books, and I recognize some won’t be able to – hie thee to a library with all deliberate speed!. If you can buy this book, however, you probably won’t be sorry you did.. It is many things, all of them essential to owning your food and preparing for a new future. We face a coming era of scarcity and loss – Katz offers us that chance to rebuild something, to own a part of our history that can be kept whole, if only we care to do it. It is well worth every penny, and I highly recommend it.