Ideologies of Fermented Foods

by Madeline Chera

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Abstract

Anthropologists have long noted that identification of organic materials as edible is quite culturally contingent, and this variability applies all the more to fermented foods, which have been modified by the activities of micro-organisms. Fermented foods bear multiple meanings, even within the Euro-American context. One position stems from the microbiology of Pasteur and Koch and the demands of a globalized food economy; here some fermented products are widely accepted as good to eat and hygienic, and others are feared for their potential to harbor microbes unchecked. Meanwhile, there is a contingent of home-based fermenters that views the small-scale production of foods like kimchi and kefir with wild bacteria and yeasts, as preparations of tasty and nutritious comestibles, but also as politically revolutionary acts. Both positions view fermented foods as desirable, but each idealizes a different provenance: one the factory, and the other the home kitchen. I argue that these understandings of microbe-altered foods symbolize the conflict between two political ideologies, with the home-fermenters positioning their products as stand-ins for the decentralized, fluid, and publicly-owned, against the nationalistic, tightly controlled, standardized, and privatized. In considering activist and author Sandor Ellix Katz as a case-study, we can observe how home-fermenters use their products as material and performative representations of localism, and see themselves as embracing flexible boundaries and recombinant identities. In tracing the historical pathways of fermented foods from early microbial science to today, we see how this position struggles to assert its legitimacy against the more institutionalized position it rejects.

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In a 1908 manuscript concerning rural science, the early bacteriologist, Jacob Goodale Lipman, writes:

The deepening current of human existence now forces us to study the bacteria and other microorganisms. In so far as they are dangerous to our health and happiness we must learn to defend ourselves; we must learn to destroy them or to render them harmless. In so far as they are beneficial, we must learn to control them and to make their activities widely useful to human society.[i]

In contrast to Lipman, we have the words of Sandor Ellix-Katz, a former activist who now teaches food-fermenting skills using wild cultures. Katz says, “Humans didn’t invent fermentation. Fermentation created us.”[ii]

The words of Lipman and Katz represent divergent conceptions of the relationship between microorganisms and people; in the first conception, I will argue, microbes, sometimes in genetically-engineered forms, are controlled in laboratory and factory settings to maximize health without compromising hygiene; and in the second, microbes, in their wild forms, are cultivated in home kitchens to improve personal health, but also in a community’s vitality and spiritual humility. The former perspective is linked with the authority of a centralized government supporting the interests of private industry, and this ideology dominates the latter perspective, which is accompanied by advocacy for decentralization, de-regulation, and public ownership. In my limited time today, I will review some of the major historical events and trends that have shaped both ideologies and consider the possibility that the view of food-fermenting microorganisms as being integral to human life is now gaining popular support or public recognition.

(Source: http://www.freedigitalphotos.net)

In stepping back to the nineteenth century, we arrive at a critical period in which Western science was exploring the world on new scales, using cutting-edge technology to investigate biochemical processes at the microscopic level. This period, in which the science of microbiology was established, has its roots even further back in time, beginning in 1675, when Anton van Leeuwenhoek first observed unicellular organisms, a finding that served as a great clue in the mystery of the fermentative mechanisms that have been mused upon all the way back to Aristotle.[iii] After centuries of dispute over the exact nature of fermentation and the entities that provoked it[iv], microbiology as we now know it finally reached the point of institutionalization in 1905. In that year, Robert Koch, the father of germ theory, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his work linking tuberculosis to a particular type of bacteria.[v] However, Pasteur intervened between these two historic events. Originally trained as a physicist and chemist, Pasteur now comes to mind as one of the most prominent figures in microbiology and bacteriology. And for good reason. One may define Pasteur’s career by his response to a centuries-spanning debate about whether disease and rot are spread through the contagion of mobile living beings or whether, instead, these are the results of spontaneous generation. In this debate and related ones, Pasteur was committed to the power of living, moving microbes, and he conducted numerous experiments in the latter half of the nineteenth century to prove this hypothesis.[vi] Some of the first of these microbiological experiments found Pasteur working with French vintners, beer brewers, and vinegar-makers, who were eager to understand why certain batches of their products were fermenting properly and yielding the desired results, while other batches produced only spoiled, sour slime.[vii] Pasteur’s work to understand the desirable sort of fermented foods helped him draw the connection between contamination by microbes and infectious disease, and as a result, mark clearly and in a way that seemed absolute the line between good microbes and bad ones. By 1859, he had already directly bound fermentation to infectious disease, writing, “Everything indicates that contagious diseases owe their existence to similar causes [as those in fermentation]”.[viii]

Science and technology studies and histories of science have illustrated that all scientific developments reflect the cultural contexts in which they were made, and indeed sociologist Bruno Latour has already shown that pasteurization, the process that made Louis Pasteur a household name, only seemed to be a sudden discovery, and in fact was the result of the confluence of other sociological and political factors.[ix] The political and economic projects of nineteenth century Europe shaped this breakthrough, and continue to shape our contemporary understandings of the interaction between microbes and human bodies. Pasteur discovered the process as a result of a commission by the Emperor Napoleon III to prevent wine spoilage, a threat posed to one of the burgeoning food industries of France at the time. Modern nation-states like France required standardized food production in order to expand export trade in the industrial capital system, while they also needed to identify and eradicate sources of disease among livestock, crops, and workers and soldiers. In order to achieve all of this, the organisms that challenged the mechanic reliability of the State’s living sources of wealth needed to be named and made visible, before they could be defeated. In order to ensure public recognition of these threats, and to shore up the support necessary to dominate them, scientists and political figures purposefully incited public fear of microbes based upon germ theory.[x] To institutionalize this fear, the European and American governments enforced hygiene through public policy.[xi]  Without “general laws” concerning bacteriology, which Robert Koch provided and Pasteur seized forcefully, and without the subsequent infrastructure provided by the state, the “increased circulation of goods and people” required by growing global capitalism would not have been possible to maintain.[xii]

Indeed, the relationship between microbiology and the interests of the capitalist state continues to be articulated in terms of control of microorganisms for the sale of industrial products. Ironically, the food and drug industries are now using microbiology research to market indigenous knowledge of fermented food preparations, in order to ameliorate some of the physically weakening effects of the extreme hygiene that followed from germ theory. Some studies have found that one way to address the ill-effects that hyper-sanitation has had on the human immune system and digestive system, is to follow the example of the almost innumerable groups, including the peoples of Egypt, the Balkans, India, Palestine, southern Africa, and elsewhere, who consume foods fermented with lactic acid-producing bacteria.[xiii] Since the U.S. Supreme Court patent case of Diamond v. Chakrabarty  granted rights to privatize microbial life,[xiv] companies have gained the power to own microorganism strains and patent fermentation-related processes and technologies, thus providing an avenue for microbiology to earn its keep and yield some profits. To aid in this, the marketing branches of commercial firms have shifted the terminology from “lactic acid bacteria” to “probiotics,” from “fermented foods” to “functional foods.” This shift in terminology thus indicates not only the survival of cultural fears of the microbe, but also the ideological privileging of the mechanistically utilitarian; in other words, only when microbes are controlled through the techniques of laboratory and factory science are they safe. Moreover, this shift is explicitly linked with the standardization and commodification of foods, even in the food science and nutrition research literature, in which the glorious future of lactic-acid bacteria (again, now “probiotics”) lies in the development of increased shelf life and the proliferation of fermented foods into packaged “energy bars, cereals, juices, infant formula and cheese, as well as disease-specific medical foods.”[xv] The framing of fermented foods as functional foods blurs the line between the home-based processes that humans have used to their advantage for millennia[xvi] and what nutritionist Marion Nestle calls “nutriceuticals,” or unregulated supplements that claim to bear the benefits of nutritious foods through the vehicle of highly technologized, packaged commodity drugs.[xvii] Just as industrial research into food fermentation has led to the privatization of microbial life and of community-based practices, so too the commodification of fermented foods into functional foods that are marketed globally and sold from the shelves of corporate grocery stores threatens to circumscribe access to those who cannot afford these products, by increasing standardization and regulation of microbial life. Through this process, Western individualism in the pursuit of capital protection continues to be reified, obfuscating the interdependencies between people and microbes.

This perspective, shaped by particular economic and political interests, is the dominant one in American culture today, but it is not the only one. In November of last year, The New Yorker featured an extensive profile of Sandor Katz, calling him “a self-avowed ‘fermentation fetishist,’ [who] travels around the country giving lectures and demonstrations, spreading the gospel of sauerkraut, dill pickles, and all foods transformed and ennobled by bacteria.”[xviii] His “deep devotion” to the “magical and mystical” powers of fermented foods might cause some people to write him off as merely an eccentric old hippie, but this would foolishly ignore one of the most prominent voices in a growing trend that the San Francisco Chronicle called a “fermentation frenzy” in 2009,[xix] and which has been documented in such popular magazines as Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, and Gastronomica,[xx] in the past two months alone (although the way this frenzy is framed varies between publications).[xxi]

(Source: Maggie Smith, http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=172)

Katz is clear about his love for fermented foods, yet, his purpose for writing books, making videos, and giving public presentations is not just to celebrate fermentation but to change the way Americans think about it. He makes a “case for microbial coexistence” by exposing the effects of what he calls our cultural terror of germs, effects which compromised immune systems and limited access to nutritional resources.[xxii] He sees the commodification and standardization of food choices offered in the global capitalist market as not only homogenizing locally variant human cultures, but also as restricting our abilities to connect with the natural world and with the resources for health we can find there, especially in microbes. In his books and in his public engagements, Katz positions food fermentation as a political activity that reasserts the value of independence from the oppressive authority of state and industry, and, more importantly, the value of interdependence within human and microbial communities. The low-tech, institutionally-unregulated wildness of food allows for creativity, openness, and the dissolution of boundaries, which Katz sees as part of the essential recognition of microbes as crucial to human survival.[xxiii] Katz sees himself as a passionate and active pacifist trying to bring peace and cooperation to a war between cultural beliefs and bacterial cultures.

It is true, not all home-picklers and drinkers of locally-produced kombucha share Katz’s mission. Doubtless the trend of home preservation finds many followers who are simply interested in participating in whichever activities bear the most cultural currency at the moment.[xxiv] However, there are many who do echo Katz’s sentiments quite closely, including Portland, Oregon’s Meetup.com social group called Nourishing Traditions, whose members are brought together by their interest in nutritious traditional foods. Goals of political reorientation, including cooperation and the toppling of hierarchal power structures, are covered in the two-sentence mission statement for the cooking and education club, and their slogan “tradition is the new rebellion” underscores their positioning of eating traditional foods, including fermented ones, as a political act.[xxv] 

Just as the industrial individualist ideology comes from a historical legacy, so too the contingent of home-fermenters-cum-community-activists-for-decentralization claim some roots. Theirs are in the American counterculture of the 1960s, in which young, mostly middle-class, white people reacted against the pesticides and additives associated with the “food-industrial-military complex” by “thinking primitively,” and avoiding anything that could be considered “plastic.”[xxvi] Members of the counterculture rejected mainstream food’s technological processing, wasteful packaging, and shiny marketing, and denounced the veiled connections between food industry, government, and military technology interests. Natural countercuisine developed by the counterculturalists embodied their concerns, which extended from morality to personal safety, from political sovereignty to epicurean enjoyment, from social diversity to ecology. In “enlisting benevolent ‘germs’” and “‘friendly’ contaminants” in their home-fermented products, which included kefir, tempeh, bread, and beer, these naturalists disavowed the enforced rationalization, standardization, and restriction that they perceived as the collaborative project of food science, industrial technology, and the State.[xxvii]

Today, home- and community-based fermenters are rejecting many of the same things, but instead of (or maybe, in addition to) repudiating war and racism, the contemporary contingent disavows the calculated circumscription of microbes because it threatens to render certain possibilities forgotten or forbidden. For Katz, what is lost is the social dynamic of the community that once practiced food fermentation on a local scale.[xxviii] The localization of fermentation in a small network of people contributes to the social cohesion of a group of friends and neighbors who care for each other’s health needs, healing and teaching each other through food, herbal remedies, and emotional support. This type of community-based health care system is not dependent on the legal ownership of life forms or directed toward the maximization of profit. Katz’s task in spreading the word about fermentation is to validate those community healing skills and the networks that practice them, promoting public recognition of community-based fermentation as a time-tested health strategy and the people who practice it as having legitimate authority in regard to their health. For Katz, wild fermentation is about “empowerment,”[xxix] and also about reconnection, both with other humans and with local microbes that are “our ancestors” and “powerful allies.”[xxx] We can, therefore, resist the commodification and homogenization of food by understanding our biological and ecological interdependence through fermentation and by asserting our abilities to work with the microorganisms and the people specific to out local environments to nourish and heal each other.[xxxi]

In these sentiments, then, we can see proponents of home-based food fermentation addressing the theme of control in a way that totally rejects the ideologies and systems of modern microbiology without naively promoting disease or ignoring the lessons of millennia of human experience. Control for Katz and for many other “wild fermenters” is about seizing control from the state and from industry, but it is not about relocating that control in the individual. After all, most of the DNA housed in a human body is the DNA of the microbes living there, a realization that profoundly challenges the concept of the individual. Rather than positioning human life as at war with microbes, and seeking to destroy “the bad ones” and dominate “the good ones” as Pasteur and his followers did,[xxxii] Katz urges us to recognize that such self/other and human/non-human boundaries are not only injurious practically, but ideologically dangerous.  As Katz admits, “Food can be a vector for the spread of a host of diseases, including bacterial food poisoning, such as from Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli,” and “Quick technological fixes have their appeal,” but technocratic approaches fail see human life’s interdependence on a complex network of ever-changing microorganisms. We are inextricable from the microbes from and with which we have evolved. Perhaps, then, whereas Pasteur and the early microbiologists envisioned themselves as champions of modernist science, rejecting the mystical traditions of alchemy and spontaneous generation, rebellious fermenters see themselves as harbingers of the postmodern. They would, as Katz indeed does, point to the fact that “fermented foods have a way of making boundaries in general somewhat fluid,” breaching the divide between life and death in the process of transformation.[xxxiii] In promoting home- and community-fermented foods, they are advocating for openness, intersubjectivity, and cultivation rather than domination.

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A version of this paper was presented at the Eighth Biennial Graduate Group Symposium at Bryn Mawr College in November 2011.
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Madeline Chera is a second-year graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University. Her current primary research interests are culinary practice, dietary diversity, and environmental knowledge in South India.
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[i]  Jacob G. Lipman, Bacteria in Relation to Country Life. (New York: MacMillan, 1908).

[ii]  As quoted in Burkhard Bilger, Natures Spoils: Feasting on Fermented Food with Katz, a Food Activist, The New Yorker Nov. 2010:104.

[iii] Joseph S. Fruton, Fermentation: Vital or Chemical Process? (Boston: Brill NV, 2006)

[iv] Ibid.; Nancy Tomes, The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

[v] Lois N. Magner, A History of Infectious Diseases and the Microbial World (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2009).

[vi] William C. Campbell. The Germ Theory Calendar, 2006. Accessed at http://germtheorycalendar.com/.

[vii] Tomes, 1998:30.

[viii] Campbell, 2007. Found in the record for Pasteur in 1859.

[ix] Bruno Latour, The Pasteurization of France. Alan Sheridan and John Law, trans. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988: 36).

[x] David S. Barnes, The Great Stink of Paris and the Nineteenth-Century Struggle Against Filth and Germs (Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 2008).

[xi] Latour, 1988.

[xii] Ibid., 30.

[xiii] Mike Battcock and Sue Azam-Ali. Fermented Fruits and Vegetables: A Global Perspective. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Agricultural Services Bulletin, 134. (Rome: FAO, 1998). S. Parvez, K. A. Malik, S. Ah Kang, and H.-Y. Kim, Probiotics and Their Fermented Food Products Are Beneficial for Health. Journal of Applied Microbiology (1996) 100:1171–1185. Carl S. Pederson, Microbiology of Food Fermentations. Second edition. (Westport, CT: AVI Publishing, 1974). W. Allan Walker, Olivier Goulet, Lorenzo Morelli, and Jean-Michel Antoine, Progress in the Science of Probiotics: From Cellular Microbiology and Applied Immunology to Clinical Nutrition. European Journal of Nutrition (2006) 45, Supplement 1:12.

[xiv] Nduka Okafor, Modern Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology (Enfield, NH: Science Publishers, 2007) 8-9.

[xv] Parvez et al (2006):1181.

[xvi] Solomon H. Katz. Food and Biocultural Evolution: A Model for the Investigation of Modem Nutritional Problems. In Francis E. Johnston, ed., Nutritional Anthropology. (New York: Alan R. Liss, Inc., 1987). Solomon H. Katz and Mary M. Voigt, Bread and Beer: The Early Use of Cereals in the Human Diet, Expeditions (1986) 28, 2:23-34.

[xvii] Marion Nestle, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. Revised Edition. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press 2007 [2002]), 318.

[xviii] Bilger (2010), 104.

[xix] Tara Duggan, Cultivating Their Fascination with Fermentation: Fermentation Frenzy Takes Over Home Kitchens, The San Francisco Chronicle 7 June 2009. Accessed at http://articles.sfgate.com/2009-06-07/food/17211395_1_fermented-kimchi-pickles.

[xx] Counter Culture, Martha Stewart Living Magazine, October 2011. 78-82. Sara Dickerman, Preserving Plenty, Saveur  October 2011, 68-75. Thomas Greene, Germs Preserve Us, Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, Fall 2011 11(3):60-67.

[xxi] For example, some representations of the re-embrace of fermented foods indicate that, for some, this trend is more about status and social distinction than about political reorientation. See Chi-Hoon Kim, Kimchimongers, The Indiana Food Review, December 2010. www.indianafoodreview.com.

[xxii] Sandor Ellix Katz, Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2003) 9.

[xxiii] Katz (2003):33.

[xxiv] Even on a Yahoo! group page dedicated to Microbial Nutrition, where one might expect to find committed acolytes of Katz, at least one outspoken and seemingly offended group member defied this expectation by summarily dismissing as inappropriate and distasteful a discussion about U.S. healthcare policy and the authority of the state to regulate the microbial makeup of citizens’ food. (Sally, Re: [MN] raw dairy ordered to destroy cheese – crosspost. In Microbial_Nutrition: Fermented Foods, Probiotics, Gut Health. Message Board Communication. Yahoo! Groups, 13 Oct. 2010. Accessed at http://health.groups.yahoo.com/group/Microbial_Nutrition/message/13234.)

[xxv] PDX Traditional Foods, Meetup.com group page. 2011. Accessed at http://www.meetup.com/TraditionalFoods/.

[xxvi] Warren Belasco, Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry, 1966-1988 (New York: Pentheon Books, 1989), 37-42.

[xxvii] Ibid., 41-42.

[xxviii] Sandor Ellix Katz, The Revolution Will Not be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2006), 205-206.

[xxix] Katz (2006):203.

[xxx] Ibid. 208.

[xxxi] Katz (2003):27.

[xxxii] Ibid., 19.

[xxxiii] Ibid., 33.

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