The Rotten and the Sublime: A Reading List on Fermentation

Fermented products occupy a strange spot in contemporary food culture, being at once some of the most enduring staples of our diets — and some of the most faddish. From the fizzy kick of kimchi to avant-garde culinary experimentation in Copenhagen, here are five stories about our fascination with (and, sure, addiction to) deliciously rotten food.

1. “Why Bakers Love Their Mothers.” (Dana Goodyear, Food & Wine, November 2013)

Some of the oldest sourdough starters, dubbed mothers — “the bubbling, breathing slick of wild yeast and Lactobacillus bacteria that feed on flour and water” — date from the 19th century and are passed, like a heirloom, from one generation to the next. In this piece, Goodyear lingers on the moving emotional connections bakers develop with the bacteria in their kitchens.

2. “Fun with Food.” (Corby Kummer, MIT Technology Review, October, 2014)

Reacting to the excesses of modernist cuisine, a group of food experts gather in the Nordic Food Lab, located on a houseboat in Copenhagen, where they push the boundaries of what we might consider edible (let alone tasty). From fermented grasshoppers to ground koji, their lab kitchen buzzes with innovation — and microbes.

3. “In Search of the Great American Beer.” (Natasha Geiling, Smithsonian Magazine, July 2014)

Beer might be one of the most ancient fermented drinks, but amid economic, political, and cultural tensions, American beer might be on the cusp of a revolution. Geiling traces the recent history of neomexicanus, a native cultivar of hops, and, along the way, gives us a snapshot of the contemporary craft beer scene in the U.S.

4. “Nature’s Spoils.” (Burkhard Bilger, The New Yorker, November 2010)

Shadowing Sandor Katz, a “fermentation fetishist” and leading food activist, Bilger explores the underground food movement, a cultural phenomenon uniting sauerkraut aficionados, raw milk drinkers, roadkill eaters, and dumpster divers across North America.

5. “The Art of Kimchi.” (Mei Chin, Saveur, October 2009)

“There’s a word in the Korean language, sonmat, that translates roughly as taste of hands; it denotes an elusive but essential element of the country’s traditional foodways.” Scouring home kitchens and artisanal manufacturers, Chin tries to capture the essence of kimchi, the centuries-old linchpin of Korean cuisine.