An Unseen World: A Reading List about Fermentation

Ferments are found in every culture and cuisine on earth, and the history of their production is deeply interwoven with our own. 

By Julia Skinner

Long before we were human, we were microbes, and from a common ancestor we evolved into the many creatures that led to us being who we are today. But our relationship to the microbial world is not in the past, and while the COVID-19 pandemic has brought one aspect of that interconnection into sharp relief, it is not the whole picture. Beneficial microbes make up our microbiome, which serves as one foundation to our physical health, but they also make our world more delicious, more fizzy, and more fun.

We eat and drink fermented foods every day, shaped by what fermentation expert Sandor Katz calls “the transformative actions of microbes” that give us cheese, coffee, black tea, tempeh, cured meats, soy sauce, alcohol, miso, vinegar, fish sauce, and a host of other foods. Ferments are found, to varying extents, in every culture and cuisine on earth, and the history of their production is deeply interwoven with our own. 

I began my own fermentation journey over a decade ago, as an answer to the question of how to put up the bumper crop of cabbages in my garden. Over the years, my practice has blossomed to include koji (the mold used for miso, shoyu, and sake, among other things), cheesemaking, yogurt, alcohol, vinegar, and an assortment of pickled fruits and veggies. I begin each and every day with fermentation, incorporating it into a mindfulness practice as a key moment of my morning routine: one that’s just for me, and lets me practice curiosity and play with abandon.

Fermentation has given me the gift of a beautiful community, too, and I’ve been lucky to spend time learning and teaching alongside some of the people whose writing inspired this list. 

My hope is, in reading it, you find a way to plug into that community yourself, or to dive deeper into your fermentation explorations. There are many resources out there that investigate the what of fermentation, including the process and how to make certain dishes. But here, we’re focusing on the why: These pieces all highlight the wondrous, almost magical process of fermentation, and perhaps will inspire you to make some fermentation magic of your own. 

Fermentation as Metaphor: An Interview with Sandor Katz (Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, Emergence Magazine, October 2020)

Sandor Katz self-describes as a fermentation revivalist, and his work has been central to stoking the fires of our fermentation fascination in recent decades. He is a prolific author on fermentation, whose work is engaging and accessible while also tapping into his deep expertise on the subject. Wild Fermentation, his first book, is a classic, while Art of Fermentation offers a deeper dive into the contexts and histories surrounding fermented foods. At his mountain home in Tennessee, Katz hosts fermentation residencies, where students learn and create alongside him. These residencies have been life-changing for many people, myself included: Without this opportunity to engage with the fermentation community, I would not have given myself permission to pursue fermentation as an author, or to have space to find a Queer culinary community.

Katz’s Fermentation as Metaphor touches on the magic and mystery of fermentation, using it as a lens to better understand ourselves and our world. The book is mind-blowing in the best way, exploring transformations on a microscopic level to understand and perhaps even reimagine the world we can see. 

In this interview with Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, Katz talks about the book and his approach to his work, and I like that it touches on so many of the things that make Katz special: his view, for example, of fermentation as subversive and radical in an era so heavily reliant on monocultures and convenience foods. For Katz, fermentation helps us move from these large-scale structures to human-scale ones, and nourishes and excites us in the process. The interview also weaves in history, culture, and a bit of magic, showing how wide-ranging our connection to fermented foods really is. 

“Cultivation,” “culture,” these words—our sense of what we can cultivate maybe has changed over time but this word that sort of originates with cultivating the land in order to grow crops has so many more broader applications. We cultivate certain values in our children that we want to manifest in the next generation. Culture is any information that we pass down from generation to generation, so whether that is the language and the meaning of the words that we’re using or our values or belief systems.

Or very practical information: how do you grow carrots? How do you grow squash? What is the season? When do you plant those seeds? When do you harvest those? How do you cook those? How do you ferment them? All of this is cultural information and it’s not that any of it is, in terms of cultivation, none of it is metaphorical. I mean it’s all important things that we’re seeking to pass down from generation to generation that are outside of our genes.

And of course we talk about yogurt cultures and introducing a culture in the ferment. So in the cultivation of microorganisms on our food—which is what we’re doing in fermentation—we use the same word, “culture,” to describe the community of bacteria that turn milk into yogurt that we use to describe language, belief systems and the totality of what we’re trying to pass down generation to generation.

Fizzy Change: The Sounds of Fermentation (Grace Ebert, Hii Magazine, November 2021)

Fermentation engages all our senses, and the act of making ferments is anything but passive. When we massage salt into cabbage, for instance, we smell, watch, and taste to check our ferments’ progress — connecting with our food as it transforms. Fermentation also piques our auditory sense, as Grace Ebert explains in this piece, and a shelf of active ferments is a sonic landscape unto itself: Burps and bubbles and hisses and pops all speak to the unseen world, bringing life to our food. Ebert’s article examines the different ways that fermentation appears in art, using Lauren Fournier’s Fermenting Feminism as a starting point, and explores how the sounds of ferments — and the metaphors Katz explores in his book — can all weave together to make something strikingly beautiful and deeply thought-provoking. 

Fermentation, in essence, both embodies and is a catalyst for further change, and it’s when we hear the fizzing and gurgling of a pressurized substance that we perceive transformation is underway. Speaking metaphorically, when centuries-long, structural issues bubble up into mainstream discourse, it’s apparent that change, albeit sometimes slow and incremental, is in motion.

The Social Life of Forests (Ferris Jabr, The New York Times Magazine, December 2020)

We are (in part, at least) product of and partners with fermentation, and so too is the world around us. While we harness fermentation for food and drink, it is a living, natural force: a collaboration, not a one-sided creation. When we ferment food, we’re participating in a partnership that stretches back before recorded history; I often say that fermentation is ecological, because it is intrinsically tied to the natural world, and microbial communication takes place well beyond our kitchens.

Microbes are at the root of healthy soil, the root of animal digestion and the root of, well, roots. In forests we have a couple of interesting things happening: Microbes in the soil break down organic matter, producing the nutrients needed for plants to thrive. And then other microbes, forming dense mycelial networks, move these nutrients to where they need to go. Definitely a moment of microbial magic!

Mycelial networks, first described by forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, connect all major terrestrial ecosystems, making fungi the literal lifeblood of the world we see above ground. I have been enamored with Simard’s work for years, and with her willingness to take a risk to study what she knew to be important: When she started her research, few of her colleagues understood what she was doing or why. But Simard, who saw monoculture forests failing on the same land where diverse old-growth forests had thrived, knew there was an answer in the soil, and her team explores it through scholarly articles like Mapping the Wood-Wide Web, and through her new book, Finding The Mother Tree. 

This interview with Ferris Jabr takes a closer look at her work and into her as a person. I stepped away feeling like I knew the person behind the work a bit better, and had a more intimate understanding of how the unseen world influences what we see. 

An old-growth forest is neither an assemblage of stoic organisms tolerating one another’s presence nor a merciless battle royale: It’s a vast, ancient and intricate society. There is conflict in a forest, but there is also negotiation, reciprocity and perhaps even selflessness.

The trees, understory plants, fungi and microbes in a forest are so thoroughly connected, communicative and codependent that some scientists have described them as superorganisms. Recent research suggests that mycorrhizal networks also perfuse prairies, grasslands, chaparral and Arctic tundra — essentially everywhere there is life on land. Together, these symbiotic partners knit Earth’s soils into nearly contiguous living networks of unfathomable scale and complexity. “I was taught that you have a tree, and it’s out there to find its own way,” Simard told me. “It’s not how a forest works, though.”

English Horse Bread, 1590-1800 (William Rubel, Gastronomica, Summer 2006)

One of my favorite parts of studying fermentation is how many surprising small moments it contains. These little gems come up often in my research on fermentation (did you know, for example, that ketchup comes from fish sauce?), but I also encounter them in conversations with fellow fermenters. Perhaps your own history contains a fermented food that’s tied to a strong family memory (for me, it’s Amish friendship bread, among other things), or one that sparked a moment of exploration or discovery. 

Related Read: Benjamin DuBow on the ritual of making challah bread with his own hands.

The fermented foods we make do not just nourish us — we use fermentation to add nutrition to the grains we feed animals or to the amendments we add to our soil, and in these acts we find surprising historical gems, too.

William Rubel, an expert on the history of bread, wrote this piece in 2006, and I first encountered it when doing research on 17th-century author Gervase Markham. I revisited it recently, and fell in love again with Rubel’s writing — particularly his ability to make an unwieldy subject compelling to the reader. Horse bread, which as you might guess is bread made for horses, was an important part of English horse care in the early modern period. More nutritionally dense than hay or grains, it was considered such an important part of English transportation infrastructure (remember, transportation back then ran on the backs of horses!) that it had its own laws. English law recognized two classes of bread — bread for people and bread for horses — and the latter were heavily regulated, being a critical source of nutrition for the country’s horses. Leavened breads were, as Rubel writes, “elite breads for elite animals,” and were widely in use for centuries. His opening paragraph sets the stage:

In the summer of 1415, the Aragonese ambassadors on their way to the court of Henry v purchased horse-bread every day, spending more on horse-bread than on practically anything else. Don Quixote bragged to an innkeeper that his horse was the finest that ever ate bread. Thomas Nugent, writing about pumpernickel in 1768,relied upon his readers’ association of horse-bread with travel to introduce the still- repeated absurdity that the name was coined by a Frenchman at an inn who complained that Westphalian black bread was unsuitable for himself, though “qu’il étoit bon pour Nicole,” his horse; and the writers of the Oxford English Dictionary, when they published the letter h in the closing years of the nineteenth century, appended to their definition of “horse-bread” the factual statement, “Horse-bread is still in use in many parts of Europe. 

Lost in the Brine (Miin Chan, Eater, March 2021)

The fermentation industry is always moving and changing, and its transformations can serve as metaphors not only for our world as it is, but for the world it might become. Miin Chan’s writing brings to light an issue in the world of fermented food production, and in our conversations around fermentation: lack of diversity, cultural appropriation, and the role of fermentation companies in gentrification. This manifests in a variety of ways, from the language we use to describe our food (for example, calling tibicos “water kefir”) to the fact that white producers and authors are often given greater access to funding and media attention, particularly if products are rebranded and divorced from their cultural roots. In this piece, Chan asks us to consider the world of fermentation as it is so that we can build something stronger: one connects our foods to the traditions, people, and place in which they’re rooted. 

Wherever you look, you’ll see that the fermentation industry in the West (meaning North America, the U.K., Europe, and Australasia) is dominated by mostly white fermenters, who often sell whitewashed BIPOC ferments and associated white-gaze narratives about these foods to mainly white consumers. This dearth of diversity is problematic in and of itself, but it’s worsened by the fact that white fermenters are commoditizing ferments that are ingrained in the cultural identities of BIPOC, whose centuries-long labor developed and refined the microbial relationships required to produce them.

Naem: The Art of Fermentation with Sticky Rice (Jenny Dorsey, Life and Thyme, January 2019)

The art of fermentation gives us a wealth of metaphors, inspiration, and transformations as we try to understand the world around us, but it also functionally provides us with food that’s delicious. In other words, while the process of fermentation as a whole is magic, the taste of ferments is magical, too: savory and sour in a way non-fermented foods could only dream of being. In the hands of a skilled writer like Jenny Dorsey, that magic translates onto the page. I love this piece because it combines the how-to of fermentation with the pure pleasure of reading beautiful words about a beloved dish.

Five days, the color of the ribs have deepened considerably and the once-thick paste has unwound. I cut open the bags and take a whiff of its contents. The pungency of the garlic is gone, replaced by mellow sour notes accentuated with a pleasant, sake-like scent. I grill up each rib with great relish, every window in my apartment flung open, the char of meat and rice filling my nostrils and eyes. It takes another hour to finish the cooking process, but it’s all worth the work for that first bite: sour and salty, with an umami-rich fragrance that keeps me salivating and craving more.

Further reading:

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Julia Skinner, PhD is a fermentation enthusiast, food historian, and author of Our Fermented Lives: A History of How Fermented Foods have Shaped Cultures and Communities. She teaches classes and offers consulting through her business, Root, and writes about history, food traditions, and fermentation in her newsletter. You can find her on social media @rootkitchens and @bookishjulia.