Culture and Relationships
from Julia Skinner's 'Our Fermented Lives'
I am excited this week to share an excerpt and two recipes from Dr. Julia Skinner’s new book, Our Fermented Lives. Yes, it is a cookbook that contains dozens of recipes both basic and inspired, but even more importantly, it investigates the stories behind the myriad ferments that are a fundamental and essential feature of human life. The goal of the book isn’t simply to inspire and teach the reader to ferment foods and beverage for enjoyment, nutrition, and health—though it does all that too—but to show how fermented foods have sustained and shaped us all, throughout human history and in every culture.
Julia has shared the introduction to the book, which tells her own journey to becoming an enthusiast and a historian of fermentation, and sets the table for the recipes and stories that follow, along with two recipes, one for cultured butter, and another for the Ethiopian flatbread injera. I haven’t made either of these yet, but both have been on my to-do list for ages now, and I’m glad to now have Julia’s expert hand to guide me.
I’ve also got a copy of the book to give away to one lucky (paid) subscriber. If you’d like dibs on it, please leave a comment below and share your favorite fermented food projects (other than bread). I’ll select the winner at random on 10/12 at 9am EST.
Culture and Relationships
Fermentation trains us in seeing the ground as inherently shaky. It makes visible the invisible potential of those things that seem still.
—MERCEDES VILLALBA, MANIFIESTO FERVIENTE
Every fermentation enthusiast remembers their first ferment. Maybe they don’t remember the first time they ate fermented food, but each person I’ve spoken to has a story of what they made and why, and ultimately how that one simple step into the world of fermentation launched a lifetime of experiments—both beautiful and maddening (or both)—and opened up a world of new flavors and textures to explore.
For years, I thought that sauerkraut was the first fermented food I had ever made. In my early 20s, running into the age-old problem of what to do with a garden of produce that ripens all at once, I turned to sauerkraut as the answer, upon the advice of a farmer friend. Soon whatever container had been empty in my kitchen was filled with living foods, all bubbling away on the counter. Those I didn’t refrigerate fresh and eat soon were canned and given away as gifts or consumed later, stretching my meager food budget.
As it turns out, that sauerkraut was my introduction to lacto-fermentation (when the naturally occurring lactobacilli bacteria on a plant convert the sugars in the plant into lactic acid; we’ll talk more about this on page 38), not to fermentation as a whole, because I had, unknowingly, been making ferments my entire life. My actual first ferment was Amish friendship bread, a sweet quick bread that is similar in texture to banana bread. Friendship bread starters—zippered baggies of pungent, runny batter—and a set of directions are passed from friend to friend. Each recipient cultivates more starter, divides it, and shares it, using the remainder to bake their own bread.
Friendship bread is a great example of the ways in which our cooking intersects with fermentation much more often than we might think. I never thought my family made anything fermented: We never had crocks of vegetables bubbling away, or homemade beer or wine. But we did have friendship bread, and I always giggled with delight when a new starter appeared in our home. And that starter? It’s fermented.
Friendship bread, it turns out, was the perfect introduction to the craft of fermenting because it speaks to how fermentation cultures shape and are shaped by our communities. The bread brings friends and family together in the sharing of it, and the bread’s starter quite literally picks up a bit of each place it’s been, making the microbial community within that culture representative of the human community it is passed through. (See page 272 for my own friendship bread recipe.)
Knowing where food is from and how we use it in our communities to feed and celebrate each other is a central theme in my writing. I also believe in using the simple fermentation methods our ancestors would have used, and you’ll find that this homespun approach permeates my recipes. I tend to focus on wild fermentation (which uses naturally occurring microbes in the environment, rather than a purchased culture) both because I appreciate the spontaneity it offers and because it is what our ancestors often did. When I can’t use a wild starter, I prefer to use a whole-food starter (such as the sauerkraut juice from the last batch) rather than a commercially available starter. In some cases, I do use purchased starters (like koji), but when we get to talking about those fermentations, I will tell you what the starter is, where to get it, and why I’m using it.
I learned about fermentation the way my ancestors would have: through trial and error, through advice from more experienced community members, and through lots and lots of practice. I like to think of women (and some men) in earlier generations using the same foods as me to feed their families and communities: wild-fermented foods with simple, local ingredients, and foods that use up every scrap of the raw ingredients we can find.
Fermentation equals community, both in a microbiological sense and through the human connections built by this style of preparation. Fermentation relies entirely on relationship: the relationship between the maker and the microbe, and between the microbes themselves. Fermentation can be a long process, taking up to a year or more. And while not every ferment needs constant attention, you can’t set it and forget it. In order for a ferment to be successful, you must create a selective environment that makes the microbes you work with happy and healthy. Ferments need to be smelled, stirred, wrapped, unwrapped, lightly heated, slightly cooled, and gently nurtured into life. Just like our human relationships, ferments require our love and attention to grow.
You put your trust in microbes to do the work of creating the result you want, and, just like with human relationships, this succeeds the vast majority of the time. And when you don’t get the expected result—when there’s a need you didn’t realize you had to meet—the project is resigned to the compost heap or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, it exceeds your wildest dreams.
Perhaps it is because fermentation necessitates this relationship between microbe and human that people are drawn to it—and drawn to others who are fermenting. More than any other preparation method I’ve engaged in, fermentation builds a community of enthusiasts who are curious and hungry for new knowledge—and hungry not only to learn but to learn from each other.
Working on a ferment is an act of cocreation with the microbes you’re coaxing to grow, as well as with whomever you are fermenting. Some of my most precious fermentation memories are of foods I made with someone else, or shared with someone else once the ferment was finished. I hope that as you read this book, you get a sense of not only the centrality of ferments in our human history more broadly but the centrality of ferments in human relationships as well. From communities coming together to make kimchi to the alcohol served at a feast, ferments have long had a place at the tables we set for those we love. I hope that when you learn about this history, you’re inspired to create your own ferments to feed and learn with others.
After my early forays into fermenting, I found that I couldn’t help but make more and more fermented foods, filling up much of my free time and every available square inch of counter space in my home with veggies packed in brine, vinegar made from my autumn apple scraps, and bottles of kombucha. But while I made ferments frequently, it wasn’t until relatively recently that I started making a wide variety of them. Truth be told, I still found a lot of ferments to be intimidating, and while I dreamed of a root cellar brimming with living foods and homemade beverages, I was worried I would somehow mess up and ultimately fail at my most ambitious projects.
As so often happens in life, the worry was worse than the failure. I realized, “So what if I do fail?” I’ve definitely made plenty of mistakes in fermenting, as has every other fermenter (don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!). All fermentation asks of you is that you show up with an open heart, creative mind, and hands ready to work. If you do, it will reward you either with a lesson or with something delicious—possibly something delicious beyond what you ever imagined.
Fermentation has taught me a lot about letting go, trusting the process, and giving my heart to projects no matter how they turn out. In return, those projects have fed me in all the ways I need, from physically nourishing me to helping me grow as a cook and a teacher. Today I finally have my little root cellar, just as I dreamed of years ago.