A Year of Idaho Food collaboration between Boise State Public Radio and the Boise Weekly
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Fans of fermentation often sound like they’re camped on the far fringes of the foodie movement. They’re frequently portrayed as dumpster-diving neo-hippies with a hunger for the culinary dark side: lovers of bacteria, festering yeasts and the nearly rotted flesh the most fervent call “high meat.” Fermentation is, after all, a kind of controlled decomposition, a breaking down of organic matter that can end up tasting sublime, slimy or much worse.
That’s why I wonder if I’ve made a wrong turn when my first foray into the wilds of fermentation leads me to a quiet subdivision in stalwart Kuna and the tidy home of a mother of three. I don’t know Tara Kelly any better than I know the fermenter’s craft, but I heard she’s an avid practitioner and willing to show me her work.
Still, I see nary a hint of the culinary occult when a bright-eyed Kelly opens her front door with a brighter smile, then leads me through her thoroughly normal living room to a sparkling, suburban kitchen . . . until, that is, she points to what she’s gathered on her expansive countertop.
“So this is my fermentation station and taste testing area,” Kelly says, giving me a quick, sidelong glance, as if to gauge my reaction. “I pulled out all my ferments for you, and I thought we can go through them and taste them all.”
On the counter are dozens of large glass jars. Like an alchemist’s inventory, each is filled with mysterious clear liquids or opaque brews, all of indeterminate composition. Their colors slide toward the compost-tinted end of the spectrum: dusky browns, muted mauves, gray-greens. There is a slight sour, if not unpleasant bite to the air. I’m somewhat reassured by what look like pickles and maybe sauerkraut, but Kelly has to fill me in on the rest.
“Over here we have a fermented tea drink, and then this is beet kvass and this is raw milk kefir,” Kelly says. She pats each container like it’s a cherished pet, before moving on to the next specimen.
“And I want to call this beets, but what it is, is not the actual beet.”
Once she realizes I’m not going to make a break for the door, Kelly’s enthusiasm grows. Eventually she’s all but dancing around her microbial progeny. She points to her lacto-fermented mayonnaise, her cultured bean dip, her kombucha tea with its gelatinous “mother” floating Alien-like in a dark fluid.
All of these wildly different, living creatures are the product of fermentation, a process that not only preserves food but transforms its flavor. The chemistry of fermentation is complex, but basically, bacteria and yeasts create enzymes that break down and reassemble compounds, turning carbohydrates into alcohol or harsh acids into softer, tastier acids. Bread, cheese and chocolate are fermented foods. So are beer, wine, coffee, tea, vinegar, soy sauce and sausage.
“Fermentation is everywhere, always” writes Sandor Katz in his book Wild Fermentation, which many enthusiasts call the bible that sparked this new, nearly evangelical interest in the ancient art of fermentation. “This book,” Katz waxes, “is my song of praise and devotion to fermentation. For me, fermentation is a health regimen, a gourmet art, a multicultural adventure, a form of activism and a spiritual path, all rolled into one.”
Most of us still let others do the fermenting for us–we buy our bread, our beer, our bratwurst–but Kelly is obviously one of a growing group of home-based bacteria wranglers who are willing and eager to dive into the unseen world of microbes and do the fermenting themselves.
“Well, you know, I really had an interest in getting back to more real, traditional foods,” Kelly says about her path to fermentation. “And that kind of led me on the journey to finding more local, natural, organic foods. And from there I just kind of kept learning and decided I wanted to maybe make my own yogurt, and then I discovered kefir, which is like yogurt on steroids.” That eventually led Kelly to the impressive array of fermented foods in front of us.
“This is what people have done for thousands of years,” she says with a true believer’s passion. “This is how they preserved their food. In that same way it also helped them stay healthy and, you know, all this beneficial bacteria that are in these foods, the body needs that, and we’ve pretty much eliminated that from our modern diet.”
Much of the current interest in fermented foods appears to be a reaction against what advocates call the overly sterile, bacteria-phobic nature of our modern life and modern food system. Rather than trying to tightly control every aspect of food production, fans of fermentation encourage a little tradition-tempered biological anarchy. Kelly mixes a bacterial starter with a dose of serendipity –she doesn’t measure much of anything–and instantly captures not only wild micro-biota but also nearly forgotten dietary and culinary wisdom.
“I mean, if you go to the store and you buy sauerkraut or you buy pickles, it’s vinegar-based,” Kelly says. “There’s nothing alive left in that food. It’s a canned, pasteurized, vinegar based food that’s for mass production. But if you do it at home the way it used to be done, this is full of beneficial bacteria, the vitamin count increases, and it helps with digestion, and it’s delicious. And it’s cheap.”
Kelly says her family gets sick less often now that she ferments food, and growing empirical evidence supports her observation. But how does Kelly’s fermented food taste? And perhaps more personally pertinent, how prudent is it for me to dive into a near stranger’s banquet of what looks like the contents of my high school biology lab’s storage closet?
“Should I make you taste this first?” I ask as politely as I can.
“I did,” Kelly says with a reassuring laugh. “I made sure because some of these I’ve had for a little while.”
Kelly’s confident, laissez-faire attitude toward this teaming microbial world and her apparent good health is, for lack of a better word, infectious. I start with the pickles. Excellent. Both tangy and crunchy. So, too, is the sauerkraut, which is light-years ahead of the nasty canned stuff of my youth.
Kelly then leads me gently through a tasting tour of every one of her fermented foods and drinks–the raw milk kefir is a little thick and sour, but I love the citrusy bean dip and the rich, rounded flavor of the fermented mayonnaise. In fact, the number and variety of fermented foods that Kelly has collected on her countertop is quite stunning. Even she seems a little stunned.
“I’m like, ‘well, I’m going to show [Guy] all my stuff and I’ll pull out the sauerkraut, I’ll pull out the kefir,'” Kelly says. “And then I started going through my fridge and I’m like ‘good grief, I’ve really incorporated a lot of fermented foods into our life.'”
Kelly slowly shakes her head as if only now, at this very moment, she’s realized how far into the fermenting wilds she has wandered.
Guy Hand is a writer, public radio producer and photographer specializing in food and agriculture.