In recent years, there’s been much talk of a fermentation revival going on in kitchens across the globe. From South Carolina to Copenhagen, chefs are creating dedicated spaces in which vinegars, misos, and all types of concoctions can bubble away and transform over time, often yielding unfamiliar and delicious results. But as one of the most referenced figures in the fermentation movement explained at MAD, we should remind ourselves that it’s an age-old and essential process. 

At the symposium, Sandor Katz, who authored 2012’s “The Art of Fermentation,” offered more than a primer on the “transformative action of microorganisms.” He pointed to a modern culture that sees most bacteria as bad, even when there’s a ten-to-one ratio of bacterial cells to human cells in every human body. Katz explained that no form of life has ever existed without bacteria, but that an “ideological indoctrination” has made it so most in the western world are now too wary of organisms upon which we are “utterly dependent.” According to Katz, there’s something a bit problematic about the fact that a hand wash’s biggest selling point can be that it eradicates 99.9% of bacteria. 

Katz doesn’t condemn antibiotics and antibacterials completely. Rather, as he’s said in the past, he feels that the pendulum has swung too far in their direction: “Antibiotic drugs – there are a lot of individuals who’s lives have been saved because of them, and I may be one of them — but it seems that it is widely agreed that antibiotics are also wildly over prescribed.”

And here’s what we might be missing out on because of that: foods that can provide us with additional nutrients, help digestion, aid our reproductive processes, and improve immune function. Most important, according to Katz, are the live cultures we aren’t getting enough of in the 21st century: “Historically, I don’t think anybody ever had to think twice about replenishing lactic acid bacteria inside their intestines, but there are all of these factors in our contemporary lives, basically chemical factors that amount to a continuous assault on the bacteria in our bodies,” he says. 

Perhaps most compelling for those in the audience at MAD was the reminder that fermentation is a proven way to deliciousness. It is an enduringly popular process which we see in anaerobic ferments like alcohol and yogurt, and “oxymoronic” ferments like kombucha and vinegars, which are produced with air. Some of the world’s most valued gastronomic products, like fine wines and cheeses, are the result of fermentation. 

In a recent phone interview, Katz explained that fermentation has been “thoroughly enmeshed” in restaurant culture since the beginning, but that the renewed enthusiasm for it is part of a greater context: “Chefs are striving to more carefully and locally source their food, so it makes sense that fermentation is a part of that process.” One need look no further than David Chang’s 2011 MAD talk on microbial terroir to understand that. In it, the Momofuku chef explains that fermenting foods and connecting them more deeply to the indigenous life of their environment can produce results that are unique. Katz even argues that history has shown that fermented foods can “reinforce cultural identity.” 

See Katz’s talk above, visit his website Wild Fermentation for updates on his travels and ideas for how you can get fermenting at home.