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Sandor Katz and the Possibilities of a Queer Fermentive Praxis

  • Stephanie Maroney
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Fermentation is the “path of least resistance.” [1] Fermentation happens everywhere that microorganisms are digesting material and transforming it into something else. As a process of transformation, fermentation provokes exploration of porosity and exchange, and in this way, it offers a generative concept for thinking about social change. [2] In the introduction to Fermenting Feminism, editor Lauren Fournier introduces fermentation as both “a metaphor and a material practice” of value to feminist work because it yields questions of long-standing interest to feminist theory on embodiment, relationality, and labour. [3] Theorizing with fermentation inspires attention to the relations between matter and living beings that are always already interconnected. Fermentation as both theory and practice starts from a place of intermixing and challenges any attempt to purify or control. [4]

Like others in this special issue I share in the project of exploring how fermentation can help us to think about our world differently. Herein I examine the fermentation practice of Sandor Katz — a queer, self-proclaimed fermentation revivalist, who writes and teaches about food fermentation. [5] Katz is a well-known figure within fermentation communities in North America, and he facilitates fermentation workshops across the world. When he is not travelling, Katz lives in a queer intentional community in rural Tennessee and teaches at his Foundation for Fermentation Fervor. In the summer of 2014 I participated in a fermentation residency workshop there with 11 other people which was designed to give participants exposure to a range of fermentation projects.

The Foundation for Fermentation Fervor is situated near a community established in 1979 as a sanctuary primarily for gay men who identify as Radical Faeries. [6] Although Katz no longer lives in the physical sanctuary itself, his home and workshop are part of a queer network of houses, structures, tents, fields, farms, footpaths, a distillery, barns, and roads that wind through the Appalachian hollows and is affectionately called “the gayborhood” by some residents. [7] I was drawn to the workshop as an opportunity to round out my understanding of Katz’s social vision and locate him in a long line of reformers who imagined that social change could be achieved by changing ideas about food. I left the residency with a transformed understanding of how Katz’s fermentation practice developed in the particular context of rural queerness and how it materially connects people to their environment within the queer intentional community.

Katz’s fermentive philosophy and practice are part of a worldview that emphasizes interdependent knowledge-making and a critique of the capitalist food system while centering the experiences of queer people. Katz joins together his conceptual and material engagements with fermentation in what I call a queer fermentive praxis. Praxis here refers to the dynamic, recursive process of theory and action — of action informed by deep theorization, and theorization reinformed by lessons learned through doing. [8] Feminist, queer, and anti-racist praxis offer a political challenge to dominant power relations and oppressive ways of knowing the world. It aims for social transformation that forefronts the lived experiences of marginalized others. [9] Queerness intersects with fermentation in this article as both an identity category shared by many participants at the intentional community, and as a complimentary concept — for knowing and acting in the world. Queering is a process of drawing attention to the limitations of categorical binaries (including but not exclusive to gender, sex, and sexuality) and complicating dominant knowledge that articulates the world as bifurcated and hierarchical. [10] Katz’s fermentive praxis is queer in both a material and theoretical sense. His queer fermentive praxis enacts a kind of queer ecology, described by Mortimer-Sandilands and Erickson as “an ecology that may begin in the experiences and perceptions of non-heterosexual individuals and communities, but […] that calls into question heteronormativity itself as part of its advocacy around issues of nature and environment — and vice versa.” [11] For Katz food fermentation is a material practice that binds queer people together in a community, and his theorization of fermentation queers understandings of the world as either/or, heteronormative, and hierarchical.

In my reading of Katz’s book Wild Fermentation and my experiences at the summer workshop residency, I examine three aspects of Katz’s queer fermentive praxis that offer creative approaches to thinking and acting in the world differently. First I join other food studies scholars in analysing how fermentation generates a powerful conceptual challenge to the politics of purity that structure dominant understandings of health and human relations in the North American context. Then I focus on Katz’s do-it-yourself (DIY) philosophy, in which he calls upon the reader to take up food fermentation through an ethos of experimentation and conscientious impurity. Lastly I demonstrate how Katz maintains a queer web of relations across human and more-than-human worlds that is nourished through the fermentation practice.

The Problem with Purity

Thinking with the dynamic process of fermentation offers a challenge to the logics of purity that structure human relations with each other and the non-human world in contemporary dominant cultures of the U.S. and Canada. In Against Purity feminist philosopher Alexis Shotwell articulates how purity projects shapes our world through control, bifurcation, and individualism. [12] Purism, Shotwell argues, is “a common approach for anyone who attempts to meet and control a complex situation that is fundamentally outside our control.” [13] Purity politics emerge as reductionist and individuating responses to the ethical and political complexity of the world.

Purity politics delineate inside from outside, and determine us and them. In so doing purity politics produce normative ways of being that are “aspired to, good, or to be pursued.” [14] These norms become institutionalised as practices of social and individual control, so that the management of difference and complexity becomes part of what it means to be healthy or sick, to be a citizen or an alien, to be righteous or corrupt, to be a creator of authoritative reform or an object of that reform. Social change that focuses on purity and control creates bifurcation of the world into good/bad, clean/dirty, and self/other.

Food studies scholarship has demonstrated the way that food and health have been sites for enacting purity politics. Tracing the politics of bread in the 19th and 20th centuries, Aaron Bobrow-Strain describes how different actors (food reformers, health professionals, government regulators, consumers) created boundaries around their definitions of good, pure, healthy, or natural bread. [15] These boundaries became lines of defense used to “defend purity against contagion, nature against artifice, health against weakness, and us against them.” [16] The dreams of purity, control, and security (wrapped up in the politics of bread) then informed ideas about which kinds of people were considered a part of, or a threat to, the social order.

A key feature of contemporary purity politics is the tendency to see the individual as the arbiter of this process of control. The individual is made to be responsible for choices within a moralized framework that assumes a stable distinction between “good” and “bad” objects, practices, or ways of being. The subject practicing purity politics demonstrates their virtuousness and social belonging through individual choice and self-control. E. Melanie DuPuis argues that for these “ingestive subjects,” living a “good” life requires the maintenance of boundaries of purity and vigilance over what is put into the body. [17] The ingestive purity politics that shape contemporary social worlds in the U.S. and Canada run on the promise that safety, health, and a “good” life depend on vigilant self-control, concern for the individual, and clear delineation between self and other.

Whereas the logics of purity are concerned with control, individualism, and boundary making, the logics of fermentation start with the recognition of cooperation and exchange. In his 2003 book Wild Fermentation Katz explains how the fermentation process can lead to unexpected results on account of “fickle life forces” of which we are not, “by any measure, in complete control.” [18] Purity requires intensified control, while fermentation practices necessitate collaboration. Katz explains the relationship between purity and control through the difference of commercially-produced, bottled yeasts and wild yeasts gathered from plants. Wild yeasts cultivated from plants can never be pure, Katz writes: “They travel in motley company. They are always found with other microorganisms.” [19] Wild yeasts in motley company with other lively lifeforms produce unique flavours in fermented foods that cannot be predicted or controlled for. Humans can only collaborate with and gently cultivate these microbial ecologies to produce desired foods and flavours — and even then, expected results are not guaranteed.

Unlike dreams of purity, fermentation is a process of transformation, not a utopian end goal. The process is negotiated and relational across human and microbial life and requires acceptance of change and perpetual reconsidering of outcomes. Bobrow-Strain counters the social dreams of precision and certainty with a dream of fermentation. “Unruly to its core,” he writes, “fermentation defies boundary making and combat mentality. It blurs lines between nature and society and suggests that true security may lie in conscientious impurity, not coerced purity.” [20] Fermentation requires attention to changing conditions over time rather than coercing specific ends. For this reason, DuPuis explores fermentation as a metaphor for governance and of “finding new ways of collaborating.” [21] Rather than focusing on dietary and social purity through ingestion, DuPuis posits “digestive subjectivity” as a fermentive concept for living “with choices already made.” [22] She imagines that a fermentive politics would produce imperfect, multiple, and collaborative relations along with new narratives of social change. [23]

Developing a fermentive praxis — rather than enacting purity politics — offers ways of being in the world that eschews boundary making and control, and contaminates ingestive individualism. I offer Sandor Katz’s fermentive praxis and my experience at the fermentation workshop as an example of how to live with impurity, not against it. In the remainder of this article I explore how, in his writings and teachings, Katz emphasizes an imperfect, improvised, and do-it-yourself (DIY) ethos to fermentation that empowers people to experiment and make use of found or foraged materials. Katz heralds the queer shape-shifting of microorganisms as an inspiration for humans to ponder what kinds of transformative processes they can enact in the world. Through his fermentive praxis, Katz maintains and nourishes a queer web of relations that spans human and more-than-human worlds.

Practicing Impurity through Improvisation

Katz’s fermentive praxis challenges a purist focus on authority and precision by championing the novice experimentalist and encouraging improvisation. Katz’s writing emphasizes the benefit of using what he variously calls “scavenged,” “rescued,” and “versatile” materials. Whether from surrounding farms or grocery store dumpsters, Katz writes, “it is a valuable scavenger mission to rescue food that is past its glorious prime, but still edible and nutritious, before it gets relegated to the compost. Fermenting is a great way to make use of a sudden bounty.” [24] Sudden bounties appeared with frequency during my time at the fermentation residency: an overflowing box of wilted and soft turnips ended up in a kimchi, the greens cooked down with vinegar and garlic and added to eggs for breakfast, the scraps shredded into a salad. After weeding and cleaning a neighbor’s vegetable patch, we amassed two dozen oddly-shaped zucchini that were sliced ribbon thin and covered with a briny solution, or chopped into rough pieces and transformed into zucchini soda. Making use of “versatile” materials requires the practitioner to be flexible, creative, and open to change.

In Katz’s practice ingredients can always be improvised, and unexpected outcomes can turn into happy accidents. Katz explains how vinegar presents a “recycling opportunity” in the sense that homemade wine can never be ruined, because if it turns sour, “call it vinegar and use it in cooking and salad dressings.” [25] This fluid approach marks a rejection of precision, purity, and rule-following. Katz encourages readers to “deviate from the recipes; incorporate your own favourite ingredients, or those most abundantly available to you, whether from your garden, an irresistible sale, or dumpster-diving resource recovery missions.” [26] Examples include kombucha made from Mountain Dew, “fruit scrap vinegar,” or “recycled grain bread.” [27] The residency workshop schedule accounted for improvisation that took the form of summer rain storms that halted ongoing construction projects, surprise visitors who always found a place at the dinner table, or impromptu invitations to pick raspberries, milk goats, or help build a garden. The fermentation process itself requires an openness to changing conditions and acceptance of happy accidents with unexpected results.

During the residency workshop, we made a batch of kvass that exemplifies this impure, imperfect, and scavenged praxis. Kvass is an Eastern European fermented beverage commonly made from rye bread — it is bubbly, creamy, slightly alcoholic, and filling. Kvass, Katz writes, “results from a great recycling process — it is made from stale bread, refermented.” [28] To make kvass, take dried bread, rip it up, put it in a container, cover with water, and leave it alone for a few days. The mixture changes from water-soaked bread to kvass through the digestion of microorganisms that eat the bread sugars, liquefying the mushy mix and producing alcohol. Yeasts burp out carbon dioxide that carbonates it and turns the whole mess into a tasty drink. The kvass we made was a product of a loaf of a neighbour’s homemade sourdough bread, and three bags of supermarket white bread that had been rescued from a dumpster in nearby Nashville, Tennessee. We tore the bread to pieces with our hands — all of us ripe and funky from two weeks living mainly outdoors in a dank Tennessee summer. The water came out of a natural spring near the house, we mixed it together in a chipped ceramic crock, covered it with a sun-bleached hand towel, and let it sit. Once bubbling activity informed us that the fermentation process was underway, we funneled the liquid into empty 32-ounce Sunny Delight plastic jugs to concentrate the carbon dioxide. After the plastic jugs bloated and distorted after a few hours, we all shared a taste before bottling it up in various jars to deliver through the neighbourhood.

While our kvass could have been made in a more “traditional” style, in accordance with scientifically-tested procedures, and without the bagged white bread and plastic container by-products of the industrial food system, Katz often commented that folks should make fermented foods with whatever they have, in a way that makes the most sense for their lives. Once while the residency group was following Katz’s direction on a batch of kishk (a bulgur and yogurt mixture that when fermented and dried creates a crumbly, cheesy flavoring), a woman holding a highlighted copy of Katz’s The Art of Fermentation open in her lap commented frustratingly, “But that’s not how you say to do it in the book.” Katz replied, “You know, the thing about books — and mine in particular — is that you cannot believe everything you read. Sometimes you have to improvise.” In his writings Katz champions the novice, the amateur, and the generalist. There is no perfection in the practice and no purity in the ingredients; rather, “our perfection lies in our imperfection.” [29]

Katz’s DIY philosophy embraces “experimentation,” “discovery,” “self-empowerment,” and “openness to learning.” [30] DIY practices at the queer intentional community include all manner of work to create and maintain infrastructure like solar electricity, phone lines, and water systems, as well as housing structures, clothing, and art. [31] This improvisational DIY ethos shaped nearly every material interaction throughout my residency. When my legs were burning from dozens of chigger bites, someone offered a homemade acidic tonic to alleviate the pain. A runny nose was treated with a spicy concoction of garlic and chilies. An interior room was insulated with cobb made from ruddy red clay and hay mixed-by-foot in a cracked plastic pool.

While necessary for survival these practices are also part of a political vision that Katz describes in terms of resistance and transformation. Fermentation and DIY experimentation are framed as acts of resistance against commodification and cultural homogenisation. He writes, “resistance is everywhere at the margins …where people who manage to avoid succumbing to mainstream cultural currents come together …where we create and support diverse alternative cultures that express our various needs and desires.” [32] On the outskirts of capitalism in rural Appalachia these DIY practices of self-empowerment and experimentation make life liveable for rural queers. [33] This DIY fermentive praxis demonstrates attempts to resist commodified food systems, and to create a unique alternative that aligns with the political vision of the queer intentional community.

Nourishing a Queer Web of Relations

Giving up purity and practicing conscientious impurity through a queer fermentive praxis can lead towards more flourishing for all kinds of lives. Katz encourages his readers to “draw inspiration” from bacteria and yeast to “make your life a transformative process.” [34] Moving through scales from microorganism to social change, Katz’s fermentive praxis calls for recognition of human coimplication and responsibility for the world as it is. He writes, “As you watch your fermenting food bubble away as bacteria and yeast work their transformative magic, envision yourself as an agent for change, creating agitation and unrest, releasing bubbles of transformation in the social order.” [35] In Wild Fermentation Katz articulates this process through the story of tara and kefir. Both are fermented dairy products made with similarly-looking “grains” or symbiotic colonies of yeast and bacteria. [36] After receiving tara grains from a friend Katz attempts to keep the two ferments separate in order to “maintain their purity.” [37] But, he eventually mixes up the jars and creates a “bastard love child of impure culture, and no less delicious or nutritious for the confusion.” [38]

Working against purity and pondering the differences between tara and kefir can lead to questioning the gender binary. Katz’s discussion on the failure of his purity project segues to a description of the vegan kefir adaptations of his friend River, and then shifts to the trouble of pronouns in describing queer friends. “With River,” Katz writes, “I find that pronoun selection is not only conscious but consciousness-raising. He is biologically female, but male-identified.” [39] Katz explains gender expression as fluid, that some folks’ expression is unable to conform to cultural parameters, and that we readers should support transgender visibility and self-determination. He recognizes this gender fluidity within microorganisms themselves, writing “Microorganisms do this all the time, transmogrifying into different forms to adapt to shifting conditions.” [40] Katz demonstrates how admiring the shape-shifting queerness of microorganisms through fermentation is connected to the political work of transgender rights.

Finding inspiration for social change in the activities of microorganisms is an expression of the larger queer web of relations between human and microbe sustained through Katz’s praxis. [41] Drawing from the work of biologist Lynn Margulis, Katz articulates how humans are deeply dependent upon and mutually benefiting from their relationship to microorganisms: “We are symbiotic, inextricably woven together, in a complex pattern far beyond our capacity to comprehend completely.” [42] Katz weaves human beings into an ecological web that queers dominant notions of the nature/culture divide. This weaving work inspires new modes of acknowledging and appreciating human and more-than-human relationships and is a practice of what feminist philosopher Donna Haraway terms “making kin.” [43] For Haraway, kin means more than ancestry or genealogy. Kin is an “assembling sort of word” for “biotic and abiotic” collaboration and care among diverse lifeforms. [44] Katz encourages his readers and practitioners to ponder the interdependence between all sorts of queer kin. His queer fermentive praxis figures humans not as individuals engaged in purity projects of control and subordination, but as co-constituted, deeply dependent subjects who are responsible to, and in service of a queer web of relations.

One way Katz’s queer fermentive praxis makes kin is through an expanded idea of nourishment. For Katz, fermented foods offer nourishment rather than mere nutrition. Nourishment is a process, not an outcome. He describes it as a “path of healing and service” that we share with others. [45] This kind of nourishment includes the landscape, animals, recuperated/rescued industrial byproducts, plant materials, microorganisms, and humans. Katz’s fermentive praxis maintains a queer web of relations by figuring nourishment as a process of service through making and sharing fermented foods. “Making your own miso to share with the people you love is a way to nourish them deeply,” Katz writes. [46] Miso is typically a legume-based ferment that requires the labor of the fungus Aspergillus oryzae to create a complex, savory, and versatile ingredient. Rather than only making a case for the nutritional value of miso, Katz explains that making and consuming miso allows the practitioner to share and nourish the interdependent relations between microorganisms, humans, and our social worlds.

I experienced and participated in these forms of nourishment during the residency. The earlier example of the kvass made with “rescued” white bread and fermented in repurposed Sunny Delight jugs highlights the way that a fermented food connected folks in a web of relations at the queer intentional community. Once the kvass completed the fermentation process (and became mildly alcoholic) we distributed it throughout the community. We left a jar at an artist’s cozy barn-home, then to a goat farm where we traded two jars of kvass for a liter of fresh milk, and finally to a music and performance festival at a nearby queer community land project. In the huge, rickety barn, we distributed the jars to various folks dressed in what was best described as “queer prom” attire while they gathered around a makeshift stage. In the context of the queer intentional community, the kvass was a practice in kin-making. Katz’s fermentation practices is a kind of “community-based health care system” that contributes to the social cohesion of a group of friends and neighbours who “care for each other’s health needs” through the sharing of fermented foods. [47] The kvass we made in coordination with microbial life was a vehicle for maintaining and caring for human and more-than-human connections. The kvass provided an opportunity to check-in on friends who enjoy more private lives, to maintain livelihoods outside of capitalist exchange, and to nourish the bodies and bonds of fellow party-goers.

Conclusion

In his teaching and writing Katz challenges the ideology of purity through a queer fermentive praxis that advocates for improvisation, microbial inspiration, and interdependent nourishment. Katz’s theorization of fermentation as social change considers the queer shape-shifting of microorganisms as motivation for human action. At the intentional community where Katz lives the fermentation practice makes queer kin among the environmental microorganisms, foodstuffs, and animal and human-animal lives connected within an ecological web. As a practice of noticing and collaborating with microorganisms, fermentation offers a way to perceive interdependence. Disability justice activist-scholars articulate interdependence as a theory to counter the myth of independence and as a practice of building intimate and complicated relations with one another. [48] These scholars demonstrate how interdependence, which is intimately experienced by people living with disabilities, is a necessary and difficult practice of working towards collective liberation for all. Starting with interdependence centers the understanding that we are all entangled, reliant on, and complexly co-constituted with our environments, forms of life (human and otherwise), the “social relations that undergird our world, and the material realities in which we live.” [49]

My analysis of Katz’s queer fermentive praxis is part of food studies scholarship that documents how various radicals, reformers, and rabble-rousers in North America have used food as a vehicle for social change. [50] Scholars have demonstrated how the social visions on some reformers rely on dogmatic rules about “good” and “bad” food that bolsters ingestive purity politics — further bifurcating people into “good” and “bad” eaters/subjects. [51] Or, how food-centric visions of social change reinforce ableist understandings of health directed at the normative individual body. [52] In this article, I examine how Katz’s vision of social change is attuned to how food fermentation might challenge the purity politics at the root of dominant, hierarchical, and heteronormative ways of relating to the world. Through studying and participating in Katz’s practice, I feel inspired to build community through fermentation experimentation and use my fermentation practice to theorize social justice. Skeptical readers may not be convinced that food fermentation can enact social change, or that collaborating with microorganisms can inspire new processes for how to share the world together. This article may resonate more strongly with those who already have a fermentation practice — that they are challenged to orient away from perfect outcomes or individualized consumption, and instead explore how to incorporate political and social concerns from their communities. My argument may also resonate with activists engaged in social justice praxis — that they might practice food fermentation as a creative, accessible, and material way to nourish and sustain their communities in difficult times. My intention is to reach those who understand the need to create new ways of living together and forms of complex entanglement that draw humans into greater acknowledgement of their interdependence with others.

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