Preserving culture(s): How learning to ferment food could reconnect us to what we eat
“Oh my god, that is SO gross”, my friend screamed when I proudly showed her my very first Kombucha SCOBY. Kombucha is a fermented drink made from black or green tea and sugar, and a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) is the culture that ferments the tea and sugar into a slightly sour and carbonated drink. Apart from the fact that kombucha recently became one of the symbols of Millennial hipsters, it actually has incredible health benefits for our gut bacteria and immune system, just as many other fermented foods.
It is almost ironic, that as an anthropology major studying different cultures around the world, I also came to be interested in culturing foods and I think it is no coincidence that we use the world culture in both contexts. Culture for humans is the broad framework of how societies try to make sense of the world with science, art, language, religion, traditions and much more. A culture also describes the bacteria that humans have long used to preserve foods for times of relative scarcity. It could be said, though, that culturing foods is, in fact, part of most human cultures. But the use of fermented foods is not only limited to human consumption, other animals like elephants or monkeys have actively sought fermented foods when foraging in their natural habitats.
Fermenting was widespread knowledge before refrigeration and canning, a historical bubble that many of as grew up in. However, refrigeration and canning were not used until the 19. century, and from the point of human evolution that we had a food surplus, humans had to think of how to preserve their foods for times of relative scarcity. The knowledge of fermenting or pickling was therefore widespread, probably rather out of necessity than interest or the philosophical idea of preserving local foods as an intrinsic value.
Today, with a constant supply of fresh produce all around the world, canning and freezing and refrigeration, one could think preserving foods, especially homegrown, is an unnecessary waste of time. Additionally, we have grown up to believe that bacteria are intrinsically “bad” or “evil”, starting to rule them out in our lives and our kitchens. However, bacteria have been our evolutionary partners throughout, and their diminishing has influences on our health and well-being. Fermented foods are alive, and by influencing the kind of bacteria growing, we rule out habitats for bacteria that might harm us. People still eat fermented foods, even if they do not realize it. Cheese, Sourdough bread or yogurt are all fermented foods that many people consume regularly without thinking about them.
Beer, wine, and other alcohol are fermented, but we are so far removed from our food that we do not even think about how bacteria have not only made our food more enjoyable, but also safer, more easily digestible, and a valuable part of our culture. Cheese and wine culture in France would not have been possible without fermenting, Pickles and Sauerkraut would not be one of the culinary symbols of Germany, and beer would not be the number 1 college alcohol. Fermenting has and still does play an important part in our lives, and it majorly contributes to our cultural understanding of food. So instead of fighting it and artificially keeping bacteria out, I say: embrace them! Grow them! Nourish them! Because maybe after all, what we culture in our kitchens might not only be bacteria but our culture itself.