How Fermented Food Shaped the WorldHistorians in the News
tags: food history
Julia Skinner had been fermenting food for over a decade when the idea to write a book telling the history of humans’ relationship to fermentation came to her. Skinner had completed a residency with DIY food activist and fermentation guru Sandor Katz, and she wanted to braid together her love for historical research with the fascinating, fizzing art and science in which she had immersed herself—all with home cooks in mind.
“People around me had been talking about it for years, but it didn’t exist in book form,” recalls Skinner, who has a doctorate in Library and Information Studies and has worked as a chef, food historian, fermentation teacher, consultant, and event planner, among other things. This month, her book, Our Fermented Lives: A Story of How Fermented Foods Have Shaped Cultures and Communities, will be released into the world. And it doesn’t disappoint.
In it, Skinner presents a range of history, analysis, and recipes that together tell a detailed and compelling story about the way fermentation has made us who we are today. She writes:
“Our fermented foods are of course filled with their own communities, teeming with bacteria, yeast, and fungi that intersect with our senses and our own microbiomes. But they connect us to macro communities as well. As one of our most ancient preservation methods and one that has not changed over time, fermentation gives us direct access to a lineage of food shared by humans all over the world for thousands of years. Our food offers a map of the abundance and shortages they faced, as well as what stories were passed down through history versus what history has been lost or buried . . . . Ferments are a direct tether between our ancestors and ourselves.”
Civil Eats spoke with Skinner—who also writes a newsletter and runs Root Kitchens—recently about her new book, mushroom ketchup, and the way that fermentation might help prepare us for the climate crisis.
The practices and foods you describe in the book were integral in just about everyone’s lives for thousands of years. Yet for folks eating the standard American diet today, fermented foods are rare to nonexistent. How did we get here?
I think it’s important to make a distinction between food that’s fermented that we consume as an end product—like coffee, tea, wine, and beer—and probiotic foods. We were all making or eating probiotic food for hundreds and hundreds of years and now it’s less of a thing. It’s ramping back up and we have a lot more interest in fermentation. But it is separate from our diets in a way that is unique in history.
It seems like there was this kind of inverse relationship between the rise of refrigeration and food processing and the loss of fermented foods.
There’s a really good book called Food for Dissent by Mariah McGrath that helped me think about the ways that fermented food’s popularity has fallen and risen in the 20th century in the U.S. Because we had new processing technology and different ways to make many foods more shelf stable—new preservatives, different colorings and flavorings, and all the different things that changed entirely how we eat—but then we also saw pushback to that at various points—the natural food movement in the ‘70s being an example.
Seasonality is a great place to start thinking about this. For most of history, nearly all of it, people weren’t able to go to the store and buy out-of-season vegetables. In wintertime, at least in places where it gets cold and you can’t grow things, you had to plan ahead for the fact that there’s not going to be ready sources of food. And even in warmer climates you had to think about the fact that food spoils quickly. Fermentation was really helpful for extending the shelf life of foods and getting our bodies the nutrients that we needed but otherwise weren’t available. We’d dehydrate food, smoke it, and ferment it. But fermentation became important because it was so accessible. I can ferment something with just a jar or a crock in my house and some salt; I don’t need a lot of resources. Historically, we haven’t been the wasteful creatures we are today; we had to be very mindful about stretching our food stores. And that’s how we got yogurt and cheese. Somebody had their milk curdle and instead of being like, “Oh, it’s bad and throwing it away,” they were like “Well, I still need to eat it.”
I’m interested in eating like our ancestors did. They ate in season, they preserved things. They shared food with their communities, they made food with their communities.