The Art of Fermentation is a dictionary-sized orange tome with a friendly layout and 14 chapters bursting with information. I suppose it is meant as a reference, but I read it like a novel, alternating between feeling excited to try what I was reading, and feeling frustrated knowing that I will never try out everything that sounds interesting!
It was written by Sandor Ellix Katz, a fermentation revivalist. Check out his info-packed website Wild Fermentation!
Executive summary: This book is an overview of fermentation through history and around the world, covering what it is and how it can be used. Its tone is encouraging and personable - it's a field guide and manual, rather than a textbook. It's fermentation evangelism, in the best way possible.
Why I think this book is important: To begin with, I love Sandor's experimental approach to fermented foods and his constant encouragement to the reader to go out and try. It's so easy to be held back from trying something new by fear of doing something wrong, and I welcome the message that it's good to try and okay to fail.
I also see this book as an exploration of the creativity, ingenuity, enjoyment, and passion that make human culture so wonderful. It's evidence that we can make an art out of even the most ordinary aspects of living life - like preventing food spoilage! I found it truly inspiring to read about so many experts, researchers, and masters of fermentation - I can only hope to find my own niche in which to become an artful master.
Finally, this book is a manifesto, a call to arms, for a global culture that is more diverse, more conscious of its dependence on the environment, more appreciative of local traditions, and based more on community and creativity, and less on large-scale commercial systems. Sandor sees the revival of smaller-scale fermentation as a living example of this better global culture. Like him, I hope it continues to grow, spread, and diversify.
Also good: This book is a treasure trove for a foodie who likes to make stuff from scratch. It provides loads of practical information on how to ferment sugars, vegetables, milk, grains, beans, seeds, nuts, meat, fish, eggs and just about anything else you could think of eating, with instructions for well-known ferments like yogurt, wine, cheese, and beer, as well as lesser-known regional specialties, like kvass, mauby, viili, poi, merissa, and natto. Exciting stuff!
There's also a chapter for non-food applications of fermentation, and one with advice on starting up a fermentation based business.
Bits I especially like:
"If this book has an underlying agenda (and it assuredly does) it is to help us reconceive our relationship with what biologist Lynn Margulis calls the "microcosmos." Since Louis Pasteur discovered the role of microbes in disease more than a century ago, most of us have found ourselves on a war footing with respect to bacteria. . . . [And yet] we are discovering that one of the keys to our well-being is the well-being of the microflora with whom we share these bodies, and with whom we co-evolved. And it looks like they really, really like sauerkraut." - Michael Pollan, Foreword
"Reclaiming our food and our participation in cultivation is a means of cultural revival, taking action to break out of the confining and infantilizing dependency of the role of consumer (user), and taking back our dignity and power by becoming producers and creators." - Introduction
"Unfortunately, we have become increasingly isolated from the natural world, lacking awareness of and conscious interaction with animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria in our midst. Rather than continuing to distance ourselves from interaction with the larger web of life, we must reclaim these relationships. Fermentation is a tangible way of cultivating this consciousness and these relationships." - Ch. 1, Fermentation as a Coevolutionary Force
"Beyond sacred alcohol, fermentation has been valued throughout history primarily for its usefulness in preserving food. . . . Many people are becoming interested in fermentation for its nutritional and health benefits, which are considerable and can be quite dramatic. . . . Fermentation has also been used as a strategy for saving fuel, since fermentation digests certain nutrients that otherwise would require long cooking, and enables foods to remain stable at ambient temperatures without refrigeration. . . . Yet ultimately more compelling (at least for me) than preservation, health, or energy efficiency benefits are the complex edgy flavors of fermentation, which got me interested in all this in the first place. Food is not strictly utilitarian, after all." - Ch. 2, Practical Benefits of Fermentation
"The revival of fermentation at the local and regional scale goes hand in hand with the revival of local agriculture in the movement toward relocalization of our food and our economies. . . . This is economic development based on real production, real value, and real benefit, creating better choices for our communities by expanding the range of what is available as local food. We can revive local commercial production of ferments, as the revival of microbreweries, farmstead cheese production, and artisan bakeries demonstrate. And we do not need to wait for other people to do it. No less so than home fermentation, reviving fermentation in the form of local enterprise is a do-it-yourself venture." - Ch. 12, Considerations for Commercial Enterprises
"Self-sufficiency is a dangerous myth. We need each other. . . . Community is never perfect and takes hard work, because people have such varied visions, ideas, and values. But do the hard work of finding common ground, and build community with the people around you." - Epilogue: A Cultural Revivalist Manifesto
"Our growing awareness as individuals creating change in our own lives, and communities can (and must) build into galvanizing social movements. While reviving local food systems, we can also address inequitable access to resources by becoming part of existing movements for food justice and food sovereignty. While making use of indigenous wisdom in our cultural revival efforts, we can also acknowledge and act in solidarity with indigenous peoples struggling for survival. While trying to limit our own carbon footprints and environmental impact, we can also join social movements demanding the same of corporations and government policies. Personal actions can be powerful, but nothing like the force of collective action." - Epilogue: A Cultural Revivalist Manifestonote: thanks to Martin for the illustration!