Growing up Jewish on New York’s Upper East Side, surrounded by stores selling sour dill pickles, Sandor Ellix Katz was almost destined to become a fermentation revivalist.
Katz is the author of two popular fermentation and food politic manifestos, “Wild Fermentation” and “The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved,” and he has spent the last two decades farming, fermenting, teaching and writing.
The man known to many as “Sandorkraut” will impart his fermentation and live-culture wisdom during a whirlwind Bay Area lecture and workshop tour beginning next week. Between May 13 and May 22, he’ll be making a dozen local appearances.
Many of the events are part of the monthlong “Ferment Change” series, a program benefiting “urban ag hero” organizations such as City Slicker Farms, Oakland Food Connection, the People’s Grocery California Hotel Urban Farm Project and CHAA East Bay Refugee Gardening Program.
During his appearances, Katz will be discussing underground food movements — and, of course, demonstrating how to make sauerkraut and other fermented treats.
He’ll also discuss new projects, including the work he’s doing for another book. For this one, he has experimented with a Brazilian dish made from fermented black-eyed peas, used a Filipino method to ferment raw fish and made rice-based beverages similar to the Korean distilled spirit soju.
“I always loved food, mostly eating it rather than writing about it,” he said with a laugh by phone from his home in rural Tennessee. “But I was always a food adventurer. I’d help my parents cook. They liked to cook from scratch.”
Katz grew up in a household with strong ties to Jewish culture: His mother was raised in Crown Heights, N.Y., and his grandparents spoke Yiddish at home. His strongest tie to Judaism, however, was culinary.
“Our culture was largely expressed through food,” he said. “My grandmother was always making blintzes or matzah ball soup.”
While his first memories of fermented foods were the dill pickles he remembers being sold on nearly every New York street corner, Katz didn’t begin his own foray into fermentation until he moved to a community farm in Tennessee and all his cabbages were suddenly ready at the same time. His solution was to make sauerkraut.
“I sometimes say that sauerkraut was my gateway drug to fermentation,” Katz noted.
Katz, who will be 49 this month, graduated with a history degree from Brown University then worked for a few years as a “policy wonk,” an organizer and executive director of various gay organizations. In 1993, at age 30, he moved to the Little Short Mountain Farm in Woodbury, Tenn., because of his burgeoning interests in gardening and nutrition.
Six months ago, he moved to his own home just down the road from the farm, though he still maintains a teaching kitchen there, hosting a dozen or so students at a time.
In the years since he started fermenting, he said he has seen an explosion within the organic movement, thanks to ardent supporters of locally sourced foods and the rapid growth of farmers markets. While impressed with the progress, he also warns of counteractive food trends such as intensified biotechnology: fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified food.
The book Katz is working on will include discussion of politics and the history of food-making; it’s by no means a straightforward recipe-filled cookbook. In the section on veggies, he plans to include the history of kvas, a traditional Eastern European beverage of lettuce fermented in salt, sugar, dill and garlic.
He learned about kvas during a food conference in England when two women presented papers on it.
Katz says he’s noticed more and more Jews involved in the food revival movement, pointing a big finger toward Jewish environmental organization Hazon, which hosts sustainable food conferences.
“In most historical contexts, Jews did not own land so they were not especially agriculturally inclined,” he said. “But in this revival culture, Jews are definitely involved and represented. I think it has to do with an association with the land.”
Sandor Ellix Katz is scheduled to make 12 Bay Area appearances from May 13 to 22. Information: www.wildfermentation.com or www.fermentchange.org.