Get Cultured: A Look Inside Tennessee’s Fermentation Revolution
By Lee Rennick
Humans have been fermenting foods for over 30,000 years. But interest in fermented foods is growing as the farm-to-table and maker movements are getting more people to ask where their food comes from.
One person who has done the most to drive the interest in naturally fermented food is a man named Sandor Katz. With a little help from some sauerkraut, Katz (aka Sandorkraut) has become the foremost authority in the world on the subject, and author of Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation. He lives in Cannon County, and from there he has cultured a food revolution. But Katz believes it is about more than eating and drinking, it is about getting healthier.
“I see two main reasons for greater awareness about fermented foods,” he said.
“First, after a couple of generations of people being thrilled to be less connected to [food production] … [m]any people are asking questions about where their food comes from and by what processes. Once people start asking questions like these, fermentation is part of the answer. Second, after a century of the War Against Bacteria, we are learning how important bacteria are to our health and well-being, and many people are seeking out foods rich with probiotic bacteria.”
The boom in microbreweries and distilleries has also had a massive influence on the interest in fermentation. Professor Tony Johnston, who has been teaching winemaking at Middle Tennessee State University since 1996, sees a that there had to be a change in our national culture to value more than the “national brands” of foodstuffs. He sees the growth of the craft beer industry as a prime driver, but not the only one. Also driving the interest in fermentation is the interest in craft cheeses, bar-b-que sauces, condiments like hot sauce, custom-made sausages, and almost anything locally produced.
Katz explains that fermentation makes foods more nutritious, as well as delicious. Hundreds of medical and scientific studies are confirming what folklore has always known, that fermented foods help people stay healthy. He cites a number of these studies on his website, Wild Fermentation.
So what are fermented foods? They are many of the favorite foods we eat and drink every day, like bread, cheese, chocolate, wine, beer, cider, coffee, tea, salami, vinegar, and soy sauce. Then there are the “up and coming” foods like tempeh, kefir, and Kombucha. And let’s not forget what got it all started with Katz — Sauerkraut.
“My interest in fermentation grew out of my overlapping interests in cooking, nutrition and gardening,” Katz shared. “It started with sauerkraut. I found an old crock buried in our barn, harvested cabbage from our garden, chopped it up, salted it, and waited. That first kraut tasted so alive and powerfully nutritious! Its sharp flavor sent my salivary glands into a frenzy and got me hooked on fermentation.”
Katz has since mentored a number of avid fermenters, including fellow Cannon County entrepreneurs Christian Grantham, who owns Half Hill Farm, and John Parker, who owns Short Mountain Cultures, a tempeh producer.
“I had been reading [his] book… and trying my hand at honey wine, sauerkraut, and lacto-fermented pickles. In 2009, I attended a fermentation workshop with Sandor at [what is now] Stillhouse Restaurant at Short Mountain Distillery. [He] demystified the process of fermenting for me.”
While at that workshop, Parker made a batch of tempeh and he was immediately “enamored” of the process, the flavors, and the nutritional value. He has been making it ever since.
Grantham chose to make kombucha, a sweet black tea fermented to a slightly sour flavor with light fruit added and a natural carbonation.
“My thinking was that if I can show people how to turn a very familiar drink into something healthy,” Grantham said, “they’d change their diet and change their life.”
Grantham met Katz when he was a student at MTSU in the 1990s and ran into him again at Short Mountain shortly before the distillery opened there. He has since set up his fermentation business beside Parker at the Arts Center of Cannon County.
“He’s literally started a cultural food revolution and fermentation revival,” noted Grantham, “and I am very fortunate to be … a small part of making it happen.”
MTSU is also hoping to jump on the fermentation bandwagon. They are currently working on a new major in Fermentation Science because of an overall interest of Tennesseans in eating, drinking, and creating more biodiverse foods.
“For MTSU, the decision to start a Fermentation Science degree program is a reflection of .. what is growing in the Tennessee economy and [our desire] to address the need for properly trained graduates to enter the workforce,” said Johnston. “Our program is somewhat unique in that we are not targeting a single section… we want our graduates to be educated and ready to work in any industry that utilizes fermentation as a production process.”