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Rejecting the Homogenization of Culture—With Food

The following is an excerpt from Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods by Sandor Katz. It has been adapted for the Web.


Standardization, Uniformity, and Mass Production

Part of the pleasure those [McDonald’s] fries gave me was how perfectly they conformed to my image and expectation of them—to the idea of Fries in my head, that is, an idea that McDonald’s has successfully planted in the heads of a few billion people around the world. —Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire

Cultures around the world have evolved as specific localized phenomena. This is true of both microbial cultures and human cultures. Cultural practices such as languages, beliefs, and food (including fermentation), are incredibly diverse. But that rich diversity is threatened by the expansion of trade into a unified global market. Where once beer, bread, and cheese were quirky local products varying from place to place, we lucky twenty-first-century consumers can buy fermented commodities such as Bud Lite, Wonder Bread, or Velveeta that look and taste the same everywhere. Mass production and mass marketing demand uniformity. Local identity, culture, and taste are subsumed by the ever-diminishing lowest common denominator, as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and other corporate behemoths permeate minds on a global scale to create desire for their products.

This is the homogenization of culture, a sad, ugly process by which languages, oral traditions, beliefs, and practices are becoming extinct every year, while ever-greater wealth and power is concentrated in fewer hands. Wild fermentation is the opposite of homogenization and uniformity, a small antidote you can undertake in your home, using the extremely localized populations of microbial cultures present there to produce your own unique fermented foods. What you ferment with the organisms around you is a manifestation of your specific environment, and it will always be a little different. Perhaps your homemade sauerkraut or miso will conform perfectly to your image and expectation of them, as the McDonald’s fries do for Michael Pollan. More likely, they will possess some quirky anomaly that will force you to adjust your image and expectation. Do-ityourself fermentation departs from the realm of the uniform commodity. Yet some of the earliest commodities exchanged on a global scale were fermented foods. Specifically, chocolate, coffee, and tea were among the first agricultural products shipped in vast quantity around the world; and all involve fermentation in their processing.

In 1985 I spent several months traveling with my friend Todd in Africa. In Cameroon, not far from a town called Abong-Mbang, we were introduced to a couple of Pygmy people who took us on a trek through the jungle. We used bamboo poles for walking sticks as we waded through knee-high swamps. These Pygmies have carried on a long tradition of subsistence in that jungle. In the course of our hike, we came across several Pygmy settlements engaged in cacao farming. We came to understand that the government was trying to force these people to settle into cash-crop agriculture. Their migratory lifestyle was being outlawed, phased out because it was of no value to a state in desperate pursuit of tax revenue and foreign exchange to pay off debts to global financial institutions.

When traditional cultures are outlawed, that is the homogenization of culture. It’s an old story, which could be told by any Native American, or by my grandparents, who fled pogroms and saw the Eastern European Yiddishkeit they were born into disperse and disappear in a single generation. By the time I headed home to the land of obscenely stocked supermarket shelves, I had come to the conclusion that no matter what I said or did, my presence in Africa served only to glamorize the capitalist world order, adding to the seductive allure that if you abandon your traditional culture, educate your kids in colonial languages at missionary schools, and grow cacao beans for export, maybe someday you’ll accumulate the kind of excess wealth to travel to the other side of the globe, just for fun and stimulation.

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