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The Book that Fermented a Cultural Revival

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the first printing of Sandor Ellix Katz’s Wild Fermentation [1], a book that helped launch a fermentation revival in this country.

Since its publication, Katz has traveled the globe teaching hands-on workshops and learning from others about the many foods and beverages made by the process of fermentation. His travel schedule – and his personal appeal– aptly earned him the title of “The Johnny Appleseed of Fermentation” from Michael Pollan. To see why Katz has earned this reputation, check out his workshop DVD [2] (a clip is below).

The additional knowledge Katz has gained since the publication of Wild Fermentation is found in The Art of Fermentation [3], Katz’s award-winning book published last year. The book landed on The New York Times bestseller list, was featured on Fresh Air, and won a Beard Foundation Book Award in the reference category.

To celebrate Wild Fermentation’s 10th anniversary, we asked Senior Editor Ben Watson to recount meeting Katz for the first time, and bringing this important book to print.

I will never forget the day I first met Sandor Katz, though oddly I can’t remember exactly what year it was—either 2000 or 2001. He was traveling, staying with friends in Vermont, and had arranged to come into the Chelsea Green offices to meet with our editorial team: myself; Jim Schley, our longtime editor-in-chief; and Stephen Morris, the publisher and president of the company at the time. This was when Chelsea Green was in the old Gates-Briggs Building in the center of White River Junction, an historic edifice with a lot of what could generously be called “character.” The drop ceilings in the editorial office were just that—ceiling panels would work themselves loose and float down periodically, exposing wiring and pipes. The theater just down the hall was the scene of summer musical rehearsals, with kids belting out chestnuts like “Tomorrow” from Annie . . . all day long. And of course the whole building shook ever so slightly whenever the Amtrak train would pull into the little passenger station across the street. It was the furthest thing from a typical corporate setting one could imagine.

Jim and Stephen were already used to meeting authors and signing up books in interesting places and circumstances. They had previously signed the contract for The Sauna in Rob Roy’s round, cordwood masonry sauna, trying hard not to drip sweat on it from their naked bodies. And there was even talk about arranging a meeting with Canadian author Robert Henderson in a hall in Newport Line, Vermont, which had entrances in both Canada and the U.S. (Robert’s wife, for reasons I never quite understood, was considered persona non grata in this country, and Quebec—on the other side of the building—was as close as we could get her to White River.)

Sandor arrived, looking very flamboyant in what I remember as a multicolor ring-striped sweater and corduroy pants that were very soft and velour-like in texture, and golden-mustard yellow in color. Clearly neither he nor we were going for the corporate image. He entered, carrying a jar of his homemade “kraut-chi” and a small, saddle-stitched pamphlet—the original, self-published version of Wild Fermentation. As the meeting progressed, and we passed around the jar, scooping out delicious fermented vegetables with our fingers, we became more and more impressed and fond of this bright, articulate, and passionate young man, who was part social activist, part cultural preservationist—and clearly obsessed with all things fermentable. It wasn’t a hard decision to sign up his book.

Time passed, and most of the staff turned over during a major reorganization at Chelsea Green. Our offices changed as well, moving a few hundred feet up the street to the Tip Top Building, a big open space inside what was once a production bakery and that had been converted into artists’ studios and other uses. The new, expanded edition of Wild Fermentation was one of the first titles Chelsea Green issued under our “new” Publisher, Margo Baldwin, who with her husband Ian had founded the company in 1984 and had run it for many years before taking a well-deserved break.

I remember when we opened the box containing the advance copies of Wild Fermentation. There was a stunned silence, then a mixture of bemusement and outrage. We had struggled over the cover design for a long time (“Should we have microscopic photos of bacteria on the front?”), but had opted in the end for a funky type-heavy cover. The color in the printer proofs we’d seen had been a dark forest green. Imagine our surprise then when we saw, on the front cover, a shockingly lighter, almost bilious pea green color, and a neon-pink, childrens’ chewable vitamins color in the title and on the back cover. Our first reaction was to reach for the light switch and see if the damn thing would glow in the dark.

We had no clue how this garish-looking, flamboyantly fabulous book that we were sending off into the world would sell. Fortunately, we had an equally flamboyant and fabulous author to promote it. Sandor carried this book to the four corners of the earth, tirelessly spreading the word and talking to everyone who cared to listen about the wonders of fermentation. And over the course of time, this book has grown to become a classic.

Like many of the books we have published at Chelsea Green, Wild Fermentation was way ahead of its time. Today fermentation is a “hot topic,” with everyone from self-reliant anti-government bunker dwellers to tragically urban hipsters from Brooklyn to San Francisco jumping on the bandwagon and eagerly discovering (or rediscovering) the traditional skills for transforming and preserving a wide range of foods. And with the 2012 publication of The Art of Fermentation—Sandor’s best-selling magnum opus—even more readers are now discovering Wild Fermentation, his first book. It’s the one that made it all possible, the original “culture” that started a great and growing ferment.