In his latest book, Cooked, Michael Pollan takes the reader on a journey through history, explaining the evolution of cooking using the four elements – fire, water, air, and earth.
In the Earth section of Cooked, Pollan explores just how deeply we’re connected to death, the earth itself, and “’the microcosmos’ – the biologist Lynn Margulis’s term for the unseen universe of microbes all around and within us.” Pollan also leans heavily on the expertise of Chelsea Green author Sandor Katz, the man who piqued his curiosity on fermentation.
In his inspired foreword to Katz’ bestselling and James Beard Foundation Book Award-winning book The Art of Fermentation, Pollan’s admiration of Katz and his skills as a teacher and ground-breaking “fermento” bubbles over. The same collegial admiration is found in Cooked, where Pollan talks about his own “first solo expedition into the wilds of the post-Pasteurian world” where he tested some of Katz’ recipes:
“After three weeks, I first opened my crock to assess the progress of my kraut, but the scent that wafted up from the fermenting pinkish mass put me back on my heels. It was nasty. “Note of septic tank” would be a generous descriptor. In view of the off-putting scent, I wasn’t sure whether sampling the sauerkraut was a good idea, but in trying my best to channel Sandor Katz’s nonchalance, I held my nose and tasted it. It wasn’t terrible and I didn’t get sick. That was a relief, but…well, this seemed kind of a low bar for a food. Judith compounded my disappointment by requesting that I get the crock out of the house as soon as possible. I wondered if I should throw out the whole batch and start over.
But before doing anything rash, I decided to check in with Sandor Katz. He advised me to stick with my kraut a little longer.”
After an explanation of the “funky period” that ferments can go through, Pollan decided that “Sandor was right. A month later, when I dared to open the crock again, the stink was gone.”
Pollan goes on to describe Katz’s anticharismatic, unpretentious presentation after attending one of his many fermentation workshops, as seen in the video below. In one episode from the book, Pollan recalls attending a Fermentation Festival with Sandor, where despite his seeming reserve, “Sandor Katz was a major celebrity, unable to cross a room or field without stopping to sign an autograph or pose for a picture.”
For nearly a decade — when his first book Wild Fermentation was published — Katz has been criss-crossing the country, if not the world, to lead workshops on fermentation. Pollan aptly dubs Katz the “The Johnny Appleseed of Fermentation” and names him as likely the most famous of the growing league of fermentos.
It’s a legacy well-deserved for the understated Katz, and we can see why this combination draws Pollan to to Katz, especially given how in Cooked the writer explores man’s manipulation of culture and nature through cooking, while Katz “regards his work as a form of “cultural revival” – by which he has in mind both meaning for the word “culture, the microbial and the human.”
Whether you’re grilling, making sauce or reductions, baking breads, or fermenting anything from cheese to pickles, you are connecting with the elements, your culture, and its food.