Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz – Book Review by Jenn

July 20, 2008 · 17 comments

Welcome back, Jenn, thanks for another great book review…this one made me laugh out loud! (Coming soon: more information on the power of fermented foods and tips on getting more in your diet…)

NOTE: AFTER READING THE POST, BE SURE TO CHECK OUT THE COMMENT SECTION FOR ANOTHER OPINION ON THIS BOOK.

Let me begin by saying that Wild Fermentation is not for beginners, or even a moderate for that matter!

If you’re on the path to discovering true health food, this book will send you running in the opposite direction. Becoming a health food junkie is a step by step by process. You really have to implement a new idea, let it become ingrained in you and then move on to the next. Fermentation is one of those ideas that are far down the “food journey”, especially with the fermented science experiments, ahem, I mean recipes, presented in this book. The complex ‘onion layers’ of nutrition have been unfolding for me for ten years. With that said, even I’m not ready to tackle the concepts and recipes in this cookbook, and I already ferment foods like yogurt, kefir and even kombucha. But for those over-achievers who are beyond yogurt, kefir and kombucha, this book’s for you. For the rest of us, well, getting to this point is years in the making. Unless, of course, you drink beer, then you’re already an expert on fermented drinks!

So what makes this book so advanced?

It comes down to the time, recipes and techniques involved. It’s very intimidating! Plus, I don’t like how the measurements are written in both U.S. and European metric systems. It’s simply distracting. However, what does make Wild Fermentation tolerable is that the information is written in a simple way. I totally get the introduction about the benefits, history and tradition of it. Those first 33 pages are very interesting! I believe it and I really want to be a part of it, but it’s just not realistic. This onion layer just hasn’t been peeled back for me yet.

So here’s a taste of what’s in the book:

The more familiar fermented recipes include sauerkraut, pickles, yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, and sourdough bread. But from there, well, before I could even get started, the ingredients stopped me cold in my tracks. Do you know what koji is? Or nixtamalized corn? Or asafoetida powder? Where do you find digitata kelp? Or nasturtium seedpods? Plus, you’ll have to special order shoyu koji spores and rennet.

I didn’t want this book to get the best of me, so I thumbed through to find a recipe I could tackle. Aaah, Multicultural Polenta. I liked the sounds of that. My life-long best friend is Lebanese and I grew up eating multicultural foods, so no problem there. And polenta – there’s a food I recognize. So I figured this would be a piece of cake. First the ingredients. Huh?! I would need nixtamalized whole posole, strained corn chunks from Gv-No-He-Nv, plus additional Gv-No-He-Nv…what was this stuff? Well, in order to make this beautiful Multicultural Polenta dish, the ingredients needed ingredients. I’d first have to make the Gv-No-He-Nv from page 112. So now I’m flipping back two pages to find this recipe. Gee, I only need nixtamalized corn and water. And to get nixtamalized corn I have to flip back another page for this recipe. This only calls for whole-grain corn, water and wood ash?! (If you can’t find wood ash, food-grade calcium hydroxide will do.) Oh my! I abandoned the Multicultural Polenta before I could mispronounce Gv-No-He-Nv one more time!

No wonder people just tear open their TV dinners!

It’s just too complicated. You can see how each step requires even more steps before it. No one has time for this! Not to mention, I just don’t think I care enough about being a health food junkie to eat fermented multicultural polenta. All the energy I’d be gaining from eating these fermented recipes, I’d actually use up just making them. So I guess they would cancel each other out. I think sitting back with a cold brew in hand will give me all the microorganisms I need.

There was at least one redeeming food in the book!

I was happy to learn that chocolate actually comes from fermented cacao beans. That’s all the scientific proof I need to keep on eating my beloved chocolate (I have a terrible weakness for it).

And lastly, there’s an 800-pound elephant in the room, or book, rather.

He occasionally refers to his gay, HIV-positive lifestyle that I find unappealing in a cookbook. It discredits the integrity of the book.

Then the book ends on a rather sour note (last bad pun). Death. It just seems to drop in out of nowhere! He writes about his own future death, and the experience of being at the deathbed of three other people. The descriptions were too detailed and morbid…rather out of place for a cookbook, don’t you think?

My advice?

Check the book out from the library before buying it. Only you can gauge if you’re ready to tackle it. I think the title, Wild Fermentation, was aptly given. I just happen to think the word wild means ‘crazy’ instead of ‘living in a state of nature’.

Jenn became a health food advocate and naturalist ten years ago after a long struggle with infertility. She’s an avid reader and has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and broadcasting. She and her husband own several businesses and are organic farmers. Jenn is also an enthusiastic cook who uses only whole, organic foods, raw milk, and pastured meats. Read more about Jenn in her guest interview.

(Many more topics & recipes along the right in the sidebar)

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  • { 17 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Liz July 21, 2008 at 3:33 am

    This book review totally made me laugh! What a great way to start the day. I really appreciate Jenn's comments on eating healthier being a step by step process of implementing new habits, it becoming ingrained in your routine and then moving to the next. The onion layer analogy is perfect! Thanks for the entertaining information Jenn & Kelly!

    Reply

    2 Anonymous July 21, 2008 at 9:11 am

    Nice job, Jenn. When the world gets a little too confusing, just grab a beer and everything will be fine. You’re singing my song.

    In the words of the immortal Homer Simpson: “Ah, beer, the cure for, and the source of, all man’s problems.

    Kent

    Reply

    3 Andrea July 23, 2008 at 10:02 am

    Thanks for the book review, Jenn! I have seen this book before (though not looked through it), and was interested in possibly reading it to learn to more healthfully preserve the harvest. I’m not to kombucha even yet! I think you just saved me the read!

    Blessings,

    Andi

    Reply

    4 Erin October 30, 2008 at 9:46 am

    hmm, i have to disagree and encourage you to check out the book anyway andrea. It really is not that difficult to make your way through and there are plenty of recipes that are very, very simple and do not call for wood ash or nixtamalized corn. If you actually read the book, you will soon learn what koji, nixtamalized corn and asfoetida powder are AND where to find them… there are many suggested sources. and as i already said, even if you don’t want to make recipes with these unfamiliar ingredients, you will have plenty to do because the recipes that call for those weird ingredients are actually the exception rather than the rule. Most of the recipes in the book only require common ingredients. Furthermore, as even Jenn admits, the book is written in a very straightforward and engaging way, and this makes the recipes even easier to follow. but beyond the recipes– this book is really not just a cookbook and should not be read as such. it’s a work that pulls together food and politics and has a unique perspective. I really think you might find it interesting even if you happen to disagree with it.

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    5 Kelly the Kitchen Kop October 30, 2008 at 11:35 am

    Erin,

    I really appreciate you giving another opinion on the book! I’m even going to add a nudge at the top of the post asking readers to be sure to read the comment section so they can hear another side.

    THANK YOU!
    Kelly

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    6 Janet W January 22, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    If the book doesn’t appeal to you try the Wild Fermentation web site. He has excellent links to other information about fermentation (yes, the web site is by the author).

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    7 Kelly January 23, 2009 at 12:54 am

    Janet, great idea! Thanks for the link.

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    8 Alyss January 29, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    I’m with Erin on this one. Jenn is right, it is not a beginner fermentation book. It’s not a beginner anything book, but it is an amazing book.
    I love that Sandor is willing to meet you where you are. He gives basic information about how fermentation works and provides simple recipes calling for nothing more than vegetables and salt. He also brings you along with him as he discusses philosophical ideas surrounding food production and healing, or walks you through the complicated process of making tempeh or miso. He doesn’t need you to come all the way with him, he’s willing to show you the path he has taken and let you come or not as you choose. I will probably never make multicultural polenta, or even miso in my basement, but I love that he shows me how to – if I ever wanted to.
    I think the stories Sandor tells about his life are enriching to both the book and to my own life. None of us exists only the the kitchen, we exist in the family room and the bedroom, the front porch and the coffee shop as well. I enjoy cookbooks that acknowledge that fact.
    I certainly wouldn’t recommend Wild Fermentation to my McDonalds and Pillsbury eating friends but I have faith that anyone who can handle the content on Kelly the Kitchen Kop can handle Wild Fermentation.

    Reply

    9 Kelly January 29, 2009 at 11:26 pm

    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, Alyss!! :) (What a well-written comment!)

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    10 Jeanmarie August 7, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    Well, everyone’s entitled to her opinion, but I’m afraid Jenn did a real disservice to a wonderful book and its author, who changed my life. For me, this *was* my beginner fermentation book. Five or six years ago I was in Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco, when over the loudspeaker came an announcement that Sandor Katz was about to start a demonstration of making kimchi and sauerkraut. I’d never heard of Sandor Katz, but I’d recently become interested in sauerkraut through my new acquaintance with the Weston A. Price Foundation, so I made a beeline for the tiny demo space and took a front seat, my knees practically hitting the table where Sandor expertly sliced a mound of cabbage, periodically adding salt and squeezing, while he kept up an informative patter and answered questions. Sandor was animated, friendly, delightful, and totally non-intimidating. When I saw that Sally Fallon had written the forward, that sealed the decision to buy the book. I already had Nourishing Traditions but found it very intimidating. To borrow Jenn’s phrase, the ingredients needed ingredients!
    I found Wild Fermentation much, much easier to get into than NT, and it started me on a new path, making sauerkraut then kombucha and kefir, and many other NT-style foods since. I haven’t made that many specific recipes in Wild Fermentation, as I use it more of a reference. I think I learned what nixtamal is from this book, so it’s odd to me that Jenn found that such a big stumbling block. I had lived in Japan so was familiar with terms like koji and miso. I am not even a major foodie but I didn’t find the reference to a few unfamiliar items to be distressing. Really, one just reveals her own inexperience and ignorance by such remarks. No credible book reviewer would do that, especially with the implication that there was something wrong with the book because the reviewer was ignorant of the topic under review! If you’re only comfortable reading things you’re already totally familiar with, how do you learn?

    As to Mr. Katz’s reference to being gay and HIV-positive, again, the reaction says a lot more about the reviewer than it does Mr. Katz. It not only doesn’t spoil the integrity of the book, it is an integral part of his integrity to express who he is, though not accepted by many people in the dominant culture. He has incredible health challenges, and pushes on and takes responsibility for his health, and has cultivated a relationship with all sorts of healthful, friendly bacteria and shares his excitement and wonder and experimentations with others about the magic of fermentation. He’s part of an often oppressed, even despised, minority, yet he cheerfully shares his journey and culinary discoveries with all. I found his discussions of microbes, life and death to be poetic and enriching to the book, giving it a depth a mere “cookbook” doesn’t have. Wild Fermentation is not merely a cookbook, and if you didn’t get that, it’s your loss indeed. Fermentation is all about the cycles of death, decay and rebirth, and the multitude of friendly microbes we depend on for digestion and other crucial life functions are beautifully celebrated in this book.

    When one is part of the accepted majority, it’s easy to be unaware of how you take for granted that your way of living and being is the norm and acceptable, such as reference to husbands and children and church socials, etc. etc. Mr. Katz has a different life, and it’s equally natural for him to refer to the norms of his life, which are relevant to his book on fermentation because exploring and sharing that seems to be his driving passion and purpose in life. He has HIV but he eats, lives, breathes, struggles and overcomes, just as we all do. You don’t have to be gay, or “pro-gay,” to be capable of learning something new outside your comfort zone, and Mr. Katz probably provides that opportunity for some of his readers.

    Based on the reviews that I have seen, Jenn has a long ways to go before she has the depth of character and knowledge of the world to be a good book reviewer. Just expressing an opinion does not a reviewer make. It’s a difficult skill, cultivated on a base of life experience and knowledge and word craft.

    I know what I’ve said may come across as harsh, but I feel very strongly about the disservice to this book, and I’m crazy enough to think my comments might be useful to Jenn if she takes them to heart. I sincerely hope she takes these comments in the constructive spirit they are meant.

    Reply

    11 KitchenKop August 7, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    Jeanmarie,

    While I disagree with you on a few points (I thought her review was quite good for someone who hadn’t done book reviews before), and I do think you were a little harsh (I’d rather you had disagreed with her without the personal hits), but having said that, I really appreciate another view on this book. You made some good points and it’s always nice to hear more opinions!

    Kelly

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    12 PaulD December 3, 2009 at 11:47 am

    I’m a big fan of Wild Fermentations. Reading it is the best way, I think, to develop a positive attitude toward fermentation; that is, to think about it the way our ancestors thought about it for centuries. Katz really LOVES fermentation and it’s contagious. I like the fact that Jenn was honest enough to say how Katz’s “fairyhood” rubbed her the wrong way. I have issues with his sexual practices, too, but until such time as he declares himself to be a biblical Christian, the Apostle Paul would enjoin me not to judge him (1 Cor 5.13, Rom 8.7).

    Reply

    13 KitchenKop December 3, 2009 at 11:51 am

    Hi Paul,
    While I don’t like the term “fairyhood” that you used, I totally agree that it’s not our place to judge. Thanks for letting us know how much you loved the book!
    Kelly

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    14 PaulD December 3, 2009 at 12:00 pm

    I’m not particularly fond of the term either, but Katz specifically uses the word “fairy” to describe himself (though as far as I know he never uses the construction “fairyhood”). I guess this raises the question of whether members of a sub-group within society have the right to dictate which terms are used to refer to them — but there it is.

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    15 KitchenKop December 3, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    OHHHH, I didn’t realize he calls himSELF that!!!

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    16 Lori M May 6, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    Yes, he did, indeed, refer to himself by that term. It rather surprised me. I read the book, and agree with PaulD.
    Knowing where Katz is coming from gives the reader a better understanding of his passion for fermented foods – it’s a life or death thing for him, or at least makes a significant difference in the life he is able to live. It’s a testimony to the health benefits that fermented foods offer to anyone.
    I really liked the book, particularly the first part of it, as Jenn stated. I read through it fairly quickly – hard to put down at times. The background information was very good and kept my attention. This is one of the only books, in fact, that I have actually finished reading (though I just glanced through most of the recipes). It got me quite excited about trying to make more fermented foods this year, and it seems that I saw several recipes that I thought I could do, so I may buy the book. At present, I make kefir and kombucha regularly, and we made our first batch of sauerkraut last fall (before I read the book).

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    17 cary October 6, 2013 at 5:05 am

    Yeah… I’m sorry but I don’t want to hear about how gay or not anyone is when learning about fermentation. It’s simply not relevant to me. I am sincerely happy that the author has come to terms with his sexuality, however, how would you like to hear about my sexual preferences in a recipe? How about some “Big boned, buxom, German, blonde dressed like a farm girl in high heels and fishnet stockings fantasy” soup. TMI? I think so.

    P.S.
    If you know this girl, please contact me.

    Reply

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