Anthropologists have long noted that identification of organic materials as edible is quite culturally contingent, and this variability applies all the more to fermented foods, which have been modified by the activities of micro-organisms. Fermented foods bear multiple meanings, even within the Euro-American context. One position stems from the microbiology of Pasteur and Koch and the demands of a globalized food economy; here some fermented products are widely accepted as good to eat and hygienic, and others are feared for their potential to harbor microbes unchecked. Meanwhile, there is a contingent of home-based fermenters that views the small-scale production of foods like kimchi and kefir with wild bacteria and yeasts, as preparations of tasty and nutritious comestibles, but also as politically revolutionary acts. Both positions view fermented foods as desirable, but each idealizes a different provenance: one the factory, and the other the home kitchen. I argue that these understandings of microbe-altered foods symbolize the conflict between two political ideologies, with the home-fermenters positioning their products as stand-ins for the decentralized, fluid, and publicly-owned, against the nationalistic, tightly controlled, standardized, and privatized. In considering activist and author Sandor Ellix Katz as a case-study,we can observe how home-fermenters use their products as material and performative representations of localism, and see themselves as embracing flexible boundaries and recombinant identities. In tracing the historical pathways of fermented foods from early microbial science to today, we see how this position struggles to assert its legitimacy against the more institutionalized position it rejects.
I received the Christine Wilson Award (graduate paper) for a version of this piece in 2011. The Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition (SAFN), a sub-section of the American Anthropological Association, grants this award annually.
Chera, Madeline. 2012. “Ideologies of Fermented Foods.” Indiana Food Review, no. 2. Formerly hosted at http://www.indianafoodreview.com/archives/issue-2-bits-and-morsels/ideologies-of-fermented-foods.
Now visible at my academia.edu page.