Top | The Culinate Interview

Sandor Ellix Katz

(article, Liz Crain)

[%pageBreakSettings nobreak=true] 

p(blue). A self-professed “fermentation fetishist” and grassroots food activist, Sandor Ellix Katz is the author of Wild Fermentation and The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved.

Your second and most recent book, The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved, takes a look at underground food activists and their efforts to revive small-scale, traditional food production. How did this book project come about?
The two books are kind of a continuous narrative. When Wild Fermentation was published in 2003, I went on a couple of extended book tours and held workshops at co-ops, farmers’ markets, farms, and all kinds of venues. You know, I was just so blown away by people I was meeting at that time and their projects that I eventually was able to work much of that into this book. 

Most of my research and fieldwork was done in the U.S., but I also spent a few weeks in Australia and hosted a couple of workshops in Italy. So (despite) the book’s subtitle —  “Inside America’s Underground Food Movement” — these movements are certainly not limited to the U.S.

[%image katz float=left width=150 credit="Photo courtesy Sandor Ellix Katz" caption="Sandor Ellix Katz"]

In Revolution, you point out that the incidence of food-related illnesses doubled between 1994 and 2001, the period that genetically modified crops were first introduced to the marketplace. Why do you think that so many Americans feel that safe food is mass-produced?
Well, I think that we’ve been brainwashed to believe that. And that certainly began before my lifetime. I think that with hygiene and hermetically sealed packages, people have been taught to equate these things with safety, whereas small things involving people’s hands are intrinsically dangerous. It’s just one of the myths of our time. 

You know, the safety in packaging and sameness is appealing to people. A lot of it is convenience — people can save hours of time with these products. People watched their mothers slaving away in the kitchen. People have extraordinarily busy lives. But if your lifetime is being shortened by the unhealthy foods that you’re eating, well, you’re not really saving time, are you?

I think that the pasteurization of milk is a great example — the degree to which people in public health feel that pasteurization is the only way to keep people safe. It’s a dogma of sterilization that fails to recognize healthy, natural life. It is imperative that factory milk be pasteurized — what with the high levels of rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone), confinement rather than pasture, heavy antibiotic use. These cows are diseased and so is the milk, so it’s imperative to pasteurize that milk. 

It’s the way the animals live and what they are being fed that’s crucial here. If they have adequate space and pasture, their fresh milk does not need to be pasteurized; it’s delicious and it’s safe. 

People don’t realize that E. coli 0157, the pathogenic E. coli, is caused by unhealthy cattle fed on grain.

America’s response is, “Let’s irradiate everything.” This way pathogens like E. coli will be destroyed. Well, this just turns a blind eye to the fact that food raised in a healthy way doesn’t have these problems. I think that there are people who are envisioning a future in which all food is irradiated. Well, that’s very frightening to me.

What do you think of the combination of the words “free” and “trade”? Do you think that free trade is in fact free?
Well, no. Absolutely not. Free trade is really a legal construct, a slogan for the large economic actors. At the grassroots level, free trade has a much different ring to it.

If you are somebody with a small farm that is milking three cows, you can’t sell your milk to your neighbors in the U.S. If you bake 40 loaves of bread in your kitchen, you can’t sell that bread to your neighbors in the U.S. If you travel abroad and you want to bring back seeds for a variety of lettuce that you found there and liked, you can’t bring those seeds back to the U.S.

Throughout Revolution, you state that healthy plants and animals result in safe food, and that food-safety problems usually arise from animal contamination in industrial and factory farms. What are your thoughts about the National Animal Identification System (NAIS)?
I think that the NAIS is a very insidious plan, and if it were to become mandatory it would give large factory farmers another competitive advantage over small farmers. Radio IDs in each animal are expensive and quickly add up. But large industrial farms which work on the contract model are required to have only a single identifier for the entire group, while small farmers need one for each animal. Of course, this is another economy-of-scale advantage for large farmers. Many people suggest that NAIS will make us safer, but there is also a huge outcry against NAIS. In fact, this issue has really galvanized small farmers. 

In Revolution, you chronicle Cuba’s use of increased crop diversity as part of its attempts at overcoming trade barriers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Did you come across other similar examples during your research and travels?
Small homesteads or small farms are paragons and role models for me in producing their own foods. I’ve never been to Cuba, but that seems to be the strongest large-scale example of what I was getting at. 

Venezuela, for example, which is very much politically aligned with Cuba, is experiencing more and more ad hoc urban food production. Cuba is a direct role model for that. 

Here at Short Mountain Sanctuary (the Tennessee queer intentional community where Katz has lived for the past 13 years), there are a handful of us focused on growing our own food, but certainly not all of us. We are very far from food self-sufficiency. We do a lot of exchanging and sharing of food with our neighbors. This is the fundamental basis of community building. 

The ideal is not self-sufficiency. The model has to be interdependence: sharing and exchanging what people produce. You know, no one can raise bees for honey, keep chickens, sustain a diverse vegetable garden, maintain a fruit orchard, and put all the excess of this by for the winter. Nobody can do all of that alone. It’s about forging bonds.

What kind of change do you hope Revolution_ sparks?
This book was a super-ambitious project and I could have spent another year or five years working on it. But I hope that in the form that it is, it weaves together some diverse topics into a cohesive analysis. My biggest hope for the book has been to broaden people’s outlook and see the interconnectedness of a number of related issues.
p(bio). Liz Crain is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

reference-image, l

katz, l