Our Fermented Lives: How Fermented Foods have shaped Cultures and Community

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in July 2022.

Sometimes I forget how much I love food writing, and food history, and thinking about how food works in society. Then I read a book like this and I’m reminded all over again.

I’ve never particularly gone down the fermentation path. I did have a sourdough starter for a year or so – before lockdown, I swear! – but I found it too wasteful, throwing out the starter (I am considering going back to it, having read this…).

This book is:
— personal – Skinner mentions parts of her own journey, both in understanding food and more broadly, throughout.

— aiming to be broad in outlook and postcolonial in attitude: she carefully notes having tried to speak to / read from the people who actually make the ferments, and that it is “critically important, particularly as someone with relative privilege, not to overshadow others’ stories with my own words and perspectives”. I think food history is one way in which the colonial agenda can, indeed, still be present, so I appreciate this acknowledgement and the attempt.

— partly a history, looking at the role of fermentation in different cultures across time, and speculating about how such things might have been discovered. Also the range of fermentation experiments! I love any story that includes garum, that probably-incredibly-stinky fish sauce of the Romans.

— a bit science-y, but not that much. Humans are really only beginning to understand the interplay between the gut microbiome and our general health, so it was interesting to think a bit about how fermented foods might help there.

— partly a cookbook. Why yes, I have every intention of trying mushroom ketchup, thankyouverymuch (it came before tomato ketchup, because after all don’t forget how late tomatoes are on the European culinary scene).

— a bit philosophical, which wasn’t always my cup of tea (… or kombucha…). There’s discussion of the word ‘culture’ and how it can mean the microbes as as well as human interactions, which I didn’t fully get on board with – it seemed to stretch the ideas a bit far. And claims about mindfulness and community that did, actually, make me stop and think. The idea that ferments enable us to ‘live a more embodied life’; that the time taken to have a slow meal with friends ‘is a necessary act we give ourselves precious little time for’.

— not perfect. Some of the segues between sections are abrupt and don’t follow what I would consider logical or natural links. And there are some instances of poor editing – mentioning that the eruption of Mt Vesuvius happened in 79CE, for instance, twice on one page. But those are relatively minor issues. (I was more thrown by the idea that Samuel Pepys was “best known for burying his beloved wine and cheese stores to protect them from the 1666 Great Fire of London” rather than, say, for the incredibly detailed decade-long diary he kept.)

Overall, a book I thoroughly enjoyed reading, and I have quite the list of recipes to try out.

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