Sandor Katz is a best-selling author and expert in the lost art of food fermentation, concocting jars of sauerkraut, jugs of miso, and all manner of other microbial wonders in his rural Tennessee home. This short doc quickly gets to the heart of his passion, and reveals his addictive insights on the world.
How did you learn about this story?
AH: I learned about it because I got into raw food and fermenting while I was on a health kick a few years ago. I wanted to learn canning and make my own sauerkraut and kombucha. So I went to this canning class, and the teacher was head of a Brooklyn fermentation group. She mentioned Sandor’s name, plus his name kept coming up while I was looking at other fermentation sites as “THE” guy. So I went to the library, actually, and got his first book, Wild Fermentation, and fell in love with his writing.
Sandor’s voice is so intelligent, yet informal and intimate. Along with bread/beer/pickled veg recipes, including my personal favorite, masala dosa batter, he incorporated some of his philosophy of food, stories of his life in the off-the-grid community he was a member of, anecdotes about each ferment, etc. What really grabbed my attention was that he mentioned in the book that he was HIV positive; at the end of one chapter, he shared the story of a friend who passed away from AIDS, shared several insightful observations about contemplating his own mortality, and then said essentially what he says in the film: that his body decaying and returning to the earth with the help of microbes was fine by him. This blew me away and made me want to meet him and make a film about him.
EL: I grew up in a family where making sauerkraut and yogurt, having a garden etc. was the norm. When I moved back to the United States from Spain, almost six years ago a friend recommended Sandor’s first book, Wild Fermentation. I fell in love with his outlook and the holistic way he approaches being a part of our universe. I told the friend who recommended his work that I wanted to make a film with Sandor, the friend knew him and put us in touch. I had a lot going on with a few other projects, but I met Ann four years later and she’d recently taken a book of his out of the library. So after a few discussions, we decided to fly to Tennessee and make this short together. Sandor and I are working on something new together: a serial project.
There’s an entire artistic scene around fermentation, with t-shirts, artwork, etc. What is it that draws creative types into this stinky realm?
AH: I think it’s that creative DIY desire to make things by hand, and also that working with fermented foods is a creative project that you don’t fully control. It’s a collaboration between you and your environment and your local microbes. It’s process-oriented, and it takes time to get your results, whether it’s waiting overnight for yogurt or days for kraut or years for a miso or wine. That builds anticipation, which is exciting; it’s like a science experiment that turns into a Christmas present. And of course it’s delicious, healthy, a skill you can constantly improve, and it’s relatively inexpensive to make something unusual you can share with friends.
EL: It’s hard to say. There is a physicality of it, the “makers” culture is present in both, it’s also a jump into the unknown, an embrace of an ancient practice. Maybe on a more philosophical level, art and efforts to create it are fundamentally related to considering what we mean in this world, trying to capture and preserve that in some way. I think fermentation, besides being delicious, is also evidence of that beauty, how minute yet essential each of us are.
Does his fermentation fascination have any positive effects on his health condition?
AH: Anecdotally, yes. Sandor did not have to take HIV drugs for quite a number of years; I think it was something like 15 years after his diagnosis that he fell ill enough that he had to start them. He is in good health and he does think fermentation has had a positive impact on his health and longevity.
However he definitely does not ascribe his good health solely to fermentation; he also lived a low-stress rural lifestyle, he gardens and eats well, has a strong extended community of friends, good family ties, exercises, sleeps well, and now he is on a medication regime. After Wild Fermentation was published, Sandor had a lot of people communicating with him thinking he’d “cured his own HIV with kimchi” and he’s now very concerned about not promulgating any idea that fermentation is some kind of miracle cure. In one interview gem that didn’t make the film, Sandor said that he wouldn’t try to fend off a life threatening illness by eating a quart of sauerkraut every day and hoping that would take care of it. To him it is a healthy lifestyle addition to a whole regimen including mainstream medical care.
EL: As Sandor himself says, eating a diet rich in diverse ferments is going to make anyone healthier because as we are learning more and more, the human microbiome is so fundamental to physical, mental, and environmental health. He does shy away from drawing to direct of a connection — I think his first book was misinterpreted as Sandor being “the guy that cured AIDS with fermentation,” which certainly hasn’t happened.
Any surprises while shooting?
AH: One surprise that was fun for me was encountering the root cellar you see in the back of his house that he’d built with friends — it’s the odd triangular cave-like structure that he walks into near the end of the film, carrying his leg of venison. It’s such a cool and unusual building and I was blown away when I saw it in his backyard, like, what the hell is that.
I also had a general sense of his background, but learning more details was continually impressive. For example, I didn’t know much about his new workspace Walnut Ridge other than that it was being constructed, and when we got there I thought it was very beautiful, and it’s also a cool restoration project since the original structure is from the 1800s. I didn’t know he’d lived off the grid for 17 years, nor that he and his friends had such extensive carpentry skills that they’d built their own residences and devise their own solar power and water collection and heating systems. And Sandor has some interesting friends; we met some moonshiner friends of his that didn’t make the film.
Were you amazed to find an old sauerkraut song? How did you find it?
AH: Sandor was the one who found it. A friend of his had sent it to him, and he played it for us on his iPhone while we were there. He was very cute, perching on his interview chair with his legs crossed and casually playing it for us with this air of “pretty great, eh?” I was pretty amazed and obviously once we found it was public domain it had to go in the film.
What project are you working on next?
AH: I am pitching a food web series with a friend based around juicing and cocktails, because those things should go together. I also teamed up with a friend on a doc he was making about an engineless boat race to Alaska up the Inside Passage; some of that film will turn into a fun ensemble character short. If you think fermenters are unusual, you should check out the people who’ll row a 12-foot dinghy or kayak up 700 miles of whirlpool-filled rapids. And I’m working on a screenplay.
EL: Sandor and I have another project up our sleeves. We’ve been working on getting it off the ground this autumn. I am also directing a comedy feature I created in Atlanta called Black Comedy and directing a feature sports documentary called Dan and Dave about a famous ad campaign. Both of those will take the greater part of 2016. I’ll be working on a lot of branded content as well.