how i fell in love with microbes
Right now I'm obsessed with microbes.
Maybe I have always loved microbes, though, as I think back on my childhood affection for umeboshi - salted fermented plums that I could eat by the spoonful despite their mouth-puckering flavor. Maybe my gut led me here. But it wasn't until I read this passage in Sandor Katz's book Wild Fermentation, that something clicked in my brain about the transformative power of fermentation:
Social change is another form of fermentation. Ideas ferment, as they spread and mutate and inspire movements for change. The Oxford English Dictionary offers as the second definition of ferment: 'The state of being excited by emotion or passion, agitation, excitement... a state of agitation tending to bring about a purer, more wholesome, or more stable condition of things...'
In the realm of social change, fire is the revolutionary moment of upheaval: romantic and longed for, or dreaded and guarded against, depending on your perspective. Fire spreads, destroying whatever lies in its path, and its path is unpredictable, Fermentation is not so dramatic. It bubbles rather than burns, and its transformative mode is gentle and slow. Steady, too. Fermentation is a force that cannot be stopped. It recycles life, renews hope, and goes on and on.
This part of the book - and indeed, the very fact that this cookbook ended with a section on social change - shifted something inside me. It awakened a curiosity about the transformative process of microbes, and our stewardship of this power through fermentation.
Everywhere around the world, there are cultural traditions of fermentation, not only for preservation, but to transform food - unlocking new nutrients, creating a bridge between our bodies and the world around us. Microbes also play an important role in our soil, connecting the roots systems of plants with nutrients in a similar way.
This got me thinking about the role of microbes in our food system. As a community food system strategist, I do a lot of thinking about our food system. Food is one of the primary ways we interact with our environment. We may not think about it that way, but three times each day we choose to open our bodies up to integrate something outside of ourselves into our very being.
I took a food safety certification course recently, where I learned about the logic of our current food system, where food is deemed safe only after it has passed through "kill points" that sterilize (heat, bleach) the life out of our food. This feels wrong in my gut.
They kept saying how "dangerous" fresh vegetables are because they canʻt be processed to kill everything in the same way canned foods are. This concept of "safety" must be built for a litigious society, not for the healthy functioning of nature and bodies.
Thankfully, I took another course shortly thereafter, this one on JADAM natural farming techniques. In it, Youngsang Cho talked about an approach that rang more true to me. He says, typically what we do is focus on the bad guys - the pathogens, the diseases - we learn all about them: what they like and don't like - and we try create conditions to kill them off. If we instead focus our intention on creating a diverse and thriving microbial ecosystem - that diversity will itself create a balance that prevents any one actor from going out of control and becoming over-dominant.
I love this approach, not only for farming, but for social movements, and for our relationships. There's something about the metaphor of microbes that speaks to something deeper for me.
I feel isolated. I think a lot of us do. We feel lonely and disconnected from each other, the earth, our purpose. There are many factors that contribute to this, and I believe our food system is one of them.
Not only do we not know where our food comes from: who grew it, how they were treated, how they treated the soil - but in a very real way, we are cutting the line connecting our bodies to our environment by killing the microbes in our food.
Unlike us, with our 23 pairs of static chromosomes for life, single-celled microbes have free-floating genes that they can exchange with their environment. They can pick up a gene like a tool, use it for a while, then put it back. The have a permeability that allows them to literally connect to the world around them.
One recent study looked at a new class of enzymes that are produced by a marine bacteria, Zobellia galactanivorans, that can digest the polysaccharides in seaweed (like nori). They found that the specific gene in the bacteria that produced this enzyme is also found in the intestines of Japanese populations, but not in North Americans. This means that the microbes in the food we eat are - at least to some degree - determining how our bodies are able to digest and metabolize our food. It means that microbes are connecting us to our environment, allowing our bodies to integrate with what surrounds us. (Katz, Art of Fermentation)
If microbes connect to everything, by killing them off in our food we are exacerbating our own isolation.
There are a lot of things that need to be done with our current food system: localization, elimination of chemical inputs, justice for farm and food service workers, making time to actually grow food and cook for ourselves and learn the recipes of our elders, to name a few.
To me, fermentation is like a booster for the microbes we are missing in our otherwise sterilized diets. It's an opportunity to reconnect - to the microbes, to the traditions of our ancestors, to the soil where our food was grown, and to each other by reclaiming our abilities to feed ourselves and share with each other.