Geek of the Week

Change Agent

Novella Carpenter, adjunct professor of urban agriculture, finds transformation in fermentation.

What makes you a geek?
I ferment.

What exactly is fermentation?
Fermentation is an ancient form of cooking, but instead of using a flame, you’re using lactobacteria to “cook” your food. Lactobacteria are good bacteria. When you put them to work, they break down the food and turn it sour and acidic. Sourdough bread is fermented. Beer is fermented. Coffee and chocolate and sauerkraut are fermented. It’s not just hippie food! When you eat sauerkraut, you’re putting healthy goodness in your gut. Why buy probiotic capsules when you can eat sauerkraut?

What are you making right now?
Sauerkraut from cabbage and beets. They each bring different bacteria to the party.

What else can you ferment?
Mustard greens. Burdock root. Kale. Milk. Oatmeal. Tomatoes for ketchup. Almost anything can be fermented, but you might not want to eat it. Natto is rotting soybeans. I think it’s disgusting but some people like it.

How can fermentation change the world?
Lots of ways. Fermentation teaches mindfulness. A cabbage can take six months to grow, so you want to honor it by fermenting it with care. Fermentation encourages cultural understanding. When you travel you can go to a farmers market and see what the local people ferment, like yogurt, natto, jamón Iberico. Fermentation promotes human connection. If you’re going to make prosciutto, it’s good to have a mentor show you how to do it right. Fermentation promotes economic health. Young people at Phat Beets Pickle and Catering Company in Oakland make sauerkraut and kimchi and sell it at farmers markets. They turn a head of cabbage that costs $3 into a jar of sauerkraut that costs $8.50. Fermentation gives you a sense of accomplishment. When you chop up a cabbage, pop it in a jar with some salt, and wait a week or two, you get to say, “Hey, I made that!”

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