Q&A Julia Skinner, author Our Fermented Lives

/ / Food & Flavor

As a fermenter with a doctorate in library and information studies, Julia Skinner finds the intersection between fermented foods and history fascinating. That crossroads is where humans evolved with food preservation techniques and created community around fermentation’s flavor.

“I realized there was so much overlap with the ways other cultures were using fermented foods,” Skinner says. “Every culture in the world ferments, so it’s not surprising that we all have come to the same ways to utilize them in our diets over the years. In my research with food history, food is a tool for humans to connect.”

But, in the growing amount of available literature on fermentation, Skinner noticed a hole. Missing was a comprehensive historical overview of fermentation around the globe. She spent years researching and writing on the subject for her new book “Our Fermented Lives.” The 384-page book provides a holistic overview on fermented foods in international cultures. 

Skinner’s journey into fermentation began over two decades ago. With an overabundance of produce from her home garden, she turned to fermentation to use her extra fresh vegetables. After leaving a job as a rare book curator in 2018, Skinner “dreamed of working with food” rather than just keeping it a home hobby. It was a roller coaster period of life for Skinner. Within a few months into her job hunt, her mother and grandmother passed away. Unsure of the best career path, her mother’s last words to Skinner encouraged her passion: “Tell people about the food.” Skinner’s business was born, Root Kitchens “a fermentation and food history company that bridges the gap between modern people and historic food.”

Skinner is now a food history consultant and offers fermentation courses and fermentation planners (that she illustrates). A graduate of a fermentation residency program at Sandor Katz’ Tennessee home, Katz encouraged Skinner to add fermentation classes to the Root Kitchens repertoire. Katz wrote the foreword to Skinner’s book. 

“I love doing fermentation and incorporating it into my larger food history work,” Skinner says. “The fermentation classes I teach end up being my most popular ones, people are so interested in fermentation.”

Below is a Q&A with Skinner, who spoke with The Fermentation Association about her new book.

The Fermentation Association: In your research for the book, was there any overlap between how different countries ferment that surprised you? 

Julia Skinner: One thing I found really interesting, in the chapter on health, I looked into how traditional medical systems use ferments. Each one kind of had different ways that they accounted for fermented foods in our diets because, in a lot of traditional medical systems of course, food is the basis of a lot of treatments and health recommendations, and so a lot of them recommended sourness and the flavor of sourness as a balance for other flavors. When you think about, for example, traditional food pairings like lemon and fish or mustard and pork, those are actually based in humoral theory because the sourness and the heat of the mustard and the lemon balance what was considered the cold, phlegmy properties of the pork and the fish. So you would have a dish that was balanced and wouldn’t go too far one way or the other. You see that with vinegar in dishes too, it’s used in the same way. 

In traditional Chinese medicine, there’s also a use of sour foods in the spring as a way to balance your bodies after a winter of richer foods. That surprised me.

TFA: What ferments do you think had the greatest impact on civilization?

JS: I think the best way to think about it is not so much a specific ferment but instead to think about the processes. Alcohol production was a big one, one of the big reasons being that it helped us with water safety. But also in alcohol production, people would take their stale bread and could brew it into something. People could also take their grapes or peaches that were about to go bad and brew them. It helped with food waste, it provided them nutrients and vitamins. 

But also bread baking. Both bread and alcohol, when we think about the history of fermentation, are very tied with agriculture. When we have a steady supply of grains – and when we are in one place so we can make things because we’re not moving around all the time – we are able to ferment more food. 

And then of course lacto-fermentation, too. It’s how people preserved their vegetables for the winter. 

Thinking about all these different ways that we have preserved food and promoted our health and cut down on food waste, fermentation is a good place to think about the specific impacts it had on civilization. 

TFA: Humans have been fermenting for centuries. Do you think society has lost some recipes?

JS: Absolutely. The last chapter of the book is called “The Future” because I want us to recognize ourselves as part of a living tradition. I talk about our work in fermentation as being a bridge between these traditions our ancestors had and this knowledge they had, and we now can carry that on to the future and we can add to it. We can be a part of this very living thing which I think is especially appropriate with fermentation since we’re working with living organisms. 

One of the things I talk a lot about in that chapter is how documentation of fermentation, fermented foods, has not always been common. It’s just not been widely documented. One of the reasons for that is that these foods were at one point in time very, very common. Fermented food is still very common, all of us eat ferments all the time. But I think home fermentation practices used to be much more common, and so people didn’t think to write down the way their mom versus their grandma versus their aunt made this food because everybody was making it, it was so ubiquitous. Well you jump forward a few generations and then nobody’s making it and now we don’t know how people are making it. 

And then there’s the other issue of the fact that the people who were preparing and sharing the knowledge of these traditional foods were often people whose knowledge wasn’t considered worth preserving by the people who had literacy. So women, people who were enslaved, people who were colonized and did not have access to writing and the transmission of knowledge. If your country has been colonized and you don’t speak English or you don’t have access to a printing press, how can you widely communicate in the ways that are accepted by the larger world? That speaks to the importance of doing research and talking to people who are actually in the community rather than just relying on English language resources. 

But it also is a reminder that we have a responsibility to document stuff today, please write this stuff down, please share and record what you know and make sure you’re talking with your community members, especially the ones who are unlikely to write these things down so that we actually have a record for the future.

TFA: Any surprising ferment you had not heard of before?

JS: Gundruk, it’s a fermented mustard greens and similar sorts of thick Brassica greens that are salt packed and fermented. It’s a Nepalese ferment.

TFA: You mentioned your fermentation classes at Root Kitchens are your most popular. Why do you find people want to take fermentation classes?

JS: A couple of reasons. One, I think we just see a lot more people that are interested in reconnecting with these traditional methods. People often feel like they’re reliant on store-bought foods and don’t know how to do traditional preparation methods or feel like they’re inaccessible. One of the big tenets behind when I teach something is I try to teach it as low-tech and accessible as possible. Instead of me being like “Go buy all these airlocks,” I teach “Here’s a jar, here’s some vegetables, here’s some salt, we’ll just use that and if you want to use other equipment later, you can.” 

I think another part of the reason people like the classes is because they realize how simple and accessible it is. I focus a lot on those traditional methods and that accessibility, but then I also focus on food waste reduction and thinking of how we’re using our scraps. For example, when I make fire cider or any other infused vinegar, I strain out the vinegar when it’s ready and then I save all those scraps and I dehydrate them and I make them into seasoning blends so that I’m not just throwing them in the compost. 

TFA: What do you find to be the greatest challenges and opportunities in fermentation education?

JS: Frankly one of the challenges is figuring out how to balance your desire to share knowledge with people with your desire to pay your bills. I think all of us know we love this community, we love sharing, but figuring out how to balance that sharing with the fact that I am working and I need to be paid for that work. One of the ways I’ve done that is I offer scholarships to my classes so that I’m able to bring that knowledge to people who maybe won’t have an opportunity to get it otherwise. 

I find it very fun and I find, if somebody’s signing up for a fermentation class, they’re already interested, you don’t really have to get buy-in from people. Even if I’m just talking with people and they learn I’m a fermentation educator, they get really excited about it. It’s clearly something that captures a lot of people’s imaginations. 

TFA: You’ve been fermenting for 20 years. Have you seen more interest in fermentation from the general public?

JS: Yes. I remember when I started fermenting food, people knew what fermented foods were. At the time I lived in Iowa and there was a lot of sauerkraut because there is a large German population there. But a lot of people were no longer making it at home or maybe their grandparents did and they were just like “Oh yeah, grandma makes sauerkraut but then like the whole kitchen smells bad for a month.” It’s more popular because of the proliferation of educational opportunities, because of where we’re at culturally and then the proliferation of products, the fermentation product market is just burgeoning, you guys (TFA) points out the data all the time. It’s great because I think it means that fermentation has become a lot less scary to people than it was, which I love to see.

TFA: What do you see as the future of fermentation?

JS: I think we’re in a really interesting period right now because we are at the confluence of this interest in these very traditional methods, like the kind of stuff I teach, and then also at a point where we have more ways in which to do very scientific and precise fermentation and to document and record and share the knowledge we have. We’re at this place where we have these traditional ferments on one hand and then we have folks who are in a lab growing specialty yeast on the other hand. We’ve never been in a historical moment where we’ve had those both happening to this degree. In both cases, now we have network technologies, all of these different ways to record and share what we know. I think the future of fermentation, it’s going to continue to become popular, more popular than it is right now, people are very interested in it.

I think what we’re seeing is that there’s a space in the fermentation world for everybody to fit in. That’s going to be a lot clearer. If you want to just do a home practice like what I do, there’s space for that. If you want to kind of go more into the biotech side, there’s space for that. Or if you want to do something in a restaurant, there’s space for that. There’s a lot of room for people to really find where their niche is within the fermentation community.