Consumer reports indicate a spike in interest from the general public in fermentation during the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine. But we wanted the experts to weigh in on whether or not attendance is up at their fermentation classes. We spoke with three chefs dispersed around the globe. Kirsten Shockey (chef and author at Ferment Works and TFA Advisory Board member) in Oregon, Nena Foster (chef at Nena Foster Food) in London and Ken Fornataro (chef at Cultures Group) in New York.
Kirsten Shockey, Ferment Works: “This is an interesting question. I do know that interest in purchasing fermented products is way up, however interest in workshops is less clear to me. As a fermentation educator, I can tell you that my full schedule disappeared by the nature of in person classes being no longer possible. I think there has been a shift, which was especially true during spring when people were at home and had the time and were focused on sheltering in place. The place that I saw a lot of interest in the spring was online live fermentation festivals on Instagram. Thousands of people dropped in because it was something to do, free and people are more interested in their immune system than ever before. This past month a European study came out looking at the “Association between consumption of fermented vegetables and COVID-19 mortality at a country level in Europe.” I have seen this pop up on both honest and not-so-honest clickbait headlines. Yet, as I write this, and the COVID cases are climbing, and we have something more concrete to point to, I am, personally, seeing less interest in learning. I suspect this is because people are trying to claim some normalcy of their summer and don’t want to spend so much time online. I think that when fall approaches, learning to ferment will take off.”
Nena Foster, Nena Foster Food: “I can’t say for certain, but I do think more people are starting to take an interest in making their own fermented foods. Maybe it’s because Lockdown has given people more time in the kitchen and more time — more time to use up what’s knocking about in their fridges, time in the kitchen and time to plan meals and waste less of what comes in their weekly veg boxes. Or maybe it’s because, the fear of a virus that seems to prey on those with pre-existing health conditions as well as those who are seemingly healthy, means people are taking more notice of and interest in maintaining their health. I also think the links between the gut and mental well-being have sent a few people to my sessions, as emotionally and mentally this has been a tough time for most and even more so for those who already struggle with their mental health. I think fermenting also takes us back to a simpler, slower pace of life and reminds us to slow down, something we all desperately needed to do and was forced by the pandemic.
Based on my own workshops, I seem to be getting a slightly younger, more kitchen-curious demographic than when I ran face-to-face sessions. I think the reasons they come to my sessions very much mirror the above. I was very conscious of being able to move my work online because I knew that the support in terms of health-focused cooking and fermented foods was needed more now than ever, and I am pleased that I have.”
Ken Fornataro, Cultures Group: “It’s been a long time coming. Are more people buying fermented foods because they want to believe they can prevent or even treat Covid-19? Maybe they are bored with the food they have BEEN eating, and have decided to try out that fermented food thing that keeps trending on social media.
A lot of it may be due to long term marketing efforts finally hitting home. In addition to fermented products, some just inferior products mixed with microbes, people are snapping us lots of things with perceived health benefits.
It’s impossible to avoid examination of one’s diet, and one’s health status during this international pandemic. People seem to get that processed foods typically are lacking if not harmful.
But do they like what they are trying? Or is this about the desire to establish a normalcy and feeling of safety that their grandma’s strange smelling foods, once considered embarrassingly ethnic, and to go to a time and place they call home? Tasting home, tasting freedom?
People are desperately looking for alternatives to the current reality.
Sales of raw ginger, turmeric, roots and wild forged plants to make teas and elixirs – almost anything that is believed to be acidic or cleansing to assuage the psychological anxiety that comes from feeling threatened but not knowing what to do about it – have also skyrocketed during this pandemic.
Do fermented foods actually contribute to someone’s health, especially their immune system health? Directly? Highly doubtful. Indirectly or holistically, without a doubt.
If eaten in the context of healthy living patterns including getting adequate rest, access to a clean environment, not smoking, and eating moderate amounts of any fermented such as kimchi or sauerkraut or natto that replaces some processed, chemical and additive laden food you used to eat is of definite benefit.
Fermented foods should be considered as the ultimate condiment or accompaniment to whatever ingredient you have. They can add intense flavor dimensions to otherwise plain tasting foods while adding prebiotics and probiotics and increased nutritional value and increased digestibility.
A couple of tablespoons of sauerkraut or kimchi or natto or miso or shio-koji on top of a bowl of noodles or rice or beans or mixed into a salad is easy.
But fermented foods can also be served on the side, an extremely important consideration when eating with people with different tastes and different sensitivities.
Fermented foods are tasty, sometimes an acquired taste. And healthy, especially if it gives you time to do yoga or exercise. Which surely helps you sleep better. Which helps you maintain your health.”