Modern society needs fermentation now more than ever, as the food system becomes industrialized and unsustainable, says Meredith Leigh, farmer, activist and author. Consumers are far removed from farmers and the land, and food produced in factories hurts the environment.
“People are eating more fermented foods. The experience of food is not a quantity thing anymore, it’s more of a quality/complexity thing.” Leigh shared her insights into meat fermentation and creating a food system connected to the land and animals during a TFA webinar, From Soil to Salami: Fermentation, Life and Health.
“The punch and umami and funk is really becoming more understandable to people. That’s really promising, specifically when it comes to protein. Smaller portions, more complex flavor over big chunks of flesh that are ultimately not in service of thrift or sustainability,” Leigh continues. “My hope is that the funkier the better because we really need people to be able to stretch their palate understanding in order to get specifically meat products in a better, more sustainable, ethical situation within the food system.”
Leigh started in the food industry as a farmer, raising vegetables and animals. Concerned with how much money she was losing to the meat processing sector, she streamlined her business by opening a whole-animal butcher shop and restaurant. Leigh served only regional meats and meat products to a local audience, but found the farm-to-table business model too complicated for the general public — folks were not ready to walk into a butcher shop and buy a whole animal.
So Leigh pivoted to educating, consulting with farmers, restaurant chefs and home cooks. She also authored two books, “The Ethical Meat Handbook” and “Pure Charcuterie.” [ADD LINK?]
Charcuterie often gets overlooked in fermentation conversations because meat preservation is a “vast umbrella” of fermented and cooked meat.
“Uncooked, salt preserved meat items are very much a beautiful culmination of a lot of different culinary fermentative processes that humans harness. It very much belongs on the docket of fermented superfoods,” Leigh says.
The fermentation of meat, though, can be shocking to chefs accustomed to cooking in relatively sterile environments. When making a salami, for example, the meat becomes swollen, smelly and drippy, fermenting in a humid room.
“It’s not exactly a beautiful process. If you zip down to the microscopic level, there’s a lot of death happening, there’s a lot of engorging. It’s a sugar battle,” Leigh says. “It’s a sugar feeding frenzy and some of them are actually eating so many sugars that they’re exploding and the enzymatic soup of these explosions is part and parcel of the flavor we associate with fermented foods.”
“I tell people, ‘Close the door, it’s none of your business because you’re fermenting.’ That advice is disarming because it’s amusing. But also it’s really true. You’re in there tinkering and you sort of have control over this process, but you sort of don’t. And that’s a good thing that you’re not totally in control. You’re surrendering to nature.”
Adds Kirsten Shockey, author and educator (and TFA advisory board member who moderated the webinar): “You’re much more of a microbe shepherd. You’re trying to herd everybody, but you have no control. Each of those microbes [is] out for themselves.”
Modern consumers and even commercial fermented food producers are often far removed from farming. Leigh says that, to reclaim our food systems, we need to look at the indigenous practices that founded the sustainable agriculture movement. Commercialized food erases the land ethic and the traditional farming and fermentative processes of indigenous people, especially indigenous women.
“If we as producers, curators and knowledge bearers of fermentation, if we’re not telling that part of the story to the people really into fermented foods, we’re not doing anybody any favors. We’re just making money and putting good food out there. Really connecting people back through fermented foods is one of the more hopeful ways we have of telling that story to people who will never touch soil or slaughter a pig or any of those things,” Leigh says, adding that the best place to start sharing that story is through social media. “The popular media conversation about fermentation is not doing that. Our production of these foods or curation of these foods is not only a way to elevate health, human health or flavor, but it’s also a way of commenting on and changing culture.”