“I’m Going to Change My Life”: An interview with Sandor Ellix Katz

Sandor Ellix Katz is a fermentation revivalist. His book Wild Fermentation (2003), which Newsweek called “the fermenting bible,” and the hundreds of fermentation workshops he has taught across North America and beyond have helped to catalyze a broad revival of the fermentation arts. He is a self-taught experimentalist, and the New York Times calls him “one of the unlikely rock stars of the American food scene” and notes that he has “become for fermentation what Timothy Leary was for psychedelic drugs: a charismatic, consciousness-raising thinker and advocate who wants people to see the world in a new way.” His latest book, The Art of Fermentation (2012), received a James Beard award.

The Rowe Center: You’re renowned for being one of the leaders of a current “food revolution” in America, particularly in regard to the health benefits of fermented foods. Did you experience an “aha” moment about food that caused you to change your mind and change the way you were living?

Sandor Ellix Katz: It’s less about food and more about a transition in my life — I left my career in municipal government in New York City and moved to this community in Tennessee, which got me involved in gardening and got me into practice in fermentation. I feel like I never would have ended up on this journey about a fermentation revolution, but in 1991 I tested HIV positive, and this was some years before there was any effective treatment. I’d been involved sort of by default in AIDS in New York and in my job, and I was active in Act Up. I knew lots of HIV- positive people, so it’s not like it made me feel despair and like I was going to be dead imminently, but it did dramatically shift my view of the future and what that horizon looked like. Through that new lens that developed in an instant, my career in New York became less relevant and much less interesting. I started noticing how exhausting that job was. It’s not like I immediately decided, “Oh, I’m going to move to the country,” but it was, “I’m going to change my life, I can’t just go on doing this.” It happened only through serendipity — my roommates talked me into coming to Mardi Gras with them and I met these people living in Tennessee.
 I hadn’t done rural living prior to that. My dad’s family had a place in the Hudson Valley and I spent summers there as a kid, but I was very city-identified. I grew up in a 14th-floor apartment in Manhattan. Living fulltime in rural Tennessee was great. I remember it as a really expansive time in my life. I was outdoors, learning about gardening and pitching in on building projects for the first time. I took a leave of absence from my job. I wasn’t sure it would work, but in a month or two I realized I didn’t want to go back to New York. I got involved in food — I was making sauerkraut, bread, wines for people, all these ongoing projects,

R.C.: When you realized that staying in New York City might have become wrong for you at that time in your life, and when you made the change to moving to rural Tennessee, did it help in your healing process with HIV?

S.E.K.: Part of my motivation was realizing that my job was more than 9–5; it was community meetings and events in New York, and it was exhausting. I was hoping that getting out of that schedule and being active and outdoors with good food and beautiful spring water, that kind of healthy living, was going to keep me healthy. That was my earnest hope. It wasn’t like I went into it thinking if I eat sauerkraut I’m going to cure HIV, but it seemed like a lifestyle in a rural area might help keep me healthy. In 1999 -2000 I had a health crisis, and since then I’ve been on meds — so I try to be careful about what I say about HIV and fermented foods; it’s certainly not the case that I’ve been cured with fermented foods. It’s that I’m on these meds and everyone I meet who’s also on them has digestive problems and I never have. So I think fermented foods keep my immune system healthy, because we know that bacteria in the digestive system help regulate immunity.

R.C.: What have you learned from making such a radical turnaround in your life, and what wisdom has it brought you? For other people who may be sensing that something that once was working in their lives is no longer right for them, but who might feel scared to make the change, what would you say?

S.E.K.: It turned out to be a really great thing. Twenty-two years later I’m still living here. All of my closest friends are here. I love to visit New York, I have friends and family up there, but when I’m in New York for five days I’m overwhelmed and exhausted. In terms of speaking to other people generically, I’d say that I was feeling so strongly from the inside that something huge had to change, and initially I had a failure of imagination of what needed to change. It wasn’t just switching jobs; it wasn’t just putting my finger on map and it’s Washington state and I’d move to a random place. I was lucky, I was relatively unencumbered — a few months earlier I was looking to buy an apartment in New York, and if I’d been invested in that or in a relationship these things might have made it harder to pull up my roots and make a change. Sometimes circumstances in life demand that we step outside our comfort zones and do something that is different. You have to accept that doing something dramatically different from what you know is risky. In my case it was perfect. But I took the first step not knowing if it was going to be perfect.

R.C.: Do you think that changing your mind about your life in New York gives you confidence for making any changes that may arise in the future?

S.E.K.: At this point I don’t know — I feel so ensconced in my life here in Tennessee — but sure, I try to remain open to the possibility of not being attached to circumstances. Things always shift, whether it’s an internal shift or external shift. I think of a friend of mine: her husband died several years ago, and that marriage had been her tether and was what made her feel settled. She was in her mid-fifties and not expecting that to happen. She’s been searching since then. She went into the Peace Corps. This unexpected circumstance made her ready for change. It’s something you finally recognize, or can’t deny.

Sandor Ellix Katz will present “Fermentation Extravaganza: Join the Food Revolution,” March 25–27.

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