Best-selling food author Sandor Ellix Katz has never tried fermented fish heads, an Alaska Native delicacy known colloquially as "stink heads" due to their odor, but that's only because he's never had the opportunity.
"I would be very excited if I did have the chance," Katz said Wednesday from Homer.
That enthusiasm comes naturally to Katz, a self-proclaimed "fermentation revivalist," who is in Alaska this month giving workshops about the process on which he has written two books.
Katz has been called "one of the unlikely rock stars of the American food scene" by The New York Times. His first book, "Wild Fermentation," was published in 2003, and in 2006 he published "The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved." His 2012 book "The Art of Fermentation," became a New York Times bestseller and was the winner of the 2013 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Reference and Scholarship.
"What I'm interested in is education, and you know, helping people realize that the fermentation is already part of their lives. It's not some alien force," Katz said.
For someone with no experience with the process, "broadly speaking, fermentation is the transformative action of micro-organisms," Katz said. "Almost everybody in every part of the world eats products of fermentation every day."
The metabolic process of fermentation occurs when sugars are broken down by a microorganisms, like yeast or bacteria, and converted in alcohol or acids. For example, the yeast in beer converts sugar into alcohol.
The process occurs naturally, but humans have "learned how to harness this force" over thousands of years to create food that is more digestible, and ultimately more delicious, Katz said.
Such foods include coffee, bread, cheese, cured meats, alcohol, yogurts -- and of course, sauerkraut, the food that introduced Katz to the world of fermentation, and has earned him the nickname "Sandorkraut."
A native of New York City, he's been living in rural Tennessee for two decades. He's traveled across the U.S. and abroad holding workshops, and now, he's in Alaska for the first time. "It's been amazing," Katz said of his trip so far.
Katz had originally planned his trip around a potential workshop in Anchorage, but those plans eventually fell through. By that time, he had also scheduled workshops in Kodiak, Homer, Kenai and Fairbanks.
Hes already held workshops in Kodiak and Homer. Both were well-attended, Katz said. My general impression so far is that there is huge interest in this topic up here.
That makes sense, Katz said, as the more limited the growing season, the more essential it is to use fermentation.
In the traditional village context, it's a way of preserving, you know, even fish from periods of huge abundance, to get people through the periods of relative scarcity, Katz added.
Theres two stops left on his Alaska tour: Kenai and Fairbanks.
Serendipitously, the Kenai Local Food Connection had already chosen a fermentation theme for its 10-day Harvest Moon Local Food Festival when organizer Eliza Eller learned that Katz was also planning to be in Alaska during that time. It just kind of miraculously worked out, Eller said.
Eller said that fermentation is definitely a trend in todays foodie culture. The process appeals to a wide sector of people, as everybody has a grandmother who made some pickled herring, or you know some stink heads or something, Eller said.
In Fairbanks too, fermentation enthusiast and Cooperative Extension Service program assistant Marsha Munsell learned through the grapevine that Katz was already planning to come to the Interior community, so she took the opportunity to set up a workshop with him, Munsell said. Katz will be demonstrating fermentation techniques with local Alaska vegetables that Munsell will pick herself, she said.
For those interested in attending, Katz will be speaking at Kenais Kenaitze Dena-ina Wellness Center on Thursday starting at 3:30 p.m.
Hell be speaking in Fairbanks on Aug. 17 starting at 6 p.m. at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Murie Auditorium.
For more on Katz, check out this short documentary, published by The New York Times on July 29: