The man who calls himself "Sandorkraut" is visiting Pittsburgh, and naturally we have cabbage to blame.
Fifteen years ago, Sandor Katz was confronted with a big garden harvest of the crunchy, cruciferous vegetable. He didn't want to freeze it or can it, because both preservation techniques are energy-intensive and sap food of nutrients. Instead, he turned to the ancient method of fermentation, in which microorganisms (in this case bacteria), working pro bono, obligingly turn humble cabbage into tangy, nutritionally enhanced and long-lasting sauerkraut.
The "Sandorkraut" persona came later for Katz, a native New Yorker who now lives in an off-the-grid community in the hills of Tennessee and is perhaps the nation's foremost fermentation evangelist, and a top advocate for reclaiming our food supply from corporate agriculture and supermarkets.
Katz will be among the speakers at Farm to Table, an annual Pittsburgh conference promoting healthy living and local farming and retail. He's also an author. His 2006 book The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved explores the burgeoning international food underground. Its rebels do everything from trading in outlawed foods like raw milk (the sale of which is prohibited in many states) to buying subscription shares in local farms, from Dumpster-diving for sustenance to saving seeds endangered by genetic modification.
But fermentation is Katz's favorite way for people to help themselves, and help the planet, by breaking the corporate food chain. As the author of Wild Fermentation puts it, "sustainability is participation." Lots of our favorite foods and drinks are fermented: cheese and yogurt, beer and wine. In some cultures, fish and fruit get the treatment.
Any vegetable can be fermented, often quite easily. Kraut, for instance, requires only a bucket, some cabbage, a little salt and a cool place. Katz is a how-to guru, and at Farm to Table, he'll lecture on March 28, then give a fermentation workshop on March 29. (He holds another workshop March 30, at the East End Food Co-op.)
Other goals include correcting the idea that organic farming is less productive than "conventional" agriculture. That's true if you only figure in terms of labor -- with workers replaced by diesel tractors and toxic, manmade fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Fellow Farm to Table speaker Patricia DeMarco, who heads the Rachel Carson Homestead, says that though organic farming requires 15 percent more labor, it uses 30 percent less energy and water, all while preventing harmful runoff and keeping soil fertile without petrochemicals.
But Katz's biggest target is the modern agriculture-industrial complex's ability to keep us ignorant about how our food is produced. Cultivating local food production can lead to healthier people, healthier land, and farmers who can actually make a living, because middlemen aren't eating their profits. "Local food can't just be a consumer experience," he says. "It means developing relationships."
And, perhaps, doing some food production yourself. Katz's community, which also raises goats and chickens, grows much of its own food. Interviewed by phone on March 11, he was in the midst of helping plant spring crops. Greens and radishes were in the ground, with peas next. "It's an exciting moment in the garden," he said.
Farm to Table: A Recipe for a Healthy Pittsburgh takes place Noon- 6 p.m. Fri., March 28 (followed by local food tasting), and 9 a.m.- 5 p.m. Sat., March 29. David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. $15 for both days ($10 for students ages 13-18; free for kids 12 and under). Register at 412-563-8800 or www.pathwayswellnessprogram.com