“One of the most prized and difficult things to smuggle past the security was that small container of curd…” my aunt said with a chuckle. Then she grew serious, “No, really, it was my only connection to Amma back then. The taste of that slightly sour, and runny curd was the sole reminder of home. I was elated when made my first batch of curd using it as a starter. The lineage still continues, 15 years later! Often, so many Indian families living nearby come and ask me for some curd to use as a starter. That thick, tasteless thing they sell here in the name of Yogurt is no comparison! I think my variety should be called New Jersey dahi, now…”. I didn’t expect microbial cultures to figure so prominently in the various immigration narratives I heard, but they were everywhere. Numerous stories preserved and pickled through family recipes and food involving some form of a fermentation process. Fermentation revivalist Sandor Ellix Katz, fondly called Sandorkraut, has pointed out that eating bacteria is one of life’s most pleasurable experience. Almost all known forms of gourmet food such as cheese, coffee, chocolate, cured meat, bread, wine and beer are fermented. Our microbial kin are responsible for turning the bitter, inedible, bland or fibrous raw materials into food bursting with life, literally.
‘You exist, therefore I am’
Where does my body end, and the world begin? This is not a question confined to the realm of philosophy anymore. There are more bacteria in the gut of an average human than there are stars in our galaxy. Our first brush with our lifelong companions begins at birth, when we pass through the vaginal canal or the skin incision from our mothers’ bodies. Studies now show that there could be long-effects based on the difference in this primal contact, since different bacterial colonies populate these areas (Mueller et al, 2015). While our cells carry 20-25 thousand genes, our resident microbes might carry over 500 times more. They are said to outnumber our own cells nine to one. Many responses in our bodies ranging from immunity, sleep cycles and digestion to ‘higher-order’ phenomena such as mood disorders and personality traits have been linked to microbial interactions in the body or environment. So much for the notion of enlightened individuality and rationality. Ed Yong recognises the anxiety and implications of this thought as he writes, “we put such a premium on free will that the prospect of losing independence to unseen forces informs many of our deepest societal fears.” It is indeed easy to create narratives of autonomy and individuality when much of the modern economy relies on obscuring the interdependence of processes, ecosystems and lifeforms involved in creating every material we depend on. Yet, in ignoring these relationships, we live in an impoverished world, and inhabit an equally sick body. The resulting narrative is a spectrum of xenophobia, forced control, and military ‘othering’ that extends all the way from biology to the larger socio-cultural and technological norms.
A dangerous war
The food we eat is a perfect embodiment of the tensions playing out in the ecosystem, as large agri-business corporations continue to monopolise and exploit the land, water and forests for monetary profit. Food grown in large monocultures through force-feeding of fertilisers and pesticides, irradiated, sterilised, stripped of matter that could impede its “shelf life”; all in the name of production and distribution efficiency is as much an assault on the planet as it is on our bodies and mind. The collateral damage manifests in food devoid of nutrition, taste and character. The average chicken consumed today has lived for less than seven weeks on a diet of a single grain feed, and heavy doses of antibiotics to fatten it up and ensure that it survives the pitiable conditions without succumbing to disease. A chicken left to fend for itself in contrast is known to be a picky and diverse eater, consuming a varied diet that keeps it healthy without any medication. Given a choice, which chicken would you eat? We desperately need to subvert our food system.
My first ‘aha’ moment occurred at community farm when I saw nutrient rich compost being made in ways that mimic the formation of forest soil. After months of decomposition aided by animal excreta (cow dung and urine), the crumbly, black soil was teeming with life and saturated with white threads of mycelium (fungal and bacterial populations), intricately weaving into the roots of the plants. One volunteer pulled out a sapling to show the vigorous roots of a sapling grown in that soil, and compared it to one grown in the soil brought from a nursery (consisting of mainly sterile, red soil). There was no comparison. Ecologist David Wolfe once argued that we are “subterranean-impaired”. We can’t see, let alone understand the complexity of the land underneath us. Plants are then reliable messengers, if we could learn to listen. Edible plants even more so, by the virtue of the taste offered. The micro-nutrients absorbed by the plants are made available in the soil through symbiotic associations with microbes. These lend more complex flavours to the fruit, interpreted by our senses as delicious. The food thus is a reification of the relationships existing in the soil. Doesn’t the same story then extend to us? In our increasingly sterile, temperature-controlled bubbles, we are the wimpy equivalent of the plant grown in poor soil. War metaphors of immune-systems defending our body from evil pathogens are a gross misrepresentation of the complex relationships that need monitoring rather aggression. Gardening as a metaphor could more appropriately describe the relationship we should aspire to. Weeds may need gentle clearing, but it is far more important to simply tend to the plants by enriching the soil.
Fermentation is one of the processes that celebrates the ecological opportunities waiting in our environment. In order to be true to the term ‘culture’ we need to reaffirm the relationships that sustain us. Sandorkraut writes, “The word culture comes from Latin cultura which is derived from colere, “to cultivate”. Our cultivation of the land and its creatures – plants, animals, fungi and bacteria – is essential to culture. Reclaiming our food and our participation in cultivation is a means of cultural revival, taking action to break out of the confining and infantilizing dependency of the role of consumer (user), and taking back our dignity and power by becoming producers and creators.” In a small, but meaningful way I feel gratified to sow seeds, harvest fruits, ferment peels, make pickles, and participate in numerous other ways to celebrate the the circle of life. May such cultures flourish. May the tribe grow.
Barber, D. (2015). The third plate: field notes on the future of food. Penguin.
Yong, E. (2016). I contain multitudes: The microbes within us and a grander view of life. Random House.
Katz, S. E. (2012). The art of fermentation: an in-depth exploration of essential concepts and processes from around the world. Chelsea green publishing.
Mueller, N. T., Bakacs, E., Combellick, J., Grigoryan, Z., & Dominguez-Bello, M. G. (2015). The infant microbiome development: mom matters. Trends in molecular medicine, 21(2), 109-117.