Reviewing The Fermented Man: A Year on the Front Lines of a Food Revolution, by Derek Dellinger (New York: The Overlook Press, 2016)
Derek Dellinger is a homebrewer whose interest in fermented food and drink expanded until he decided to do an experiment, eating and drinking only fermented food and beverage for an entire year. In this book he opens the mysteries of fermenting, delving into the ways that microbes work and why those in properly fermented food and drink are good for us. Dellinger explains the industrialized food industry in the United States, indicating how often it diminishes the quality and variety of the foods that are available to consumers.
The book recounts the author’s experiments in fermenting, some disappointing, others successful, and provides instructions and eleven recipes. Although the book’s subtitle refers to “the front lines of a food revolution,” the author clearly states that he is not urging readers to adopt the fermented way of life he followed for the year.
At the end of his twelve months he went back to a pattern of nutrition that included many of the unfermented foods he had set aside for twelve months. A few moments after midnight of the year his experiment ended he “plowed through a bowl of guacamole perhaps a bit too fast.” When he couldn’t finish the entire bowl he realized that he really wasn’t all that hungry and that his stomach had shrunk during the year. He decided to take it easy to let his stomach get used to the changes. “Some part of me now wanted my caloric intake in small and steady, efficient doses.”
Dellinger quickly realized that some popular and easily obtained foods, in addition to sauerkraut, are fermented, including bread, cheese, yogurt, and salami. Beer, cider, kombucha, and wine can be found most places. To live for a year on this short list of food and drink, however, would be incredibly boring and would be lacking in a full range of nutrition. Dellinger learned to find sources of already prepared fermented food and prepared many for himself.
For some foods, especially vegetables, fermentation is straight forward: cut up the raw food, pack it tightly in glass jars, cover it with water, and add a little salt to the mix. Screw the lids down, but leave them just loose enough that carbon dioxide released by the microbial process can burp its way out.
Switching to his 100% microbial diet had an immediate and strong effect upon Dellinger’s body. It was relatively easy to maintain a nutritional balance, but getting enough protein took special effort. His health was good, but he was tired more than he liked. He stayed thin, even though he ate a lot of cheese. Especially interesting is the way that this special diet seemed to distance him from the typical American desire for abundance, variety, and satiation.
Dellinger points out that fermentation and fire (however the heat is applied) are two basic processes by which raw foods are transformed in texture, flavor, and nutritional properties. Fermentation and fire destroy harmful microbes and preserve foods.
Several chapters focus upon specific food groups and describe Dellinger’s efforts to learn how they are fermented and how it affects them. Dairy products, especially cheese and cultured butter, receive full attention. Natural processes of microbial transformation and the artificial processes of pasteurization are contrasted.
A chapter entitled “Differences Between White Bread and Cotton Candy” explains why the kind of bread that is widely used in the United States has been so altered in ingredients and manufacturing that its nutritional value is little different from that of cotton candy. Much to be preferred, he writes is bread made with a short list of ingredients—whole grain flour, yeast or sour dough starter, water, and maybe salt. It is mixed, kneaded, allowed to rise, given time to rest, and baked.
It’s the kind of bread my mother baked in a wood fired kitchen stove. I’ve thought about learning how to bake it myself, but for the time being will be content with sour dough multigrain bread made from scratch with basic ingredients that I can buy in a shop a few blocks from where I live.
At book’s end, Dellinger writes that he continues to eat simply and that “the pattern of simple eating may actually be the greatest shift in my long-term diet. . .The less complicated the food, the harder it is to overeat, and to overeat of things you maybe shouldn’t be eating much of at all.”