Sandor Katz has been living with AIDS for over 20 years. In this episode he talks about his early activism, getting back to nature, and his passion for fermented foods.
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hello and welcome to this podcast episode with my guest sandor katz he calls himself a fermentation revivalist but he’s a lot more than that as you’ll soon see i first heard about xander because of his book wild fermentation which my partner or spouse read a few years ago the book launched her avid curiosity about fermented foods and soon there were fermented projects all over the house a crock of sauerkraut quasi cheese in the toaster oven sourdough starters on the counter tanks of beer in the hallway closet and a variety of unrecognizable beverages some of them were very tasty and some were a bit too bitter for my taste buds but it intrigued me enough to start attending fermentation events where i heard even more about sand sandor katz and the publication of his third book the art of fermentation in 2012 i witnessed legions of fans speak about him with awe this book has become the fermenter’s bible okay and then i heard this little factoid that convinced me to learn more about sandor as well as fermentation he is a man living with aids and fermented foods have helped him with the healing process now you’re talking my language someone with a chronic health condition living life fully so i don’t know sandor we’ve never met this is my first interview with someone i have never met and have no connection to so i’m preparing for our skype conversation he lives in rural tennessee i felt like a real journalist we had an email exchange and he graciously graciously accepted my invitation for an interview our conversation covers everything from aids to activism gut health microorganisms and role models healing can really encompass so many different avenues different modalities what you eat how you eat communing with nature or focusing your energies on activism i hope you enjoy listening to our conversation so i mean you know as i told you in our email correspondence i mean i you know i i’m not a clinician um you know i certainly don’t know um you know sort of much about you know the specific disease that that you’re dealing with um or most people’s diseases but i do but i have learned um you know a lot about you know some ways in which um you know fermented foods can be helpful to people and really i’d love for you to speak from your own experience you know um you were diagnosed with hiv in the early 90s right this is true this is true but i mean you know i’m also i mean i i mean i consider to be fermented foods uh you know a piece of what keeps me healthy but i also take hiv meds and sometimes people misunderstand that and just assume that you know i have cured um you know hiv using fermented foods and you know while i think that you know you know good nutrition and probiotic stimulation you know help the immune system in all kinds of ways it generally does not amount to curing any specific disease including hiv you know the things i practice certainly having cured me of my condition but uh i find them to be definitely healing and i i personally don’t take any drugs and i read that for many years you were against taking any sort of the i guess azt and the earlier drugs that were available because you believed in clean living and i was wondering what clean living meant and did that coincide with your leaving new york and going to a more rural environment yeah sure i mean i would say that when you know when i tested positive in 1991 i was living in new york um i had a career in municipal government um you know that that year that i first tested positive is you know it’s really almost a blur when i think back on it you know it i mean i i certainly was involved in aids activism i knew a lot of people who were living with hiv i knew a lot of dynamic and vibrant and empowered people um but uh you know once once it was you know sort of my own health um you know i just i feel like i walked around in a daze for a year you know just feeling something huge has to change in my life and i can’t even picture what it is and you know i was um i was i was going to yoga classes almost every day i was meditating i was definitely experimenting with diet and at that time actually at the time when i tested positive i was already practicing a macrobiotic diet but um you know i i really felt like something big has to change and you know at the point when i met some people who lived in this community in tennessee and uh you know heard about its existence was enchanted by stories i was hearing you know that fit perfectly into the idea of looking to make a big change in my life and this friend of mine who i met because she was my yoga teacher had started taking me on plant walks in parks in new york city and i was getting interested in uh healing herbs you know sort of start starting to drink some herbal infusions as regular health practice and so i mean i feel like i was very open to the idea of moving to a rural place um you know having the opportunity to um get to know plants more intimately get more deeply into herbal medicine learn about growing food um uh and and and harvesting things and so at the point when i moved to to tennessee from new york city you know these things were were all on my mind i mean i wouldn’t say specifically that you know i i thought that like eating a particular way was going to save my life but i thought that you know sort of getting away from the stress of a more than full-time job um and new york city living in a rural place being involved in plants and getting my my hands uh uh in the earth and and growing food and eating that food drinking fresh spring water i mean these were sort of all aspects of a lifestyle that i was hoping would be a healthier lifestyle than the you know working to the point of exhaustion every day kind of lifestyle that i was living so i had read that you were you were concerned about the long-term toxicity of of drugs at that time and and you didn’t start taking antivirals until i guess you had a health crisis in the in 99 yeah that that’s when i that’s when i went on the on the meds yeah i mean i mean certainly in the early period when azt was the only uh um treatment that was available you know at least as long as i was feeling healthy i mean i never really considered doing that because i had certainly watched people who had been healthy you know start taking that drug and start getting really sick and you know the the early uh strategy with azt was high doses and now they give people you know doses that are a tiny fraction of the original doses and with other medications um but you know i didn’t really consider that and then when the new meds came out you know i just was i wasn’t considering myself a sick person it was hard for me to imagine you know getting on the medical tread wheel and taking drugs every day um you know for an abstraction you know something that showed up on my blood test but wasn’t like making me um uh uh feel sick um and so you know it really took um you know getting sick you know honestly i i it took me a long time to realize i was sick i mean my earliest symptoms i really viewed as um you know psychological symptoms uh you know i thought i thought i was depressed i thought that you know my loss of appetite was related to that and it took me a long time to recognize that i had you know all of the classic symptoms of um aids wasting and so well how’s your current health um my current health is is really pretty uh uh uh pretty strong and robust and um you know to some degree i i credit the the drugs with that but i’ll tell you that most of the people who i meet who take the kind of drugs that i take you know just live with chronic digestive problems and i have just never experienced any of that and um you know that really you know makes me think that you know alongside the meds that the you know kinds of foods that i eat that are you know sort of so you know tied up with good digestion have kept my digestive process strong well that’s a certainly good segue to talk about fermented foods so i read that you know you’ve always enjoyed pickles from your youth you grew up in new york but you didn’t start actually playing around with fermented foods until you moved out to tennessee right that is correct and so how does that coincide with your healing how did it come did it come after you were you had your health crisis my interest in fermented foods um uh certainly developed before my health crisis did i mean in my first year of i mean my interest in fermented foods i would say go back goes back to my childhood and um you know as a kid growing up in new york city i loved sour pickles and um you know they just were a favorite food of mine and i always have been you know drawn to the lactic acid flavor um you know it’s not that any of the adults in my life were talking about fermentation it’s not like my grandparents had a fermentation practice or my parents but um but i was drawn to this flavor of fermentation and you know i mentioned earlier that uh during my the later period that i was in new york i was following a macrobiotic diet and macrobiotics was definitely where i first heard about the the you know healing and medicinal potential of fermented foods because mac robotics places a great emphasis on um you know eating a little bit of a little bit of pickles at the beginning of each meal um you know as a digestive stimulant and and you know once i started thinking about that um i started observing that whenever i would eat these pickles that i had always loved or sauerkraut or kimchi or other kinds of fermented vegetables that i could literally feel my salivary glands under my tongue squirting out saliva and so in a really tangible way i started associating these foods with getting my digestive juices flowing so how has your diet changed you know what percentage of your diet actually consists of fermented foods um i i mean i i’ll say that i really don’t at this point you know follow any particular kind of um a dietary ideology you know my my primary dietary ideology would be um you know variety and and and seasonality and i have a beautiful garden and to the extent that i can i i eat out of my garden um but i don’t think any one kind of food is the best food or the answer i mean i love fermented foods i’ve been teaching people about fermented foods and promoting fermented foods and beverages but that doesn’t mean that because fermented foods are good that you know cutting out everything else and eating exclusively fermented foods is somehow better i think that um you know diversity is probably the highest value in in diet and eating lots of different kinds of plants um eating lots of different kinds of ferments so i mean i lots of lots of different kinds of food i mean like i love eggs i mean i’d say half half the time my breakfast is consists primarily of eggs but you know certainly not exclusively i know about fermented foods being good for your gut for your gut health um how else has the consumption of fermented foods been healing for you well i mean okay i mean par part of the answer of this has to be we don’t know i mean you know until the beginning of of the new millennium science had no way of studying bacteria beyond individual organisms that could be cultivated in a dish so you know our ability to sort of look at and understand the dynamics of interactions between microbial communities is really a brand new thing so i mean it’s pretty well so so basically you know each of our bodies are host to um something like a trillion bacteria uh you know increasingly evolutionary biologists are coming to the conclusion that all life is um uh evolved from bacteria the flip side of this is that no form of life has ever lived without bacteria it’s certainly not unique to human beings um you know i mean every uh uh every animal every plant every fungus is populated by bacteria and has never lived without them and and frankly probably couldn’t live without them so in our human or in our own human bodies we’re we’re learning extraordinary things about you know what bacteria do for us so um you know it’s it certainly a part of it is our ability to effectively digest food and assimilate nutrients from our food and and and that’s one big piece of it uh bacteria in our intestines actually synthesize essential nutrients for us so we don’t have to find them in our food what we think of as our immune system is mostly the work of bacteria in our intestines increasingly we’re realizing that you know serotonin and other chemical compounds that determine you know how we think and how we feel are regulated by bacteria in ways that we don’t fully understand uh the abilities of the cells of our livers to regenerate is regulated by bacteria in our intestines i mean almost every aspect of our health and well-being um is related to these bacteria so um historically nobody had to think about you know restoring gut biodiversity but you know for the last um you know most of a hundred years we’ve been living with you know in the midst of what i call the the war on bacteria and our uh bodies our battlegrounds in the in the war against bacteria and um you know we all have abundant chemical exposure frequently to chemicals designed to kill bacteria and you know that would include antibacterial cleansing products you know which have just been outlawed by the usda but we’ve all been using them for a couple of decades and you know they’re they’re found in private homes and and public institutions everywhere you know antibiotic drugs i’m certainly not against the use of antibiotic drugs i probably wouldn’t be here we’re not for the miracle of antibiotic drugs but everybody agrees that they’re overused as a result of their overuse and in health care and even more so in agriculture you know we’re finding rising levels of antibiotic compounds in our water table so we’re all ingesting low levels of antibiotics every day no matter how pristine the source of our water um you know and then the chlorine that’s in our drinking water um in the first place is also put there to to kill bacteria so we have all of this chemical exposure to kill bacteria which thankfully doesn’t kill all the bacteria otherwise it would kill us but but it diminishes biodiversity we think about biodiversity as an important concept you know out there you know having to do with um you know wolves and whales and trees and i mean that’s all important i mean i don’t mean to diminish that in any way but biodiversity is really just as important of a concept looking inside of us and so um you know what’s the relationship between eating bacteria-rich foods and these bacteria that help us i mean we don’t exactly know you know there’s some sort of an elaborate uh interaction that happens between the bacteria we ingest and the bacteria that are in residence in our intestines it’s a highly competitive environment what we do know about about bacteria though is that you know unlike us unlike plants unlike fungi bacteria are genetically flexible and can exchange genetic information so presumably the interaction between the bacteria we ingest and the bacteria that are residents or in our intestines is some sort of a genetic exchange
so how does that trickle down to someone who in my community people with myotonic dystrophy which i know you know nothing about but one of the the major symptoms people complain about is gi stress and there’s also incredible amount of weakness and fatigue and in many people there’s a cognitive sort of apathy personality issues but gi stress is a big one and they will never most people will never become avid for mentors because of a lot you know variety of reasons mostly just the energy and motivation it would take to to start you know the little projects and everything what would you recommend it means i i know i’ve heard people talk about you know they bought some probiotic or prebiotic pill supplement that they take while still consuming a diet that i would i would judge it’s not very healthy um is it am i putting you on the spot by asking you you know what would you recommend for someone in that situation well i mean first of all i mean i think that probiotics do have their place but i think that you know mostly i would conceptualize the benefits of ingesting bacteria as being uh promoting biodiversity and um you know most probiotic capsules you know they might have five billion cells in them but it’s five billion copies of a single cell or of two or three so um you know i think that fermented foods are a much more you know effective uh source of diverse bacteria because all traditional fermented foods involve these broad communities of organisms rather than singular organisms single microorganisms are really a human technological achievement and in the natural world in our bodies microorganisms are always found in communities so you know i would say that foods are probably a superior source of probiotics than capsules if you don’t have the the motivation or the time to make them yourselves i mean yourself i mean certainly it is possible to um purchase you know good quality uh living fermented foods and beverages i mean you have to be a savvy consumer um i mean certainly the most commonly uh available products and the the products that you find um you know sort of in widest distribution um you know they’re heat processed i mean he he probably you know it with your sauerkraut sitting on the shelf in the supermarket is canned it’s it’s it’s heat processed and that’s what gives it that shelf stability a living product always has to that’s sealed in a jar always has to be in a refrigerator otherwise it’ll build up carbon dioxide and pressure and potentially explode or the juice will ooze out or whatever so as a practical matter these things are always found in the refrigerator and i would say you’ll you’ll find better products if you go to a natural foods market than you know at a mainstream supermarket but you know fermented vegetables fermented dairy products different kinds of lightly fermented beverages these are all excellent sources of probiotic bacteria and um and and you know because they need to stay refrigerated uh you know once they’re put in a jar they’re they’re kind of pricey um so i mean i would also just sort of challenge the idea that it’s hard to make them i you know really like if you take um you know two pounds of vegetables and 10 minutes of your time you know you can have a quart of fermented vegetables that you know would would cost you 15 or 20 bucks so um you know it’s really easy i mean all you do is chop or grate the vegetables to create surface area lightly salt them there’s no magic number of salt just salt it to taste then what i like to do is just get in there with my hands and squeeze it for five minutes what you’re doing is kind of bruising the vegetables and breaking down cell walls and helping them give up their juice and the significance of that is that the condition you’re trying to create what prevents molds from growing and enables lactic acid bacteria to dominate on the vegetables is getting them submerged if you just cor if you chop up vegetables and leave them in a bowl exposed to air it’s going to become engulfed with mold over time but when you stuff them into a jar and you’ve gotten them juicy and get them submerged under their own juices you know that’s when the lactic acid bacteria dominate and um you know i know that sometimes people project um anxiety about bacteria onto this process but let me just say that according to the u.s department of agriculture there has never been one single documented case of food poisoning or illness from fermented vegetables this is about as safe as food gets and you have some really great videos uh youtube videos about how to actually create that jar of vegetables i’ll include a link to that because i for many people you know once they they realize okay this is something they can do it’s not expensive it’s not uh you don’t have to get a prescription it’s natural if they have that motivation uh they may be able to achieve it and you know but there are some people who wouldn’t have the energy of the the cutting the chopping of the vegetable yeah yeah i understand that i’m going i have two other questions that are a little off this path i was wondering if there was anything else you wanted to say about fermented foods about your healing process before i go on to these other two questions well i mean i would just i would just add that you know these foods are incredibly delicious i mean most of the world’s major delicacies are products of fermentation you walk into any gourmet food store and what you see are products of fermentation you know they’re practical from a standpoint of food preservation as well um uh you know sauerkraut kimchi pickles you know yogurt cheese cured meats you know these have really all been you know strategies to preserve you know the over abundance that comes with certain seasons to get people through the seasons of relative scarcity so there’s just a lot of you know practical benefits to fermentation um and among them you know are these living bacteria that can um you know really um you know help digestion help overall immune function help mental health and you know anybody can benefit from that like you don’t have to be living with a chronic disease but if you’re living with a chronic disease then it can be especially helpful i was especially moved by the last chapter in wild fermentation and i’m reading uh not your newest edition so i have no idea how much you know okay right and this is and and just to let people in on it that that um just a few weeks ago uh um a revised edition of my original book wild fermentation was released but so let’s hear it but chances are i i kind of think in that last chapter most of the significant stuff uh stayed substantially the same so as someone diagnosed with a chronic health condition at a young age you were forced to think about death and conscious living before you know most average people do i mean and some people never really think about it or at least never speak about it and i really appreciated what you had to say about fermentation and composting as they relate to the cyclical nature of life and i was wondering if you could elaborate on this yeah i mean i was 29 years old when i tested hiv positive uh my mother died a couple of years before that so i was you know confronted you know i was confronted with death with her death um and then you know testing hiv positive and and sort of watching all of these um you know young young people who were my age uh uh past certainly gave me you know gave me pause and and um you know forced me to um you know think about my own mortality and i i think that you know i think that’s one of the things that sort of drew me to um you know moving to a rural area and being involved in growing things was the idea of being closer to the cycles of life and death and the cycles of nature but you know when i when i when i got involved with fermentation it really kind of fleshed that out for me if you will um you know because you know i just i just realized to what a degree you know fermentation is an essential link in the cycle of life and death because it’s really the cycle of life and death and fermentation and fermentation is what you know it’s microorganisms you know acting upon um you know dead plant and animal material in order to you know recycle nutrients and and and basically you know take the remnants of death and recycle them for further forms of life and you know when we when we sort of expand our view of it you know fermentation isn’t something that just happens you know in in kitchens uh and cellars in crocs and other kinds of vessels you know fermentation is what’s happening in the compost pile too and that’s the you know the recycling of the you know of of the waste from the kitchen the parts of vegetables you can’t use the things that go bad the weeds from the garden um you know recycling them back into humus which um you know nourishes further plant growth and um you know so so i think that you know fermentation is really um you know integral in the in in the whole cycle of life and death absolutely yeah i was it just was a particularly poignant uh chapter for me okay my final question and i wasn’t aware of your involvement with act up and aids activism until i read the transc script from the um oral history project that you linked to yeah you did your homework
but anyhow so i i was wondering uh what role this this early activism played and the fact that you were involved in act up before you actually diagnosed positive what role that played for you in your journey with the illness um are you still an aids activist how does the activism change as you age because you know not just with aids or certainly other conditions cancer you know where some people choose to become really super involved and you know go to washington and meet with legislators it is a role that some people when diagnosed they naturally fall into and then it’s something that’s alien to other people they never have the desire so i was wondering how was that a coping mechanism for you well um i mean interestingly i got involved in aids activism before i tested positive myself so it’s certainly that’s not that’s not what you know got me in involved in it but um you know i i i think that the fact that i was involved in aids activism and through that you know sort of got to know so many um you know empowered people um who you know were were were making a difference and were not um you know like laying at home in bed feeling sorry for themselves that were you know kind of trying to do something you know really by the time i tested positive it just gave me gave me role models um and it really kept me from you know just um you know getting excessively morbid and just like imagining that this was you know going to kill me and that i should just give up um so i mean you know at this stage in life i i mean i actually have not remained super active um uh you know in in aids activism i mean some sometimes i’ll sometimes i’ll you know sort of hear about something going on and and um get involved with it but i have not been um um you know i have haven’t been um you know regularly involved in that or deeply involved in that
if you’d like to learn more about sandor please check out his website in the podcast show notes on the glass apple website i have links to his books and his website where he has links to youtube videos he’ll show you the simple steps to create your own fermented vegetables thanks again sander for your time and thank you listeners for listening let’s toast to good gut health cheers thank you for listening to glass half full leslie invites you to leave a rating and review on itunes this helps spread the word to others dealing with chronic health issues for show notes updates and more visit the website glass half full dot online.online