This Man Embraces Death With the Help of Sauerkraut

Gillie Houston
·Associate Editor

On a quiet patch of land in rural Tennessee, Sandor Katz picks through his garden, overseeing his crops and delighting in the discovery of a leek with a burst of childlike laughter.

That leek, and the other spoils of his garden, is no doubt destined for a crock, a large, traditional pot used in the process of fermentation. Opening one of these barrels, Katz uses his hands to sift through a batch of sauerkraut, transferring it to a glass jar with a distinctive squish.

This image begins “Sandorkraut: A Pickle Maker,” a short documentary produced by The New York Times that follows Katz, self-labeled “fermentation revivalist” and author “The Art of Fermentation,” the New York Times bestselling guide to do-it-yourself fermentation.

Donning a bushy mustache and a t-shirt that reads “there’s a party in my pantry!” Sandor Katz, who long ago received the nickname “Sandorkraut” because of his enthusiasm for sauerkraut and other fermented foods, gives a glimpse into his process and passion, his voice lilting and full of wonderment.

“There’s a spiritual component;” Katz says, “there’s a hunger to be more connected to the earth and the environment and other forms of life around us…. Getting involved in a garden and cultivating the magic of microorganisms has really made me feel much more connected to creatures large and small that I have interactions with.”

“The fact these foods are produced by these invisible life forces, these microorganisms, adds this mysticism and alchemy to the whole thing,” says Katz, who teaches fermentation workshops all around the world and is currently repurposing an 1820s log cabin to utilize as a teaching space—to be called “The Foundation for Fermentation Fervor,” fittingly.

However, Katz wasn’t always interested in fermentation. Growing up in New York City, Katz worked as a policy analyst for the borough of Manhattan. However, after he tested HIV positive in 1991, his life path was instantly redirected. 

“It really shifted my sense of priorities in life. It lead me into a spiritual quest,” Katz says.

That spiritual quest lead him to an off-the-grid and undeveloped L.G.B.T. community in rural Tennessee. There, he began to experiment with fermentation, using a crock he found in a barn to make his first batch of sauerkraut. 

“The hippies that proceeded us by 20 years—they were playing around with fermentation, too. They just didn’t write a book about it,” he says.

Through fermentation, Katz was able to reflect on time and decay, embracing death as a means for creating something new and enthralling. 

“When all things die, all of that stuff decomposes by the action of fermentation, so I think fermentation’s very closely related to death,” Katz says. “The scary aspect of death for me is that I don’t get to see the people I know as children now grow up…. But the idea of bacteria decomposing my body, I actually find weirdly comforting.”

Through his homemade batches of ‘kraut, sourdough, miso, tempe, and more, Katz faces the inevitable every day, finding in death an ally, rather than an enemy. And now, with the aid of his bestseller, he is able to share this enthusiasm for fermentation with the world. 

“We’re at a moment when people are earnestly seeking to become more connected to their food and where it comes from…” Katz says, illustrating his patient and methodical process of chopping, salting, and jarring as he tenderly prepares a fresh batch. “There’s a growing interest in fermentation because of that, and I love to share with people.”

More Fermented Goods:

Vinegar Cocktails and the Wonders of Fermentation

How to Stalk a Probiotic Pantry 

Why Fermentation’s Sexy