"For so long, we've been afraid of bacteria," Tara Whitsitt reminds us from New York, where she has spent a month visiting numerous East Coast cities teaching workshops on fermentation.
In fact, since launching Fermentation on Wheels (fermentationonwheels.com), Whitsitt has spent two years touring the country in a 1980s police bus, teaching lessons on producing food with naturally occurring microbes.
As fermentation devotees fill their kitchens with brine-filled crocks of cabbage waiting to become kimchi and soybeans soon to become miso, the bourgeoning interest in the antique practice continues to reach new audiences.
Whitsitt will drive her bus to Cleveland on April 4 for a wild vegetable fermentation class from 2:30 to 5 p.m. at Market Garden Brewery. It's a fitting location considering the brewery's current expansion project, a 43,000-square-foot "palace of fermentation" facility just north of the West Side Market. The city has experienced a wealth of fermented startups recently, from Cleveland Kraut to Bearded Buch kombucha.
It's no surprise that ferment-based foods are garnering a loyal following. The opposite of stripped-bare, overly processed, industrial ag-formulated products, fermented foods are rich in live, active probiotics.
"It's part of this new trend of acknowledging bacteria are good, and we need to consume these things to keep the balance within our bodies," explains Whitsitt.
Whitsitt noticed changes in her own health after spending time in Denmark, where kombucha and pickles were part of her regular diet. When she returned, she began learning to make sauerkraut and wine on her own. Her interest quickly grew into an obsession.
She often collaborates directly with farmers, swapping ferment lessons for produce to take on tour. While passing through New Jersey, for example, she taught rice farmers how to make the sweet Japanese beverage amazake. During time spent on dairy farms in the Southwest, she created cheeses and kefir, a dairy libation that resembles a drinkable yogurt.
At each stop, she uses seasonal ingredients tailored to the city. "Culture swaps" provide low-cost opportunities to take home jarred starter culture, the natural agent that rouses the fermentation process. The low impact, energy conserving process of fermentation is part of Whitsitt's personal goal to be self sufficient. Recently, she even retrofitted her ride with solar panels.
"I want Fermentation on Wheels to be a place where people can come to have thoughtful conversations about food, farming and sustainability," she explains. "I know there's a lot of disappointment in the food system and I think it's easy to get down about that. This is a way to take control."
With frequent stops in larger cities, Whitsitt realized her program had to evolve to easily cater to urban neighborhoods if she was going to reach as many people as possible. By using vegetables that can be fermented wildly — such as cabbage, which only requires salt and no other starter culture — her classes can resonate even in areas that lack regular farm fresh options.
"A lot of people believe this is dangerous or difficult," she states. "That's why it's important for me to open it to being more accessible to the masses."