May 05, 2015

‘Fermentation on Wheels’ coming to SIU

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. – That yogurt you had for breakfast? It has more in common with sauerkraut, pickles, beer and whiskey than you might think: Fermentation. 

For millennia, humans have used this natural process to preserve food, as well as create some of their more celebratory beverages. As more people look to the past to find their way to a more sustainable food future, interest in fermented foods is on the rise. 

Southern Illinois University Carbondale and its fledgling Fermentation Science Institute (FSI) this month will provide the community with a chance to learn more about this method of food preservation while playing host to a traveling demonstration project on campus. 

That project, Fermentation on Wheels, seeks to educate and inspire people who want to live sustainably and utilize local resources by teaching food fermentation methods. The event, which includes a lecture and hands-on workshop, is set for May 13 at SIU. 

The lecture is set for 11 a.m. to noon in Morris Library’s John C. Guyon Auditorium. The workshop is set for 2:30-5 p.m. in room 114 of the Agriculture Building. 

Created by culinary artist Tara Whitsitt in 2013, Fermentation on Wheels uses workshops, literature and visual arts projects to increase awareness of food sustainability while also teaching fermentation. Whitsitt travels the country in a school bus she converted into a kitchen and workshop space, stopping in communities to pass on knowledge and discuss her ideas. 

Whitsitt said people tend to come to her presentation to learn how to make fermented foods a part of their daily diets. 

“Many are also looking to improve their gut health, which effects our immunity and digestive system,” she said. “I am breaking the myth that fermenting at home is dangerous or difficult, and many people seek me out for that assurance.” 

Whitsitt said she wants those who attend to come away feeling knowledgeable enough to begin cultivating fermentation methods at home. 

“I want people to feel empowered to go home and begin cultivating lactobacillus in their home kitchens,” she said. “I focus on a do-it-yourself approach rather than scientific. I help people realize they already have everything they need to start fermenting today, and that in providing an environment where desirable bacteria can grow, they can make their own transformative, delicious, and nutritious foods.” 

Matt McCarroll, professor of chemistry and biochemistry and director of the FSI, said Fermentation on Wheels fits nicely into the new program’s mission. 

“The institute is pretty broad in its mission,” McCarroll said. “Our initial emphasis is in brewing science, but we have a huge interest in fermented foods. It’s become really popular over the last few years, and it has strong ties with the local foods movement. More and more people are interested in learning traditional ways of preserving foods, and this is just a way of mining old techniques that go back to well before refrigeration.” 

Cheese, fruit, sauerkraut and the ever popular yogurt are just a few examples of fermented foods with which people are familiar, even if they don’t think of them that way, he said. Kombucha, a Japanese fermented tea drink, is another example of the growing popularity of fermented foods and beverages. 

“There is a lot of high nutritional value in fermented foods, mostly due to the chemical actions taking place in them,” McCarroll said. “The microbial action makes the nutritional elements more available to the body.” 

During the seminar, Whitsitt will talk about how she got started, her goals and why she is dedicated to mobile fermentation education. She also will talk in detail about her journey in developing more accessible and creative food fermentation programs to impact communities nationwide. 

The hands-on workshop is titled “Wild Vegetable Fermentation and Starter Culture Swap.” During this event, Whitsitt will teach the simple tradition of preserving vegetables through bacterial collaboration using local, seasonal ingredients. She also will share the benefits of fermentation and how and creative tips. The workshop is aimed at novice through intermediate students, offering a thorough overview of the art of lacto-fermented vegetables.

Following the workshop, Whitsitt will allow students to tour her bus. Attendees may also bring starter cultures for exchange and discussion, as well as an empty jar to take a culture home from the workshop. Those wishing to take home a starter culture are asked to bring something to trade or $10 per culture, with all donations supporting the Fermentation on Wheels Midwest tour.