Fermentation Focus Bubbles Up at Chefs Collaborative



Chefs Collaborative, the national network of food professionals which earlier this week brought its annual conference to Charleston, is primarily concerned with nurturing a more sustainable food system. So it made sense that the conference agenda included workshops on bycatch, hog farming and genetically-modified crops. But in reviewing the schedule, I was immediately struck by how much meeting time was devoted to fermentation.

Conference attendees were herded into the Francis Marion Hotel’s ballroom for two fermentation talks, and had the option of signing up for additional workshops exploring microbial fermentation and creative ways of fermenting vegetables. Fermentation became a kind of catchphrase for eventgoers, who seized upon the bubbling-up process as a symbol of their grassroots energy.

Fermentation certainly has a counter-cultural appeal. But is it a critical component of sustainability? While fermentation is easy on the earth, it doesn’t appear to directly solve any of the problems with which responsible chefs wrestle: To the contrary, it has the potential to create new hassles with health departments, which don’t always look kindly on controlled rot, and customers, whose palates might not be tuned to the funky flavors which emerge when food ages. As fermentation hero Sandor Katz told the crowd, Americans are trained by soap slogans to fear bacteria. Continue reading

A Local Sustainable Seafood Story That Predates Chefs Collaborative’s Charleston Visit By More Than a Century

David Heber Hammer's Photography

David Heber Hammer’s Photography

Chefs Collaborative, the nation’s leading network of sustainability-minded food professionals, is this weekend bringing its annual conference to Charleston for the first time. But the seafood topics on the National Summit agenda aren’t new to the city: In the 1880s, a local African-American retailer and amateur ichthyologist had already figured out how to “tempt guests with unfamiliar seafood,” a practice now considered a cornerstone of healthy aquatic ecosystems.

Prior to the Civil War, Charleston’s fish market was in sad shape. According to food scholar David Shields, who generously shared the manuscript for his forthcoming Charleston culinary history, most shad were shipped north, and clams, shrimp, scallops and crabs were rarely offered for sale; Shields quotes a disappointed Duke of Saxe-Weimer-Eisenach as reporting in 1826 that “fish were not presented in so great a variety as I expected.”

Shields attributes the dearth of fish at market to northern control of the commercial smack fleet and a mosquito fleet which delivered its catch directly to plantations, whose overseers forbade slaves from sidelining in fish sales. But emancipation didn’t solve the problem of connecting local eaters with local seafood: So many men took up fishing for profit that fish populations were at risk of being wiped out. Continue reading