Interview with Derek Dellinger, Author of The Fermented Man
When Derek Dellinger, author of The Fermented Man, decided to eat nothing but fermented foods for an entire year, it was purely an experiment. Dellinger’s quest to explore the outer limits of fermented foods found him in unique (and occasionally nauseating) situations, but the story of his journey never strays far from a surprising truth: fermented foods are much more a part of our lives than many realize. We got to sit down with the author to explore the motivations behind the book and some of the revelations therein.
How did you get started on this unique food odyssey?
I’ve been brewing beer (a fermented product) for almost six years now, much of that as a homebrewer. I needed a hobby at the time – I’d just attempted to teach myself bass guitar and failed miserably – and the home brewing hobby turned out to be a more fitting alternative. I began developing my own recipes and exploring wild fermentation within beer, and this led me to experiment with other forms of fermentation, including kombuchua and some simple fermented foods, like beets or carrots or sauerkraut. From there, my obsession spiraled, and it soon occurred to me that the world of fermentation was far more extensive than anyone seemed to realize, which ultimately led me on this journey of trying to subsist on only fermented foods for an entire year.
But this was more than a food experiment. Your career followed you on your fermentation crusade, right?
It did. I was actually halfway through my year-long diet in 2014, when I began working with the folks at Kent Falls Brewing Company. That was when I first started developing wild yeast experiments, where I harvested indigenous microbes from the brewery’s adjacent farm to be used in the beers. It fit in perfectly with the experiments I was carrying out for my book project and eventually led me to become their head brewer, after I managed to not die as a result of my diet. It’s been interesting to combine and interweave what I’ve learned from both pursuits. Some of my favorite experiments have been finding promising microbes in batches of my vegetable fermentations and adapting them to work in a beer. This has led to some really interesting brews that aren’t like anything else out there, which has been great for setting apart a new brewery in a quickly growing market.
What did this dietary experiment teach you about fermentation?
When I began to discover how vast the world of fermentation was, I realized it was responsible for a huge percentage of the things we eat on a regular basis. Yet, hardly anyone seems to recognize fermentation’s role in so much of our food. Once I realized how important and commonplace it really is, I thought that living off of nothing but fermented food would be an interesting demonstration of its relevance and ubiquitous nature, as well as the ultimate fermentation experiment.
Did you eat anything exceptionally unusual in the course of your diet?
More than a few things! In the book, I recount my experience with “Century Eggs,” which are a Chinese delicacy: eggs that are fermented for, disappointingly, only a couple of months, not years. But they are a rare alkaline rather than acidic ferment and turn mucus green and look like geodes. They do not look at all like something you would want to put in your mouth, and your gag reflex responds accordingly.
I also had heard rotten shark meat reported to be one of the foulest foods in the world, so I knew I had to travel to Iceland to try it. It was indeed smelly, but the flavor wasn’t as bad as you might expect, given its reputation. It initially tastes like weird, old fish, but then it starts to burn, like you swallowed a bunch of horseradish, and it’s creeping its way up your esophagus, making your insides tingle. You get this ammonia burn throughout your mouth, coating your tongue. And the smell and flavor lingers. And lingers. And never goes away. You’re supposed to chase it with a shot, to help wash out the burn and send the smell on its way. Of course, when I went, they were out of the liquor. We had to wait to chase the shark down with beer, a few hours later. It didn’t help. The beer just tasted like rotten shark meat.
Are there any health benefits or risks associated with fermented foods?
Fermentation is generally much safer than the alternatives – you’re much more likely to get botulism from canned or pickled vegetables than you are from fermented vegetables. Meat is often the riskiest food, so you do want to be very, very careful if you develop an interest in fermenting meat at home. Don’t just casually start fermenting sharks in your basement.
But overall, fermentation is both healthy and easy to do. Fermenting vegetables is simple, and they are some of the healthiest foods in the world. Fermentation adds to the nutritional content of most foods by unlocking nutrients your body otherwise wouldn’t be able to process. It can render out compounds that are harmful to our bodies or simply make foods easier to digest. The human microbiome – the collaborative ecosystem of microbes inside us – is undergoing serious research right now, and we’re still learning about the importance of establishing a balance of healthy, beneficial microbes in our guts and in our diets. Our bodies work together with microbes; we should be comfortable having them play a role in our meals. The wonderful thing about fermentation is that there are so many options out there, spanning nearly every food we eat, so there’s no reason to force yourself to eat something that you find unappealing. Whatever flavor you’re looking for, there’s a fermented food that can fulfill it. I think most readers will be surprised by how many “normal” foods are fermented, like yogurt, cheese, coffee, and even chocolate. Bread, too! If you ate a sandwich today, you ate something fermented.
What do you hope your readers learn from your book?
I wrote The Fermented Man to be both entertaining and informative. It’s an adventure book, equal parts food theory and travel memoir, detailing my experiences, hopefully humorously. A lot of fermented foods are strange, and fascinating for that strangeness, but fermentation can be and usually is quite normal. I wanted to demonstrate to people how much of a role fermentation already plays in their lives, probably without them knowing it. And I think that, once they read The Fermented Man, they will see the food they eat in a new light, and recognize that there’s an incredibly important and healthy force out there that isn’t given the credit it deserves.