The History of Fermentation


By: Crystal Bossola and Jacinda Swan

The Oxford Dictionary definition of fermentation is, the chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms, typically involving effervescence and the giving off of heat.

Fermentation has been the traditional way to preserve foods since the dawn of civilization. The evolution of agriculture and the necessity to store food for longer periods of time to support larger populations brought about the fermentation of foods and beverages. Many of these traditional ferments from cultures around the world can still be found in people’s diets today. Such foods and beverages include, sauerkraut (German), miso (Japanese), poi (Hawaiian), yogurt/dairy kefir (Central Asia), kavass (Russian), fafaru (Tahitian) kombucha (Chinese), water kefir (Mexican) and beer which can be traced as far back as Mesopotamia. 

There are two inventions in recent history that changed the common practice of fermentation, pasteurization and the ice box (refrigerator/freezer). Historically both of these inventions came about around the same time however the icebox was not introduced into the home until the 1930s. 
Pasteurization as defined by Merriam-Webster is the partial sterilization of a substance at a temperature and for a period of time that destroys objectionable organisms without major chemical alteration of the substance. 
French inventor Louis Pasteur’s discovery of the spoilage of beer and wine by microorganisms resulted in one of the largest culinary revolutions in modern history, pasteurization. 
The second invention, the ice box, made its debut into homes and created a new lifestyle for families. This invention made it easier for women by reducing their shopping frequency due to the fact they could now store perishable foods for longer periods of time. 
After these two inventions our country endured WW2 and while the men were at war the women were forced to work on the farms and in the factories. Without women at home able to prepare meals the solution to mealtimes became processed foods. As the war ended and the economic market recovered the first wave of feminism hit and women voluntarily started to join the workforce. Cashing in on the new demand for convenience in the home the processed food industry started to explode. The unfortunate result was an impact on the food culture and fermentation all but disappeared from the American culinary experience.  

With the progression of science and the ever increasing knowledge of the role our microbiome plays on our health, fermented foods and beverages are making their way back into our diets. Although we lost the tradition of fermented foods, an appreciation and understanding of their importance has reemerged. 

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