At Berlin’s Büro BDP art space, I’m handed a cup of biting, effervescent kombucha. The glass bursts with thousands of microbes that are invisible to the eye—although, if you place your ear close to the rim, you might be able to hear them hiss. The small space is packed with the city’s art crowd, spilling out the doorway. We’re here for the Berlin edition of “Fermenting Feminism,” a touring program of artworks that take the theme of fermentation, which is having something of a cultural moment across the culinary and art worlds of Europe and the U.S.
It wasn’t always like this. In these parts of the world, fermentation—a metabolic process through which an organic compound is broken down into smaller molecules—was, until relatively recently, an obscure practice. (In contrast, Asian countries have always embraced fermented foods in their cuisines.) A squeamishness to the process is perhaps understandable given that its components can be incredibly weird. At the time of writing, I have a jar of deep-yellow kombucha brewing on my desk, with what is known as the SCOBY, or “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast,” floating inside. These otherworldly rubbery discs, with their dangling tendrils, are pallid and strange, and certainly don’t give the appearance of being edible.
But attitudes are changing. We now understand that our guts are filled with microbial life, and that fermented foods may help us to replenish our internal ecosystems. The salty tang of kimchi, the umami crunch of sauerkraut, and the exuberant fizz of kefir can currently be found everywhere, from health-food stores to startup cafeterias.