Fermented foods/drinks are one of many traditional food preservation practices known to ameliorate flavor and nutritional value and extend shelf life. They are also an essential element in creating a regenerative food system, one that seeks to create conditions that enhance already existing systems rather than just sustaining them. However, many gastronomic, traditional, and heritage foods such as noncommercial fermented products are not eligible to be sold at local or global markets and are considered hazardous and unfitting of food safety standards. Subsequently, these foods are often produced in homes, or as cottage industry products sold at farmers markets. In the United States, many of these products are made by marginal communities, Latin, Middle Easterners, Southeast Asians, and Indigenous communities. These foods carry meanings of value, identity, and sacredness and have created a trans-local food ecosystem. This paper explores how Arizona, with its large and growing population of marginal communities, governs such modes of food production. Using an ethnographic multisite methodology of “follow the thing,” the authors follow two fermented foods—gundruk, and yoghurt/soft cheese—observing how they are produced, consumed, and valorized in Arizona. We explore how the production of these foods unravels microbiopolitical entanglements, described through personal narratives and contextualized within the history of a larger regulatory structure. Like fermentation itself, these narratives reveal that we should welcome the unseen actors for a more diverse and inclusive food governance atmosphere while redefining what a local and place-based food system should look like.
As a child, I (Sara) remember being told by Nonna Rosa, my Italian grandmother, to bring a pan and fresh milk. As I watched her spoon a pungent white creamy substance into the pot, I asked, “What’s this, Nonna?” “It’s yorgut,” responded Nonna Rosa. My mom interjected: “She means yogurt.” Nonna’s kitchen often smelled of fermentations. Making yogurt was a weekly task. At that age, I could not yet describe what was happening beyond simple kitchen alchemy. Today, as a food systems scholar, I have the embodied and intellectual terminology to accompany the process: inspired by my Italian and Egyptian traditions, I have experimented with various culinary fermentations. I now understand that my grandmother’s yogurt making is part of a larger tapestry of cultural, nutritional, and biopolitical values associated with traditional fermentations.
In contrast to Sara’s experience, I (Christy) do not remember my grandmother fermenting anything. I know she did—my mother has my grandmother’s sourdough crock and regularly made sourdough waffles for us after my grandmother’s passing. My journey exploring ferments came later, inspired first by a bread-making course I took in culinary school where we made our own sourdough starter. This interest later exploded as I began following governmental restrictions on kombucha retail operations in 2010 (Spackman 2018). A great grandchild many times over of a range of European immigrants, my culinary efforts are similarly eclectic, inspired in large part by generations of gardeners. Traditions of canning, pickling, and pie-making define my family’s culinary heritage.
The time-tested practices detailed above provided for our ancestors and nourish our families. Yet the ability to produce and market some of our heritage foods remains fraught. The breads Christy and her grandmother made could be sold in a local farmers market with minimal change to production. In contrast, the yogurt Sara’s Nonna made in her home kitchen could not be sold at a local farmers market. The combination of local, state, and national laws and regulations, scientific insights, and dominant cultural standards of the twentieth century have meant that it’s possible to transform homemade bread into a product safe for sale, while homemade yogurt is considered dangerous. In this article, we start from this paradox of permitted and prohibited ferments to explore the complexities of heritage-based and small-scale fermentation practices. We are curious how fermented heritage foods that do not carry significant, wide-spread cultural cachet, at least within dominant American foodways, function within the contemporary cultural and regulatory systems of food safety governance in the United States. We explore the ways in which American foodways could reflect a growingly diverse society through the lens of microbiopolitics. Using insights from this exploration, we propose that adding complexity to the regulatory space through aspiring toward more regenerative practices may facilitate the move to a more inclusive, just, and flavorful food culture.
Following the Thing
We use a “follow the thing” methodology, where an item and its constellations are mapped out by means of a multisited ethnography, typically of commodity products, such as papaya or sugar (Cook and Harrison 2002; Cook 2004; Mintz 1986; Marcus 1995). Our focus is not on commodity products. Rather we focus on low-status fermented foods (Finnis 2012), ones typically not considered part of mainstream U.S. foodways. We follow two fermented foods: gundruk, a Nepali food made of fermented leafy greens; and montagat alban, homemade Middle Eastern dairy-based yogurt and soft cheeses, traditional products of two communities that call the larger metropolitan area of Phoenix, Arizona, home.
One of the fastest growing areas in the United States (census.gov), the metropolitan Phoenix area is home to significant Hispanic and Native American populations, as well as a burgeoning number of international immigrants. This means that the range of potential products that could come to market is rapidly increasing. Yet many of those moving into the Phoenix region culturally claim foodstuffs that do not carry the cultural prestige that products such as wine or French cheese have. We are especially interested in how traditional fermented foods that do not fit the standards of contemporary U.S. food safety regulations intersect with and diverge from negative narratives of foods that contain microbes as dangerous (Spackman 2018). We posit that focusing on regenerative practices by attending to how these foods are used by their producers can expand our understanding of microbiopolitical entanglements. In examining the tensions that exist between home production practices done in collaboration with microbes and regulatory processes, we aim to invite a reimagining of the regulatory process to enable the growth of a more diverse field of producers and foods.
To examine the legal constraints that circumscribe the production and circulation of gundruk and montagat alban within their respective communities and markets (Grasseni 2012), we conducted a literature review investigating the regulatory aspects surrounding small-scale production. We additionally conducted twelve semi-structured interviews (see Appendix A), identifying interviewees through purposeful snowball sampling to identify producers of these foods as well as the cultural constraints shaping gundruk and montagat alban production. Sara interviewed six people per food; this number allowed us to reach a meta-theme (Guest, Bunce, and Johnson 2006). To diversify our insights, we additionally conducted a focus group with five fermented food producers. These efforts provided insights into how producers operate within Arizona’s specific regulatory regime. The results gathered created mini-vignettes about each product.
Bringing traditional fermentation and regulatory processes into dialogue is messy. We thus draw inspiration from fermentative, bubbling processes of assembling, arranging, and re-arranging to compose divergent worlds (Granjou and Phillips 2018; Katz 2020). As we follow the microbiopolitical entanglements of gundruk and montagat alban, we open each section with personal narratives rooted in the steps of an idealized fermentation process. We focus on the intergenerational connections linking together producers and modes of production that exist at the margins of legal and cultural norms. This stylistic choice helps us to illustrate the messy entanglements of fermentation while arranging narratives that build on these concepts. Using a multistep process that includes (1) preparing ingredients and inoculating bacteria; (2) feeding and fermenting; (3) sensing and making adjustments; and (4) sharing and coming together, we contextualize how these products are entangled within their communities and what we can learn from this process. Following the ferments encourages expanding, diversifying, and decentralizing food regulation to enable more players to partake, concurrently expanding the food palate and the ability to access more culturally appropriate foods.
Situating Fermentation’s Roots in Contemporary Regulatory Soil
Together with salting and drying, fermentation is one of the oldest approaches to preserving food. Some scholars argue that food fermentation was primarily developed by women seeking to preserve food for times of scarcity (Marshall and Mejia 2012). Contemporary scientific insights note that fermentation extends shelf life, increases digestibility, improves flavor, and reduces toxicity of antinutrients such as tannins found in fruits and vegetables.
Producers using traditional and industrial processes ferment food. While the technique remains a central food production method, industrialization has largely hidden fermentation from everyday eyes in U.S. society. Fermented foods such as kombucha and sauerkraut are now part of dominant U.S. foodways; some are even situated as superfoods with life-changing or curative effects (Finnis 2012; Holzapfel 2002). However, it is only fermented products created in controlled and regulated environments with industry standards, such as pasteurization with industry standards, such as pasteurization, that are allowed (Fleming, McFeeters, and Breidt 2013) to enter commercial markets. In contrast, less standardized, often artisanal products created using uncharacterized cultures or that rely on protocols such as backslopping—the practice of taking a small amount from an existing culture to start a new one—struggle to fit within the industrial food safety ecosystem (Finnis 2012; Holzapfel 2002). Often, smaller producers and their fermentative operations sit at the food system’s margins since they do not fit easily into twentieth-century regulatory systems.
Part of this uneasy fit is one of the twentieth century’s public health triumphs and is due to the scientific understanding of what causes food to become dangerous. Efforts by pure food and drug activists over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to create a system of rules and standards to guard the eating masses’ safety helped shift relationships between producers and consumers (Goodwin 1999). For example, pasteurization inserted a technological guarantee into the relationship between producer and consumer, making it safer to eat foods from people you have never met or visited (DuPuis and Goodman 2005; Petrick 2011; Zeide 2018). Unintentionally, food safety regulations excluded traditional forms of fermented food production.
This exclusion specifically attacked the home as a space of production. While late nineteenth and early twentieth-century media represented the home kitchen as the bedrock of American identity, over the twentieth century, food safety conversations increasingly labeled the home kitchen as a space teeming with dangerous bacteria (Paxson 2019) and overseen by ignorant cooks. This viewpoint set into motion a new regulatory landscape tasked with protecting the public from adulterated foods (Baur 2016) and promoted industrial scale production. This path led to a series of food acts and administrative bodies, such as the Pure Food and Drug Act (PL 59-384) of 1906 and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (Baur 2016; Petrick 2011; Wood 1985; Levenstein 2012).
Over the twentieth century, large-scale cases of foodborne illness resulted in further regulatory tightening over food production for commercial sale. Food outbreaks such as a 1924 oyster-related typhoid outbreak, the 1993 E. coli Jack-in-the-Box outbreak, and the more recent leafy greens E. coli scares resulted in intensification of official and social food safety regulations: the 1993 “Food Code,” the Food Safety Modernization Act (2007), and the Safe Food Act (2019) all came about in response to food contamination outbreaks (Baur 2016). Lawsuits, combined with news reports highlighting how dangerously laden with bacteria home kitchens can be, led to further regulatory and social restrictions on where home-produced food could circulate. Such regulations often lack attention to scale or type of production. Although tightening regulatory control is important to protect consumer health, it has meant that many traditional products such as Nonna’s yogurt cannot fit into contemporary market structures (DeLind and Howard 2008; Worosz et al. 2008; Dunn 2007; Baur 2016).
Diversifying Foods through Post-Pasteurian Microbiopolitics
The legal and social restrictions that emerged over the twentieth century unevenly limit the ability for people to sell their homemade products at farmers markets or corner stores. Sara’s Nonna’s yogurt is not welcome in this landscape. Anthropologist Heather Paxson refers to these moments where regulatory structures intervene in the relationships between humans and microorganisms as “microbiopolitics” (2008), which she defines as “the creation of categories of microscopic biological agents; the anthropocentric evaluation of such agents; and the elaboration of appropriate human behaviors vis-à-vis microorganisms engaged in infection, inoculation, and digestion” (Paxson 2008: 17). Contemporary U.S. food systems favor Pasteurian microbiopolitics in their emphasis on eliminating microbes hitching a ride on foods (Latour 1993). In contrast, post-Pasteurian microbiopolitical approaches value human-microbial partnerships, and invest in human-microbial collaboration to promote beneficial forms of microbial life (Paxson 2008): post-Pasteurians thrive on multispecies cooperation. Like oil and water, contemporary Pasteurian food safety regulations mix poorly with post-Pasteurian mindsets. For example, cheese producers may choose to prioritize raw or wild ferments over usage of standardized rennet or pasteurized milk. Decisions like these pit traditional producers and their teeming microbial colleagues against regulatory bodies. This legally circumscribes the ability of traditionally produced foods to circulate in formal economic circuits. We are curious: how might regulatory systems adapt their microbiopolitics to better account for traditional fermentative production practices? We turn to the fermentation process itself to glean insights on how to create a more complex regulatory ecosystem that includes traditional fermented foods cutting across generations. This, we argue, can enable a food system capable of promoting a diversity of tastes, flavors, and production approaches in local food systems.
Preparing the appropriate ingredients and creating the right conditions for fermentation is essential for success, where “success” means achieving desired flavors, forms, and aesthetic characteristics. Commercial production valorizes the use of standardized ingredients, microbial populations, equipment, and protocols. In contrast, traditional fermentation processes may be less linear: quality ingredients and microbes are also vital, but the processes often rely heavily on tacit knowledge and apprenticeship rather than standardized sets of instructions and ingredients.
For example, through work with Slow Food Egypt, Sara was trained to use tacit knowledge to produce buttermilk. The buttermilk process starts with selecting a high-quality, milk-producing cow, and milking during the appropriate season when the cow feeds on grasses. Once milk is obtained, a baby goat’s stomach is then used as a churning container. Before churning, the stomach’s lining is washed multiple times with a high salt solution dosage. This eliminates some bacteria, yet leaves others alive—specifically, the ones necessary for churning milk into buttermilk. In an industrial process, regulations render this approach unacceptable, outside of the strict standards for materials used, pasteurization of milk, and specifically selected disinfectants. Nonetheless, whether traditional or industrial, this process of preparing ingredients and equipment is the first step. This section reviews the context within which fermented food production operates.
1.1 Context of Fermented Foods
While preparation may seem like an isolated event, it occurs within a larger ecosystem of geographical, regulatory, economic, and social conditions. Traditional producers working in Arizona operate within local and national microbiopolitical ecosystems. Arizona’s microbiopolitical ecosystem is both harsh—exacerbated by a climate that regularly puts foods in the “temperature danger zone”—and permissive, with a regulatory structure that allows some home cottage production.1 Setting up a cottage industry in Arizona is easy (Johnson, Nicholas, and Endres 2011), but only “non-potentially hazardous foods” are permissible (Condra 2013). Arizona is home to diverse communities, with twenty-two official Indigenous tribes and a growing Latin, Southeast Asian, and Middle Eastern population. The state is expected to become a minority-majority state by 2027 (“World Population Review: Arizona Population 2020”). In 2015, Tucson won the UNESCO designation “City of Gastronomy” because of its concerted effort to valorize the local food system and increase food diversity (Nabhan 2018). Despite this cultural diversity, standardized American fare remains the norm. This has resulted in health concerns and loss of both traditional and innovative foodways (Nabhan 2013).
The standardization of foods in the United States over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is the product of many factors, including the push to expand profit by extending shelf life (through the addition of preservatives), developing local to national food safety standards to ensure consumer safety, changing production approaches, and consolidating agribusiness (Thomé Da Cruz and Menasche 2014; Baur 2016). As a result, food and crop diversity have inadvertently decreased (Dunn 2017), with smaller-scale producers disproportionately impacted by these changes (Patel 2012). Yet food safety isn’t black and white; rather it is relative from one person to another (Nestle 2003). Scaled up, this relative nature of food safety is illustrated by how some states allow raw milk while others have strict pasteurization regulations (Thomé Da Cruz and Menasche 2014). A variety of players with different interests shape food safety. The larger players that wield the most power are often more effective at policy lobbying.2 The wielding of power is even more complex within the global market, where international trade agreements such as the Codex Alimentarius impose standardized regulations and restrict smaller and more traditional players (Parasecoli 2017; Gallagher and McKevitt 2019). The food safety ecosystem is characterized by dominance over food and ordering people and nature (Baur 2016; Law and Mol 2008). This has been done using scare tactics as well as standardized systems such as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) (Baur, Getz, and Sowerwine 2017). Although traditional foods may have cultural, economic, and health benefits, it remains harder for smaller-scale food producers to enter local, national, or international markets due to established food safety and provisioning infrastructures and large producers’ market dominance. For many communities, this has contributed to the loss of traditional foods and production practices (Harvard Food Law and Food Policy Clinic 2015).
One market segment trying to bring traditional production approaches to a broader audience is cottage industries, which provide a valuable option to ensure food access and economic security for marginalized communities (Condra 2013). However, individual state laws present a significant barrier to more traditional food producers (Condra 2013; McDonald 2019). A recent study by McDonald (2019) of the interaction between cottage food laws and business outcomes in twenty-two states found that cottage food producers tend to be lower-income women living in rural areas, and that more restrictive state food regulations negatively correlate with plans of rural producers to expand their businesses, especially those who are interested in producing prohibited foods. Growth in cottage industries has been driven by consumer interest in food origins and specialty foods (Feldman and Welsh 1995). Cottage industries provide communities at the edges, especially women, opportunities to create small businesses.
Despite recent gains made in allowing cottage industries access to markets, fermented foods are regularly excluded from this legal food production realm. This is because of states’ definitions that identify what can and cannot be produced under their cottage food acts; many states limit producers to foods that are “not potentially hazardous” (Condra 2013). While this theoretically makes sense, in practice this approach enforces a narrow interpretation of safety. For example, Arizona’s Cottage Food Production regulations exclude fermented and pickled products, identifying these as potentially hazardous foods, despite the role the fermentation process itself plays in creating safe foods. Instead, the regulations only allow foods that are considered safe and do not require time or temperature control for safety, such as Christy and her grandmother’s bread. This essentially limits would-be producers to baked goods, jams, and jellies. Arizona’s approach is informed in part by the Food Safety Modernization Act, which extended regulatory oversight of the FDA to additionally focus on preventing transmission of harmful bacteria, parasites, and viruses (Baur 2016), with a goal of zero microbiological contamination (Thomé Da Cruz and Menasche 2014). This further complicates small producers’ ability to bring their traditional foods to market, given testing costs and the lack of available, affordable tools to assess microbial contamination. These standards exert a disproportionate impact on cottage production of small-scale and traditional producers (Hassanein 2011; McDonald 2019; Williams and Holt-Giménez 2017), especially women (Boys and Fraser 2018; Low et al. 2015; Ribera and Knutson 2011), circumscribing what foods are even considered appropriate for market. This in turn limits the possible tastes of—and tastes for—certain foods from circulating (Hobart 2017).
Regulations to govern food have existed since the code of Hammurabi (1700 BC), stating what is considered healthful as well as lawful (Gallagher and McKevitt 2019). In the United States in the nineteenth century, a growing understanding of Pasteurian concepts of microbes, in tandem with the progressive era, led to food safety and morals being intertwined in a new way. The human body, rather than being conceptualized as prone to ritual impurity, became primarily understood as vulnerable to pathogens (Goodwin 1999). Current food safety regulations are built, in part, on the adoption of germ theory embedded in Pasteurian concepts of contamination. But these new, scientifically informed regulatory systems are not without their social trappings: even as these systems seek to remove biological, chemical, and physical contaminants from foods, they maintain specific social processes (Latour 1993) and reinforce power structures enabling industrial entities to play a role in shaping regulations (Baur 2016). To address this, in this article we weave together an emerging focus in sustainability scholarship on the potential of regenerative systems (Thompson and Scoones 2009) with established scholarship on the biopolitics and practices of food safety. We do this not to argue against food safety but rather to highlight how the limitations of the current regulatory system could possibly be reimagined to create a more expansive and diverse food system. As we follow the two fermented foods produced by marginal communities of Southeast Asians and Middle Easterners in Arizona, we seek to highlight what social processes and relationships exist in these potentially alternative approaches to making safe foods. We thus extend conversations about the characteristics of alternative paths capable of going beyond sustainability to produce regenerative systems.
2. Inoculating or Backslopping Bacteria
Successful fermentation occurs in the presence of beneficial bacteria. In industrial production, these bacteria are specifically selected and standardized. In more traditional methods, the bacteria often come from the environment. This could include Lactobacilli that natively exist on vegetables or human hands. This could also include the purposeful addition of a small portion of a previous ferment, called backslopping. Nonna made yogurt by keeping a couple of tablespoons of the old yogurt to inoculate the new batch; similarly, Christy’s grandmother kept her sourdough starter alive by saving a bit from each batch to use to start the next. Following the backslopping pattern, in this section we introduce the fermented foods we followed in Arizona to set in place or inoculate our ideas for the rest of the article. These are all traditional products of different communities. These products have a special connection to a people and/or a place, as well as a gastronomic heritage that has endured over generations, at least thirty years (Balogh et al. 2016).
Gundruk is a sun-dried, fermented, and re-sun-dried mix of leafy greens produced and consumed by Nepali families in and around Maricopa County (figure 1). Arizona is home to a large number of Southeast Asians, as well as a number of Nepali families. Gundruk is made in Nepali homes. Sometimes people bring it back from family visits in Nepal—some told us they smuggled it in. Traditionally made by women, gundruk uses the leaves of vegetables such as cauliflower and mustard, staples of farms in the Himalayas. The anaerobic process produces a light lactic acid fermentation with an acid-like smell (Farag, Sheikha, and Hu 2020). It is often the main ingredient in creating hearty soups and salads (interviews 1 and 3, 2019) that are low calorie, low protein, and high in dietary fiber, ascorbic acid, and carotene (Ranjan Swain et al. 2014). The recipes produced include gundruk sandheko or ko achar, a salad, or bhatamas. The knowledge of preparing gundruk, including how to ensure the product is safe, is based on tacit knowledge (Fonte 2018) that has been passed down. The people we interviewed have tuned their bodies to detect when it’s gone off, just one step in a larger array of strict cultural rules implemented to avoid contamination. This illustrates how tacit knowledge is an important intergenerational cultural aspect that ensures the quality of fermented foods.
2.2 Montagat Alban (Dairy)
Arizona is also home to a growing population of Middle Easterners. Some have come for work, others as refugees escaping wars. Middle Easterners consume a variety of fermented dairy, including laban rayeb or laban khad, lightly fermented buttermilk. This buttermilk can be transformed into karish cheese, which in Egypt is subsequently converted into mish (El-Gendy 1983; Mahgoub 2018). A product similar to buttermilk, yogurt or zabady is commonly produced at home using acid-producing bacteria (Trachoo 2002). In Jordan and Lebanon, yogurt is transformed into labneh by removing the liquid and adding salt. Producers can further transform labneh into sun-dried balls of cheese known as gemed (figure 2) that can be stored for an extended period of time (interview 9, 2021). Like gemed, kishk—a mix of fermented cow or buffalo milk and grain that is then dried—can be stored for a year. Fermentation of dairy is believed to be widespread in the Middle East due to the widespread nomadic cattle culture and the need to process the milk (Mahgoub 2018).3 These products play a significant role in Middle Eastern culture and continue to be produced and consumed among Middle Easterners, even those in the global diaspora.
The nearly 60,000 Egyptians, Libyans, Jordanians, Lebanese, Palestinians, Iraqis, and Iranians who now make Arizona home continue to value montagat alban (dairy products) like the aforementioned mish, labneh, gemed, and kishk. Most fermented products consumed by Muslim Arabs have little alcohol content, as alcohol is considered haram (non-halal). However, naturally fermented foods containing less than 1 percent alcohol content, such as vinegars, are allowed (Alzeer and Abou Hadeed 2016). Many Middle Eastern immigrants maintain their food traditions. These traditions are especially prevalent during holidays: for Muslims, Ramadan marks the month where many traditions are maintained, such as breaking the fast with a date and some fermented dairy. This process of transforming raw foods is not only an important gastronomic tradition but enables food to be preserved for longer periods while enhancing their nutritional value.
2.3 Backslopping Regeneration into the Food System
Gundruk, labneh, gemed, and other traditionally fermented foods do not follow the more classic industrial standards of fermentation. Their making, however, provides a starting point for inoculating the starter culture necessary to create a more regenerative food system in Arizona. Like beneficial bacteria added to milk or greens, these foods highlight a rich connection to land and heritage. The intergenerational knowledge embodied in the production of gundruk creates a final product that is safe to eat and of good quality. Middle Easterners’ age-old techniques of transforming dairy have ensured the creation of tasty, durable, and nutritious foods. If contemporary food safety systems could find a way to accommodate traditional foods along with their traditional food production techniques, that would then set in place the necessary conditions for creating a more regenerative system. This regenerative system is one that facilitates relationality between people and their food, honors the cycles of the earth, increases food diversity—in particular ones with health benefits—and, most critically, enables a continuation of intergenerational learning. All of this can be accomplished through emphasizing and valorizing traditional preservation and conservation techniques, an inoculation of an idea that in turn reverberates out into an entire system. However, for the inoculation to be successful, how it is fed, meaning the particular circumstances of its existence, are as important as backslopping regeneration into a system. We turn to this in the next section.
3. Feeding and Fermenting
Depending on the product, as fermentation begins, the product might need to be left in a cool, dry place, or burped, to allow the gases to be released. It is essential that care4 be taken with the ferment. Care nurtures living things. The feeding, monitoring, and checking central to successful fermentation create a relationship (Fournier 2020). Sara’s Nonna would tell her to be careful with the “fermenti lattici” (probiotics), pointing out they are the essential element that yield health benefits, and thus require care. We both have improperly cared for our ferments; Sara opened up some jars of kimchi that were left in a place that was too hot. The strong, pungent, unpleasant smell that wafted out made her kitchen unusable for two days. Christy once over-fermented a ginger-turmeric lacto-fermented soda. When she opened it, the soda decided it was champagne, fountaining turmeric-colored liquid all over the kitchen ceiling and walls. When things go wrong, we know that one might need to start again or add some missing element. Like other people who ferment, we have learned that success is about attunement to place, understanding what the specific circumstances need, and adapting to them. This section explores the challenging contexts that these fermented foods are found in and how other external factors shape them.
3.1 Gundruk and Food Safety
Many traditional foods never reach commercial markets. The production processes used in creating many of these foods do not adhere to food safety regulations (Lee, Hwang, and Mustapha 2014). Gundruk is not found in supermarkets across the United States because its safety protocols are not industry standards, but rather cultural standards associated with care for microbes and for the tight-knit social connections central to gundruk’s production. Since making gundruk is a time-consuming process with many potentially hazardous steps, immigrants often obtain their supply from family members or close friends. This ensures its quality not through an external regulatory system but through a microbiopolitics of care that extends between humans and microbes and is shaped by interpersonal, cultural safety protocols.
These protocols look very different from good manufacturing practices or HACCP. Instead, these protocols follow a concept of cleanliness known as Gotho (interviews 5 and 6, 2019). The women producing gundruk are expected to have clean, washed hands. Cleanliness extends beyond hands in ways unfamiliar and perhaps discomforting to contemporary Westerners: the women we interviewed told us that Gotho excludes menstruating women from gundruk production. In more familiar terms, animals (normally an active part of a Nepali household) are excluded from culinary spaces during production (Kitch et al. 2021). These cultural safety guidelines work to ensure that only beneficial bacteria such as lactic acid microbes are introduced.
The tacit knowledge passed down in the making of gundruk works in tandem with the concepts embodied in Gotho to create a product that can circulate through the networks of care described above. Women teach young girls through observation and practice how to make it. Surplus leaves of mustard, cauliflower cabbage, or radish are washed and wilted in the sun to remove excess moisture (Tamang and Tamang 2010). This discourages the growth of mold. The wilted leaves are chopped and squeezed to extract the remaining moisture. The leaves are then tightly packed in containers, traditionally earthenware, to create a low to no-oxygen atmosphere necessary for anaerobic reaction associated with fermentation (Tamang and Tamang 2010). Emission of an “acidic” smell in three to four days confirms fermentation, and the process continues between fifteen and twenty-two days. The fermentation step is observed carefully; no metal object or bare fingers are allowed to touch the gundruk at this stage. Three interviewees told us that only dry wooden items could be used (interview 1 and 2, 2021, and interview 6, 2019). Once fermentation is complete, gundruk is sun-dried for two to forty-four days. This shrinks its volume considerably. It is now ready to be cooked or stored (often for months).
While simple, each of these steps demonstrates how producers navigate a type of microbiopolitics unique to their culture and social conditions, while ensuring the safety of the product. Gundruk brought back many sentimental feelings to all those interviewed. Some interviewees mentioned that they hope their kids can grow up to enjoy gundruk, but they aren’t sure if they can continue producing it or finding it. Another challenge, and microbiopolitical entanglement, faced when bringing back gundruk from overseas was how customs officers treated those carrying the product as if they were bringing in illegal drugs. Gundruk appeared to be mistaken for dry marijuana (interview 6, 2019). Paxson (2019) points out that food safety regulations are unevenly enacted at U.S. ports of entry, where some products are perceived as adulterations and contaminations, while others are not. A mixture of hindering regulatory structures, a lack of trustworthy networks, and a paucity of time to produce this time-consuming product may mean that Nepali families may not continue to enjoy gundruk in Arizona in second- or third-generation families.
3.2 Fermented Dairy and Negotiating One’s Identity
Middle Eastern families across different generations seem to be negotiating their identity through food. Despite the sale of fermented Middle Eastern dairy products in mini-markets across the greater Phoenix area, most of them are commercial Middle Eastern brands that follow U.S. safety standards, rather than the customary homemade ones. “We work with distributors in LA (Los Angeles) or Chicago, and we choose the brands that most of our customers are familiar with,” reported a Libyan store owner (interview 8, 2021). Despite this prevalence, some products are homemade, often by the market’s owners or friends, as well as by families who are maintaining their cultural traditions (interview 11, 2021). The homemade products are rarely fermented ones but rather might be baked goods in order to follow cottage laws requiring the production of “non-potentially hazardous foods.” These products and practices give a sense of identity and reconnection to the homeland, while allowing producers to create a sense of community sought by many immigrants (Parasecoli 2014). In an interview, a Jordanian mother mentioned that despite all her children and grandchildren now living in the United States, and specifically Arizona, “they still always ask me for our traditional foods, like mansaf and gemed [a traditional Jordanian lamb dish], and I am keen on having them maintain their cultural heritage” (interview 9, 2021).5 However, second- and third-generation Middle Easterners also enjoy other cuisines, including American food, possibly in an effort to assimilate. “In the first five to ten years when the immigrant families arrive, they are connected to their food heritage, but as the second-generation comes to age, they begin to move toward more Western food and fast food” (interview 8, 2021). This puts different generations in a perpetual negotiation with their identity.6 “My nieces,” one Jordanian interviewee (interview 10, 2021) said, “like grandma’s traditional food, and engage in our traditional dances and customs, but it’s not a deep understanding of our culture—it’s shallow.” Different generations engage differently with their customs and represent their identities differently.
As of writing, there are at least seventeen Middle Eastern stores/restaurants in the greater Phoenix area. Many act as both a mini-market for Arab products, including dairy, but are also a place to gather, have a warm meal, and enjoy cumbersome-to-make desserts. These places often become a hub for the Middle Eastern community, where people may order halal meats, or lamb on special occasions, or have significant catered events (interviews 7 and 8, 2021). Parasecoli (2014) notes that many food-related communities coalesce around the desire to defend an often imagined past that is perceived as threatened, and use food to claim roots that are antagonized or negated by the surrounding environment. A Jordanian interviewee (interview 9, 2021) stated that it would be “great if our foods were more accessible, not just the commercial items found in Middle Eastern stores, but rather that our communities were engaged in producing them, as we have back home.” This interviewee’s desire for not just the product but also the mode of production, a mode that depends on community rather than an isolated producer working in a commercial kitchen, highlights the way that food safety regulations do not yet account for additional components that make good food. As migrant communities such as Arizona’s Middle Eastern community expands, a constant renegotiation is needed at the local level among the different generations, as well as with bodies making regulatory decisions. This renegotiation between identities itself opens up opportunities for more diverse foods to legally and safely circulate within American foodways, enabling a more regenerative food system.
3.3 Feeding Diversity, Not the Divide
The interconnections between these products and their communities illustrate the way microbiopolitics enter into relationships of care toward food, and highlights the complexity of creating a regenerative food system. Feeding and caring for the diversity of ways communities interact with food is no easy task. Gundruk’s traditions invite opening up the dialogue on what constitutes a safe fermented product. It invites examining what traditional mechanisms exist and are passed down through generations and how those mechanisms may enable us to continue to ensure the safety of products that by their very nature exist beyond the standardized bounds of regulation. The Middle Eastern connection to dairy invites the realization that immigrant communities are in flux, and with this flux comes a need for more flexible systems that promote growth of a local food system capable of promoting and encouraging more diversity. These are just a few elements of what following some ferments have highlighted; however, as with regenerative food systems, adapting and making adjustments is part of the evolution and growth of such. In the next section we illustrate some of the proposed adjustments.
4. Sensing and Making Adjustments
To ensure the quality of a fermented product, some sensing or testing needs to occur. Christy, for example, observes bubbles in her sourdough starter before using it. The Nepali home fermenters we spoke to reported conducting a smell test with gundruk to check that the ferment had not gone bad. Sensing can extend beyond the body’s perceptual capacities. Makers of home-brewed lacto-fermented beverages might use a hydrometer to test alcohol content. No matter the test, these sensing practices (Gabrys 2019) allow fermenters to make adjustments in the conditions of fermentation. This might look like altering the temperature, decreasing the time of fermentation, or adding an ingredient. In this section we discuss how to tackle and address some of the microbiopolitical entanglements fermented foods raise and work with those entanglements to create a more inclusive food environment that enables traditional production approaches to survive and thrive. We explore potential tools that could empower communities to preserve their relations with microbial life in the face of regulatory, cultural, and economic challenges. These include the use of alternative labeling systems, increased education and awareness-raising, and facilitating the availability of cheap and accessible testing methods. Efforts like these, we suggest, can adjust the fermentative environment of contemporary food production ecosystems in a way that allows regeneration to flourish, and in the process promotes food safety while preserving cultural identity.
4.1 Encouraging a Regenerative Food System
Many traditional communities encourage the production of foods that are usually part of regenerative food systems. Foods that are part of a regenerative system are produced through a place-based, whole-systems approach (Mang and Reed 2012; Jackson and Jensen 2018), by integrating agroecological (Altieri, Funes-Monzote, and Petersen 2012), and nature-inspired solutions (Rhodes 2017). As interviewee 6 (2019) stated in working with nature, it is not about getting rid of the rogue substance but about creating balance. Traditional foods also support a system that produces flavorful and culturally appropriate food (Fontefrancesco 2018). Regenerative food systems seek to be ecologically net positive (Hes and Du Plessis 2015; Pedersen Zari 2018) while striving to achieve intergenerational and interspecies justice (Paxson 2008; Dahlberg 2009). Fermented foods fit well within this understanding of regenerative food systems. However, given the potential risks associated with fermentation, producers must enter into a constant renegotiation of what constitutes food eligible for fermentation.
Regenerative systems activate a renegotiation in the form of feedback loops. For example, a regenerative perennial grass field needs periodic grazing animals for its soil to be regenerated; likewise, fermented foods use various sensorial cues to ensure the fermented food is edible. It is therefore necessary to continue to make small adjustments, incorporate diversity, and in the process push the system to reach a new equilibrium.
We believe, as we consider the fermentation practices our interlocutors shared with us, that the ecosystem of twentieth-century food safety makes it unnecessarily difficult for this equilibrium to be established. By focusing on “good” and “bad” bacteria at the expense of all other things, contemporary food safety approaches have disenfranchised small-scale and traditional producers. So how might we encourage a regenerative food safety system to emerge in the United States without putting lives in danger?
4.2 Alternative Labels and Ways of Organizing
If traditional food production systems are one of the aspects that a regenerative food safety system promotes, then one approach regulators might consider is labeling. For example, geographic indication (GI) labels have been used in Europe since the introduction of the law in 1992. These labels are given to a product with particular qualities and production processes of the product from a specific geographical region (2015 WIPO). Another form of labeling, developed by Slow Food International, is the Slow Food Presidium. This registered brand is grounded in a system of consensus among producers that establishes production standards through an agreed-upon protocol. In the United States, one known presidium has been the Navajo Churro sheep found in the four-corners region, whereby traditional husbandry practices are protected (Parasecoli 2017). The cohort of presidium members commit to provide technical practice and know-how (Fontefrancesco 2018). Unlike GI, the Presidium system is not necessarily geographically bound but highlights people and their customs. Both of these systems carry similarities to the more industrial HACCP model in that they seek to create trust through standardization.
These community-based labeling systems sometimes stem from a religious or cultural belief. Middle Easterners categorize foods as haram, forbidden in Islam; halal, meaning lawful; and Tayib, foods that are considered clean. Today halal foods have an actual certification, which was not the case before the 1970s (Billah, Rahman, and Hossain 2020). Therefore, even culturally relevant labels such as this could be translated into Indigenous applications such as sacred or marketable, but belonging to an Indigenous community. This, however, would need to happen in a way that respects limits to how a product is produced and circulates. This system would respect that some foods remain off limits, not culturally meant to travel into economic circuits. Creation of a labeling system that prioritizes these additional modes of value could allow consumers the option of accepting some risk in exchange for promoting cultural food production practices not currently recognized by U.S. regulatory structures as valuable.
4.3 Food Education
Like the creation of a new labeling regime, the construction of an intergenerational education system could also help promote the growth of a regenerative food safety ecosystem. As one Jordanian interviewee pointed out, “I want my grandchildren to take pride in their Jordanian food heritage” (interview 9, 2021). She noted that despite teaching their cultural norms at various centers, those values are watered down due to fear of not assimilating. This is a loss, a rupture in the regenerative system: when elders teach the younger generation, or the larger community, how to understand the pleasure in promoting fermentative lives, they adjust the food safety ecosystem to be less frightened of all microbial life, and more open to the possibilities present when humans work alongside microbes.
As governance structures strive to be more inclusive of different foods, providing more public education and awareness about what makes foods with microbes safe, and what makes foods with microbes potentially dangerous, could help in the effort to create a more regenerative food safety system. For example, as consumers are made aware of the biodiversity of microbe-containing foods that exist, they may come to understand themselves as part of a community of humans and microbes, forming new food traditions and ecologies. In Arizona, where migrant communities are growing, a new local cuisine is being created. This is a cuisine where local foods are being reinvented as new people come to inhabit these new places. This helps to counter localist rhetoric, which often sidelines the food choices and practices of immigrants, migrants, and refugees who are actively creating their own community-based local food practices that respond to their unique situations at the intersection of new geographies, cultures, and food products.
4.4 Increased Cheap and Accessible Technology
While we are convinced that inviting in new labeling approaches and recognizing the value of collaborative communities of fermentation can open the door to a more regenerative food safety system, these things cannot exist on their own. The current food safety regimes in the United States exist primarily to protect the vulnerable. Unfortunately, as stated above, those systems exclude culturally informed food production practices from entering markets. As such, we see the final necessary step to promoting a regenerative food system as resting in a radical re-imagining of the technologies of detection and sensing that are so central to cotemporary food safety.
For example, one of the challenges in promoting traditional fermented foods is truly identifying what makes this food special, determining which microbial communities are involved in its production. There are tools that can facilitate this process, but these tools are currently inaccessible to most small producers. Technologies such as high-throughput sequencing can track microbial communities found in fermented products such as sourdough, kombucha, and kefir (Bokulich et al. 2016). These tools currently remain prohibitively expensive, but they are being rolled out as potential ways of assessing microbial communities. Imagine a world where a small-scale, readily accessible, and easy-to-use sequencing approaches existed. In that world, testing could help identify levels of microbial populations. Additional tests could be developed to further aid producers of these community-produced foods in ensuring the safety of what they produce without requiring them to alter their production processes, from sun-drying to community production, in significant ways. Any technology developed for these efforts would benefit from being produced in tandem with small-scale producers, to make specific production steps easier. Facilitating access to such technologies can also enable communities to better communicate with their audience the quality of such products. Just as successful fermentation needs constant care and use of feedback loops, we envision a regenerative food system that can self-regulate through introduction of already existing and new elements to make it more resilient and adaptable.
Conclusion: Coming Together and Sharing
This article has expanded on the concepts of microbiopolitical entanglements related to less familiar fermented foods that belong to two Arizona communities. We have invited readers to consider how a reimagining of U.S. food safety approaches might in turn allow the creation of a more just and equitable food production system. We have done this by following the bubbling, messy, yet flavorful and fulfilling process of fermenting foods. These foods live within complex food safety regulatory contexts structured in ways that promote industrialized production and disenfranchise other modes and values of producing. Yet, as our cases show, the foods we have explored are part of a complex fabric of socioecological connections. We have proposed making adjustments to the current system. By inviting in alternative labeling approaches, encouraging more education around human-microbial relationships, and expanding on the technological possibilities available to small-scale producers, we anticipate setting in place the necessary conditions to support a regenerative system that values these fermented foods. This is not an attempt to replace the structured industrialized food system, which will continue to exist, but rather to create more space for alternatives and enable diversity to have both an equitable and safe space to flourish.
Whether sitting around a table with yogurt, breads, or fermented dairy or pickles, food is about coming together and sharing. To conclude, we invite readers to keep an open mind toward the possibility of expanding our existing food safety system. Yes, foods like gundruk, gemed, or kishk could be produced in a commercial kitchen or industrial facility following safe manufacturing practices. We do not believe, however, based on the comments from our interviewees, that those industrially produced iterations of gundruk, gemed, or kishk would be the same as those produced in home kitchens or backyards. These foods are what they are because of the shared work that happens between communities of humans and microbes. As such, any system capable of allowing these foods to continue to exist needs to think well beyond our current food safety regime.
“Food companies often place commercial interests above those of consumer protection, and…government agencies often support business interests over those of public health” (Nestle 2003: 272).
Many processes include transformations by salting, drying, or forming balls in olive oil (Tamime and O’Connor 1995). Each country has its own slight variations; for example, a form of kishk is produced across the region, but in Egypt it is produced in clay pots, in a special room where the beneficial lactic acid bacteria accumulate from one production cycle to the next (Mahgoub 2018), while in Lebanon it is formed from labneh.
Caring “is a relational practice that engages ways of knowing” (Puig de la Bellacasa 2017: 146).
In another example, Valiente-Neighbours shows how Filipino immigrants never truly become “native”; they have brought their food with them, and although they are in San Diego, they see their native food as local food. This showcases a type of “immigrant identity-based localism” (2012: 539), accentuating the concept that migrants carry their foods in their bodies (DeLind 2006).
This hybrid identity is part of what scholars call translocality. Although not the focus of this article, translocality seems central to the practices shared with us by interviewees (Brickell and Datta 2011; Alkon and Vang 2020). Translocal identities describe a phenomenon related to mobility and migration while having some spatial interconnectedness, meaning not being limited to national boundaries, and being from more than one location at the same time (Greiner and Sakdapolrak 2013).