This review was rejected by a food studies journal because it was “too critical” but, really, I think it was rejected because formal academic writing doesn’t allow for creative, engaging, and lively formats. So I share it here, with all the cheek.
Directed by Jonathan Cianfrani
Collective Eye Films, 2017. Released 2020.
67 min. DVD.
Produced by Zero Point Zero Productions, Fermented follows host and writer Chef Edward Lee across five sites (Tennessee, Bay Area, Chicago, and New York, each with their nearby food capitals, plus Japan). The viewer is guided through 18 scenes, each with a token ferment and its maker(s), tasked with explaining to Chef Lee how it was made. The film’s producers are also the team behind Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (CNN, 2013-2018), Mind of a Chef (PBS, 2012-present), and Somebody Feed Phil (Netflix, 2018-present), so, unsurprisingly, Fermented showcases the ferments in the form of a food travelogue. Some scenes have echoes elsewhere: the Japan sojourn in Samin Nosrat’s salt episode of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (Netflix, 2018) and the breadmaking in Michael Pollan’s air episode of Cooked (Netflix, 2019), both of which offer a better analysis of the culinary richness that bring together fermenter, fermented, and eater.
Fermented begins as a curious journey to seek “what is fermentation?” but turns into a hunt for recipes and regresses into a quest to pin down causality in what makes fermented foods delicious, without ever stating it as such. Subtle, but this shift towards taste narrowly frames fermentation in terms of its promise as a transformational “cooking” method—which likely emerged as a cultural product of late 2010’s foodie media—with frequent cooking interludes and cameos by fine-dining dude-chefs.
After viewing the film, I translated the film’s offerings into a menu, partly to give the film its own taste-centric treatment. Each scene is a dish, complete with tasting notes:
tussling grass, macros bubbles, chittering birds, obsession with funky as taste descriptor
obligatory science lesson, carbs and acids, bacteria and yeast, zero point zero mention of protein fermentation
bruised garden cabbage, kosher salt, glass jar, simple reminders, simple simple
Alto cheese, Andante Dairy (Napa Valley)
pasteurized wash-rind cow’s milk cheese in the Reblochon style, gentle taps, attuned hands, Soyoung Scanlan’s axiom “anything alive should be respected,” aged 6 weeks
Pillar of Beasts, Three Floyds Brewing
bro-tastic barleywine ale with salted caramel, unapologetic word slurry, yeast “like your grandma in Florida: she’s needs it to be 70-fucking degrees, comfortable”
Tartine Interlude (San Francisco)
open-faced sourdough sandwich where writer/host Chef Edward Lee pours raw apple cider vinegar into a screaming-hot cast iron pan (bye, bacteria!)
’Nduja Artisans Salumeria
pronounced in-DOOH-juh, with guest appearance Tony Montuano of Spiaggia Restaurant making spaghetti flavored with ‘nduja, since when did this turn into a cooking show?
kōbo, Shohei Nakayama
four-piece art installation, painted backdrop to monologue on moot searches for recipes
sinkimchi jjigae, Arirang Kimchi
nostalgic nose, puckering reminders, gendered banter, only the second non-dude to make an appearance thus far
stolen pickles, cracked rice, guest appearance Stuart Brioza of State Bird Provisions, flat plate, sesame drizzle, musings of a disapproving mother (“Not authentic! Not real!”)
wheatgrass and bee pollen kombucha, Cultured Pickle Shop (San Francisco)
origin obsession, slow-opened bottles, impatient chef, Alex Hozven’s firm hand, chef’s disregard, manmade booch mess
(optional bong pairing per Chef Lee’s discretion)
non-descript al fresco dining (San Francisco)
featuring chefs Dominique Crenn and Cortney Burns, never experts in their own craft, just accessories to commentate on culture, precursor to Ugly Delicious, accusation of US in the “dark ages of food,” disregarding South, disregarding colonialism, and seeking tradition as an essential ingredient
Japanese main course
seasonal montage, slow-motion snippets, mixing, steaming, pressing, bucolic and satoyama pasts
kioke shoyu, Yamaki Jozo
natural ingredients, fifth generation, méthode traditionelle, pigeon-holing producers, leading questions, poor daughter being told “you have a great responsibility to continue this tradition” as if culture was static
sea salt, Wajima no Kaien
silhouetted fishermen, lines drawn, sea salt for fermenting sea things, rock salt for land ferments
“it’s important to value living things” turns into “country idea,” poor throwing skills, unnecessary jokes, tokenizing the “soul” of fermented food cultures over hotpot
outro monologue, “it dawned on me that [fermentation] is accessible to anyone” [sic]
choice of forced-fit binaries:
cosmopolitan choice versus rural necessity
traditional versus modern
east versus west
refined versus ugly
natural versus processed
The critical eye would see ample opportunities to see how the film essentializes the makers (look for the gendered, urbanized, and exoticized forms of expertise) and romanticizes the how-things-used-to-be of ferments (look for the tension between scientific, embodied, and historical ways of knowing). As a series of tastings interspersed with trite exchanges (e.g., “fermentation” says one, “yeah man, it’s cool” responds another), the film arrives at the perfunctory conclusion that it is “accessible to anyone.” The irony, of course, is that we see more of the food product than the fermentation process, on account of either microbial transformations taking months longer than what a film production crew is willing to spend or because the foods are more visually bombastic than the quotidian moments of mixing and sensing otherwise.
As a pedagogical tool, this documentary would be well-paired with readings such as Josée Johnston and Shyon Baumann’s Foodies (2011), especially the chapter on the absence of class-based discussions in food rhetoric, or Lisa Heldke’s Exotic Appetites (2003) and her concept of the food adventurer. At 67-minutes, this film would make a good assignment for comparative viewing at the undergraduate level: viewed once without any guidance, viewed once more with a critical eye, then tasked with writing a critique or essay integrating concepts relevant to fields including food studies, cultural studies, anthropology, rhetoric, and communication studies. For students in media studies, the narrative structure of the film would be of particular interest with its disjointed scenes, inconsistent framing, and a non-answer to the film’s premise “what is fermentation?” The film’s official answer is that fermentation remains an accessible technique to transform foods, but the film’s subtext is that fermentation is a flex of the foodie brand, promulgated by metropolitan taste-makers, that continues to entrench gendered, othering biases. Much has changed since its original copyright date of 2017, and the film simply does not hold.