Welcome to Microbe Week, because sharks are actually kind of boring.
First up: an interview with our contributor Ben Wolfe, a professor of microbiology at Tufts University, who just launched the site MicrobialFoods.Org with cheese goddess Bronwen Percival.
[LP] What were the reasons behind starting the site? How did you and Bronwen start working together?
[BW] Bronwen came to work in the lab [at Harvard] where I was doing my post-doc research on cheese microbes. She is the cheese buyer for Neal’s Yard Dairy in the UK and has a background in biochemistry. She wanted to learn more about the microbes involved in the production and aging of the cheeses that she sells. I am not exaggerating when I say it was the happiest two months of my time in the lab. She’s incredible—thoughtful, creative, and so brilliant.
We were out for drinks, and decided that we should create a website that would be the “Lucky Peach of food microbes.” So many people are so jazzed about fermentation right now, and pretty much everyone is embracing delicious rot—using fermentation to preserve and produce novel flavors. There are tons of great guides out there with recipes and some basic science (thank you Sandor Katz!!!), but the microbiology behind these foods has been largely locked away in stuffy journals and guarded by men in tweed jackets. As the wise David Chang once told me, “We all know how to ferment. But why does fermentation happen? That remains unclear to most people.” We wanted to break down the barriers and make the science of fermented foods more accessible. And we wanted to include lots of pretty pictures of microbes because that makes these invisible creatures come to life!
Lots of people have asked me to write a book with this content. But I am overcommitted and a website is so much easier. And it’s free! And people can interact and comment and bicker about their favorite yeast (OK, that hasn’t happened, but would be amazing!).
We’ll never be able to mimic the wonders of Lucky Peach in our tiny world of fermented foods, but we’re trying to use the same combination of accessible writing and beautiful images to get the world excited about the microbes in their food.
[LP] Who is the site for? Hardcore nerds only, or will wannabe nerds like us be able to learn from it?
[BW] We’re hoping the website will be for anyone who loves fermentation, food, and or microbes. Hardcore nerd membership not required. We’re trying to write it and enrich the content so that it will be accessible to anyone who stayed (mostly) awake during high school biology. We’re just beginning and both of us have full-time jobs (Bronwen runs around the UK buying amazing artisan cheese for Neal’s Yard Dairy, I am an assistant professor of microbiology at Tufts University). And currently my only editor is my cat. So we’re still figuring out exactly where the site will go. We want people to write to us to tell us what works and what doesn’t so we can improve as the website evolves. And if anyone out there wants to contribute in anyway, we’d love to hear from you.
As a warning: the site is very dairy/cheese heavy right now because that is what we know best. But we’ve got some great pieces on kombucha, kimchi, and some more obscure ferments in the works. Stay tuned!
[LP] What can learning about microbes do for me in the kitchen? Will it improve my pizza?
[BW] Just like the ‘farm to fork’ movement has raised awareness of important issues in food production, understanding the incredible microscopic world in some of the world’s most delicious foods helps people appreciate the invisible biology behind their dinner plate.
Some people are grossed out by the idea that foods are packed full of microbes (you should hear what people said after my salami microbiology piece in Lucky Peach Issue 4—yikes!). But I think these microbes and the artisan food producers that work with these microbes have amazing stories to tell. We have a Microbe Guide section that teaches you about the microbes and a Profiles section that introduces you to some amazing fermented food producers and to scientists who study fermented foods.
In a more practical way, understanding the microbiology can help you tinker with microbes in your own kitchen. If you know why a fermentation happens, you can begin to play with the microbiological parts (species or communities of microbes) or controls on that fermentation (salt, moisture, etc.) to push it into a new direction.
[LP] Who or what in the microbial world is getting you excited right now?
[BW] I have a huge microbe crush on Zygosaccharomyces rouxii right now. I actually wrote about this yeast for MicrobialFoods.org. It’s the reason that soy sauce and miso have that amazing caramel-like odor (which by the way is similar to the odor produced during sex by some species of cockroaches). The colonies produced by this yeast in the lab are absolutely amazing—it’s as if Frank Gehry designed them. Go read my blurb and I’m sure you’ll fall in love too.
[LP] Do you know any microbial one liners we could use as a punchline here?
[BW] Microbe Week: because sharks are actually kind of boring. [Ed. note: thanks Ben!]
Check Ben & Bronwen out on MicrobialFoods.Org, and follow them on Twitter @MicrobialFoods.
Yeasts photo by Ben Wolfe
Gif by Richie Brown