There are people who hear “fermented” and think “spoiled.” Not only would they avoid eating something fermented, they would steer clear of a festival dedicated to all things fermented. But those are people who haven’t yet met Katie Falbo.
Katie, organizer of the Homegrown Roots section of CEC’S annual Earth Day Festival as well as CEC’s first-ever farm-to-table dinner, is passionate about fermentation — and anyone who talks to her will soon be running to the kitchen, eager to make sauerkraut or kimchi.
Her passion started over a decade ago, when she was a sophomore in college, suffering from food allergies and digestive issues. Although growing up in Sonoma had instilled in her an appreciation for healthy, local food, Katie decided to take an even closer look at her diet. “I began paying more attention and really looking at the quality of the food I was eating. In the process, I became more acquainted with where my food comes from, who grows it and how it is processed. I developed a passion for food and connecting with the people who spend time and energy growing, raising and preparing it,” Katie says.
She soon found the key to solving her own health problems: fermented foods, which contain billions of beneficial bacteria and offer more bio-available nutrition than their cooked or raw counterparts, she says. “Fermentation can be complex, but simply put, the process introduces beneficial bacteria to a food, such as shredded cabbage, and those bacteria feed on the sugar and starch within that food. The result is sour kraut [sauerkraut], a pre-digested food rich in lactic acid and billions of bacteria that have multiplied in the process. This kraut is now easy to digest, full of beneficial bacteria and easy-to-assimilate nutrients, and it is naturally preserved.”
To make matters worse, “people also now take more antibiotics, which kill many of the beneficial bacteria [along with the bad] that we rely on to keep our immune systems strong and our bodies functioning properly.” As a result, people consume far fewer probiotics, she says, and generally have smaller stores of these good bugs in their guts, which can lead to digestive and immune related health issues. Still, it was not an overnight transformation for Katie — she only started “hardcore fermenting” five years ago — but making an effort to eat more local, organic, and fermented foods has dramatically improved her health, and she no longer suffers from the symptoms she had growing up. “You are what you eat, plain and simple,” she explains. “If you eat bad food, you’ll feel bad. If you eat local, organic, nutrient-rich foods in their purest form, you’ll feel like a hundred bucks.”
For Katie, local food and fermentation go hand in hand. “You can ferment food that is not local and/or organic,” she says. “But it might not turn out the same.” That’s because non-organic food may be sprayed with pesticides that kill the good bacteria that take up residence on our produce and are necessary for successful fermentation. If beneficial bacteria is not present, bad bacteria will take over and the food will rot rather than ferment. “I’ve found that organic produce that has been grown in good quality soil is more nutritious and has more beneficial bacteria, which means a more healthful and successful ferment,” Katie adds.
It’s not just her fermented foods, however, that are locally sourced. Most everything eaten in the Falbo household is purchased from the farmers market or local CSAs and artisans, from the meat and cheeses in the fridge to the olive oil, grains, and honey in the pantry. “Even our beer, wine and spirits are 100% local,” she notes. “I like to know who is growing, raising and making our food, and you can’t ask those kinds of questions at the grocery store. I want to support our local farmers, ranchers and artisans, and they need our support to continue providing the amazing foods that they do. I don’t know what I would eat without them.”
Making it work, she says, comes down to priorities.
“I give up a lot of other things to be able to eat the way that I do. My husband and I share a car, and we don’t go out to eat very much. We don’t even have cable. We live modestly and spend most of our income on food. For us, good food is health, entertainment, leisure, and the most important thing that we spend money on.”
Concern for her health as well as the health and prosperity of the greater Santa Barbara community also drove Katie to found the Santa Barbara Fermentation Festival four years ago, and more recently to start her own event planning company, Cultivate Events.
“The Fermentation Festival began as a workshop at Tom Shepherd’s farm in Carpinteria,” she says. “We wanted to teach people how to use farm fresh, local produce and ferment it and use it in a traditional way.” Katie and her mother, Lynn Hartman, who helped establish the event, were expecting only a handful of people to come. That first year, 75 people showed up. The next year, 500 people attended. The festival moved to Fairview Gardens, and in 2014, even more people flooded in to learn about fermentation.
“Every culture on the planet has a fermented food that they eat and hold as sacred,” Katie says. “India has raita (yogurt), dal (lentils), and dosa (fermented pancakes); Japan has gari (pickled ginger) and miso; Korea has kimchi; Germany has beer and sourdough; Inuits have muktuk (fermented whale blubber); the list goes on. But we in America have a culture of convenience, so we’ve stopped fermenting. And if we stop fermenting, we lose more than a really good, healthy food. We lose culture.”
According to Katie, events like the Santa Barbara Fermentation Festival, SOL Food Festival, and Earth Day strengthen our own community here and now in Santa Barbara. They not only support local farmers, but they build a relationship between those farmers and the festivals’ attendees. They create a community. They make food personal.
Which is exactly how it should be, Katie says. “Going to the farmers market with my mom is my weekend ritual. No matter what, I go every Saturday. We don’t just buy food, we chat with the farmers who are our good friends. It’s like a social hour,” she said. “Some people go to a bar for that; I go to the farmers market!”