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Follow the Ferments


Abstract and Figures

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.
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FOODS ON THE MOVE | Sara El-Sayed and Christy Spackman
Follow the Ferments: Inclusive Food
Governance in Arizona
Abstract: 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 condi-
tions 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 ecosys-
tem. 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 embod-
ied and intellectual terminology to accompany the process:
inspired by my Italian and Egyptian traditions, I have experi-
mented with various culinary fermentations. I now under-
stand 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 remem-
ber my grandmother fermenting anything. I know she did—
my mother has my grandmother’s sourdough crock and reg-
ularly 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 culi-
nary 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 para-
dox of permitted and prohibited ferments to explore the com-
plexities 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
gastronomica: the journal for food studies
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from this exploration, we propose that adding complexity to
the regulatory space through aspiring toward more regenera-
tive 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. food-
ways. We follow two fermented foods: gundruk, a Nepali food
made of fermented leafy greens; and montagat alban, home-
made 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
(, the metropolitan Phoenix area is home to sig-
nificant 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 focus-
ing 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 collab-
oration 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 reg-
ulatory aspects surrounding small-scale production. We addi-
tionally 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 gath-
ered created mini-vignettes about each product.
Bringing traditional fermentation and regulatory processes
into dialogue is messy. We thus draw inspiration from fer-
mentative, 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 intergener-
ational connections linking together producers and modes of
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 adjust-
ments; 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 fer-
ments encourages expanding, diversifying, and decentraliz-
ing 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 fer-
mentation 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 fer-
ment food. While the technique remains a central food pro-
duction method, industrialization has largely hidden
fermentation from everyday eyes in U.S. society. Fermented
foods such as kombucha and sauerkraut are now part of dom-
inant U.S. foodways; some are even situated as superfoods
with life-changing or curative effects (Finnis 2012; Holzapfel
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2002). However, it is only fermented products created in con-
trolled and regulated environments with industry standards,
such as pasteurization with industry standards, such as pas-
teurization, that are allowed (Fleming, McFeeters, and
Breidt 2013) to enter commercial markets. In contrast, less
standardized, often artisanal products created using unchar-
acterized cultures or that rely on protocols such as backslop-
ping—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 under-
standing 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 stan-
dards to guard the eating masses’ safety helped shift relation-
ships between producers and consumers (Goodwin 1999).
For example, pasteurization inserted a technological guaran-
tee 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 tra-
ditional 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 pro-
duction 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 Modern-
ization 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 tight-
ening 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 struc-
tures (DeLind and Howard 2008; Worosz et al. 2008; Dunn
2007; Baur 2016).
Diversifying Foods through Post-Pasteurian
The legal and social restrictions that emerged over the twen-
tieth 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 evalua-
tion of such agents; and the elaboration of appropriate human
behaviors vis-`
a-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, contempo-
rary 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 stan-
dardized rennet or pasteurized milk. Decisions like these pit
traditional producers and their teeming microbial colleagues
against regulatory bodies. This legally circumscribes the abil-
ity of traditionally produced foods to circulate in formal eco-
nomic circuits. We are curious: how might regulatory systems
adapt their microbiopolitics to better account for traditional
fermentative production practices? We turn to the fermenta-
tion process itself to glean insights on how to create a more
complex regulatory ecosystem that includes traditional fer-
mented 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
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1. preparation
Preparing the appropriate ingredients and creating the right
conditions for fermentation is essential for success, where
‘‘success’’ means achieving desired flavors, forms, and aes-
thetic characteristics. Commercial production valorizes the
use of standardized ingredients, microbial populations,
equipment, and protocols. In contrast, traditional fermenta-
tion 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 standard-
ized 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, reg-
ulations render this approach unacceptable, outside of the
strict standards for materials used, pasteurization of milk, and
specifically selected disinfectants. Nonetheless, whether tra-
ditional or industrial, this process of preparing ingredients
and equipment is the first step. This section reviews the con-
text 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, eco-
nomic, and social conditions. Traditional producers working
in Arizona operate within local and national microbiopoliti-
cal 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 reg-
ulatory structure that allows some home cottage production.
Setting up a cottage industry in Arizona is easy (Johnson,
Nicholas, and Endres 2011), but only ‘‘non-potentially hazard-
ous 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 agribusi-
ness (Thom´
e 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 (Thom´
e Da Cruz
and Menasche 2014). A variety of players with different inter-
ests shape food safety. The larger players that wield the most
power are often more effective at policy lobbying.
The wield-
ing of power is even more complex within the global market,
where international trade agreements such as the Codex Ali-
mentarius impose standardized regulations and restrict smal-
ler and more traditional players (Parasecoli 2017; Gallagher
and McKevitt 2019). The food safety ecosystem is character-
ized 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 inter-
national markets due to established food safety and provision-
ing 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). How-
ever, 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
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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 ori-
gins 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 pro-
duced under their cottage food acts; many states limit produ-
cers 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 fermenta-
tion 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. Arizo-
na’s approach is informed in part by the Food Safety Mod-
ernization 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 (Thom ´
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 dis-
proportionate impact on cottage production of small-scale
and traditional producers (Hassanein 2011; McDonald 2019;
Williams and Holt-Gim´
enez 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 ofand
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 progres-
sive era, led to food safety and morals being intertwined in
a new way. The human body, rather than being conceptual-
ized 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, theymaintain 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 sustainabil-
ity 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 rela-
tionships 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
Successful fermentation occurs in the presence of beneficial
bacteria. In industrial production, these bacteria are specifi-
cally 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 addi-
tion of a small portion of a previous ferment, called back-
slopping. 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 intro-
duce 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 gen-
erations, at least thirty years (Balogh et al. 2016).
2.1 Gundruk
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
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families. Gundruk is made in Nepali homes. Sometimes peo-
ple 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 pro-
duces 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 peo-
ple 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 East-
erners. 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 butter-
milk, yogurt or zabady is commonly produced at home using
acid-producing bacteria (Trachoo 2002). In Jordan and Leba-
non, 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. Fer-
mentation 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).
These products
play a significant role in Middle Eastern culture and con-
tinue to be produced and consumed among Middle Easter-
ners, even those in the global diaspora.
The nearly 60,000 Egyptians, Libyans, Jordanians, Leba-
nese, Palestinians, Iraqis, and Iranians who now make Ari-
zona home continue to value montagat alban (dairy
products) like the aforementioned mish, labneh, gemed, and
kishk. Most fermented products consumed by Muslim Arabs
FIGURE 1: Nepali couple making gundruk in Tempe, Arizona, in their backyard.
photograph courtesy of nalini chhetri
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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 East-
ern immigrants maintain their food traditions. These tradi-
tions are especially prevalent during holidays: for Muslims,
Ramadan marks the month where many traditions are main-
tained, such as breaking the fast with a date and some fer-
mented 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 nutri-
tional 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 ben-
efits—and, most critically, enables a continuation of inter-
generational 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 prod-
uct might need to be left in a cool, dry place, or burped, to
allow the gases to be released. It is essential that care
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,
FIGURES 2AAND2B:Jordanian woman in Tempe, Arizona, making labneh (left) with both strainer and traditional cloth and the finished product
of gemed in olive oil (right).
photograph courtesy of fairuz nassri
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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, under-
standing 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 Mus-
tapha 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 exter-
nal 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 manufactur-
ing 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 dur-
ing production (Kitch et al. 2021). These cultural safety guide-
lines work to ensure that only beneficial bacteria such as
lactic acid microbes are introduced.
The tacit knowledge passed down in the making of gun-
druk 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 remain-
ing moisture. The leaves are then tightly packed in contain-
ers, 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 pro-
ducers navigate a type of microbiopolitics unique to their
culture and social conditions, while ensuring the safety of
the product. Gundruk brought back many sentimental feel-
ings 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 mar-
ket’s owners or friends, as well as by families who are
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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 requir-
ing 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 men-
tioned 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,
However, second- and third-generation Middle East-
erners 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.
‘‘My nieces,’’ one
Jordanian interviewee (interview 10, 2021) said, ‘‘like grand-
ma’s traditional food, and engage in our traditional dances
and customs, but it’s not a deep understanding of our cul-
ture—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 sig-
nificant 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 com-
mercial 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 com-
ponents 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 deci-
sions. This renegotiation between identities itself opens up
opportunities for more diverse foods to legally and safely cir-
culate within American foodways, enabling a more regener-
ative food system.
3.3 Feeding Diversity, Not the Divide
The interconnections between these products and their com-
munities illustrate the way microbiopolitics enter into rela-
tionships 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 examin-
ing 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 regula-
tion. 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
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 hydrom-
eter 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 add-
ing an ingredient. In this section we discuss how to tackle and
address some of the microbiopolitical entanglements fermen-
ted 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
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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 preserv-
ing 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 cul-
turally 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 under-
standing 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 regen-
erated; 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
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, contempo-
rary 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 exam-
ple, 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 geo-
graphical 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
These community-based labeling systems sometimes stem
from a religious or cultural belief. Middle Easterners catego-
rize foods as haram, forbidden in Islam; halal, meaning law-
ful; 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). There-
fore, even culturally relevant labels such as this could be
translated into Indigenous applications such as sacred or mar-
ketable, 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 cultur-
ally 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 prac-
tices not currently recognized by U.S. regulatory structures as
4.3 Food Education
Like the creation of a new labeling regime, the construction
of an intergenerational education system could also help pro-
mote the growth of a regenerative food safety ecosystem. As
one Jordanian interviewee pointed out, ‘‘I want my
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grandchildren to take pride in their Jordanian food heritage’’
(interview 9, 2021). She noted that despite teaching their cul-
tural 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 genera-
tion, or the larger community, how to understand the plea-
sure 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 aware-
ness 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 immi-
grants, 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
approachesand recognizingthe value of collaborative commu-
nities of fermentationcan 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 tradi-
tional 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 inacces-
sible to most small producers. Technologies such as high-
throughput sequencing can track microbial communities
found in fermented products such as sourdough, kombu-
cha, 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 popu-
lations. 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 com-
munity production, in significant ways. Any technology
developed for these efforts would benefit from being pro-
duced in tandem with small-scale producers, to make spe-
cific production steps easier. Facilitating access to such
technologies can also enable communities to better com-
municate 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 exist-
ing and new elements to make it more resilient and
Conclusion: Coming Together and Sharing
This article has expanded on the concepts of microbiopoliti-
cal 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 pro-
mote 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 socio-
ecological connections. We have proposed making adjust-
ments to the current system. By inviting in alternative
labeling approaches, encouraging more education around
human-microbial relationships, and expanding on the tech-
nological 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.
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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 inter-
viewees, that those industrially produced iterations of gun-
druk, gemed, or kishk would be the same as those produced
in home kitchens or backyards. These foods are what they
munities 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.
1. Cottage industries are considered small food enterprises often
produced in private homes or shared kitchen spaces, for commercial
sale, with regulations determined at the state level of what foods are
eligible for sale and how (McDonald 2019; Johnson, Nicholas and
Endres 2011).
2. ‘‘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).
3. 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.
4. Caring ‘‘is a relational practice that engages ways of knowing’’
(Puig de la Bellacasa 2017: 146).
5. 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
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migrants carry their foods in their bodies (DeLind 2006).
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Alkon and Vang 2020). Translocal identities describe a phenomenon
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