In just a few short days, the Fermentation Fest will commence in Reedsburg, Wisconsin.  Over the ten days of the event, there will be classes, tastings, speakers and art to be enjoyed.  I am most looking forward to keynote speaker Gary Paul Nabhan.  Nabhan is an internationally celebrated nature writer, food and farming activist, and proponent of conserving the links between biodiversity and cultural diversity.

I have long been intrigued by the co-evolution of peoples and their food, but as a reformed vegan I find myself most intrigued by meat and dairy.  Within his 2004 book, Why Some Like it Hot, Nabhan explained why it is that I was able to reincorporate dairy into my diet after a hiatus of several years while people of some other cultures are unable consume any dairy products after childhood.  I’ve excerpted some fascinating bits from the first chapter of the book to explain the relationship between people and dairy.

Three decades ago, a cultural geographer named Frederick Simoons noticed that the global distribution of extended lactose tolerance was strongly correlated with the distribution of ancient herding peoples in Europe, Asia Minor, and northern Africa.  Around 10,000 years ago, a mutation occurred in the DNA of an isolated population of northern Europeans that allowed them to tolerate milk as a nutrient-rich resource.  It is assumed that most of these people first used small quantities of raw milk in a ritualistic manner or initially consumed only fermented products such as yogurt and cheese.  Matt Ridley, science writer of Genome, explained that “the evidence suggests that such people took up a pastoral way of life first, and developed milk-digesting ability later in response to it.”

Various people do differ greatly in their physiological, metabolic, and psychological responses to concentrated sucrose and its fermented derivative, ethanol.  Ethnic populations that have a greater tolerance to fermented beverages also have long histories of residence in regions where irrigated agriculture and livestock production was anciently practiced.  These regions are also where there has been long exposure to dysentery resulting from unclean drinking water, contaminated by microbes associated with livestock and human feces.  Ridley hypothesized that these agrarian populations may have reduced their exposure to dysentery by drinking fermented beverages made from grains, grapes or potatoes, instead of drinking untreated water.

So there you have it.  There are physiological reasons for the co-emergence of dairy and alcohol consumption within cultures.  I suppose that it is not a coincidence that Wisconsin is home to great cheese and great beer.  You can find both at the Fermentation Fest.  Enjoy!