Bob Ojeda: Pitching Through The Pain.
Over the course of his 14-year career as a pitcher, Bob Ojeda threw more than 1,000 strikeouts and countless pitches across the plate. During that entire time, the lefty's pitching arm hurt. "The act itself is sort of violent and completely unnatural," he says. "I think most pitchers certainly feel a level of pain."
Other segments from the episode on June 19, 2012
June 19, 2012
Guests: Bob Ojeda â Sandor Katz
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We produce our show in Philadelphia, and our team, the Phillies, has an alarming number of players on the disabled list, including Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay. Lots of athletes live with pain, but they don't necessarily talk about it.
But my guest, Bob Ojeda, wrote an article in the New York Times last month that was all about the pain he dealt with as a Major League pitcher. Actually, the pain dated back to his Little League days. His article about the glory and pain of pitching is called "My Left Arm."
Ojeda pitched for the Mets from 1986 to 1990. He was the lead pitcher in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, the game in which a loss for the Mets would have meant losing the series. The Mets won that game and the championship. Ojeda also played for the Boston Red Sox, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Cleveland Indians and the New York Yankees.
In 1984, he led the American League in shutouts. Bob Ojeda is now the pre- and post-game analyst for the Mets.
Bob Ojeda, welcome to FRESH AIR.
BOB OJEDA: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: So you were basically always in pain. Is that typical for a pitcher?
OJEDA: I think by and large a lot of guys experience different levels of pain or discomfort or just uneasiness with an arm or a leg or a knee or a back or a neck. Pitching is an all-encompassing motion, and I think a lot has to do with genetics. But I would say by and large because the act itself is sort of violent and completely unnatural, I think most pitchers certainly feel a certain level of pain and whatnot.
GROSS: Violent and unnatural. So here's what I'd like you to do, if you could do this, if you could kind of take us through a pitch, just through all the motions of a pitch and tell us what it's doing to your arm as you go through the motion.
OJEDA: OK, well, what you do is - I'll go right from the beginning. I mean, I'm looking down at my catcher. He gives me a sign. I OK the sign. I step on the rubber, and I begin my turn, my motion, my entire delivery. And the whole idea is you're throwing with your entire body. And then, you know, you lift your leg, you turn, and all - you know, there's a million different deliveries, but the part that most of us have in common is your hand and your arm goes up well above your shoulder, and that's where the unnaturalness of it comes.
And then you have to deliver that pitch forward with whatever effort physically that you're able to use that day. The trick to the whole thing is your front side. You do not want your front side to fly out too soon, your glove-hand side. If that does, when you see a pitcher's front side go a little too soon, take a notice of his arm, his shoulder, his - the one that has the arm attached to the ball, and you'll see a tremendous amount of separation there, where the arm is completely behind the whole front part of his body.
And at that point, that's probably the most dangerous point of the delivery. Before you deliver it, front foot has landed, and you are now, you know, driving and torquing towards home. The key is to not let your arm with the ball in it drag too far behind because that's when that shoulder open up, and injury is certainly a viable option right then.
GROSS: So what was the pitch that strained your arm the most? I don't mean the individual pitch, I mean the type of pitch.
OJEDA: For me it was, you know, the fastball, because that required the most energy. That was the one that put the maximum wow factor in the ow, if you will.
GROSS: And what was the pitch that you could most easily fall back on, on bad days when you were in pain?
OJEDA: My go-to was the changeup. That was one that the delivery is exactly the same, but the power, you know, the energy that I was talking about earlier, is completely devoid. That's the trick to that pitch. The motion has to be the same, but I just have to remove all the power from that thing, and in that case it would hurt the least.
Sliders can be very nasty on an elbow. Curveballs can have that same effect in the elbow. But I would say by and large the fastball is the most painful if you misfire.
GROSS: So do you think batters could read whether you were in pain and therefore which pitch you'd be throwing?
OJEDA: Well, that's a very good question, and that's the trick, is to - I have to throw all my pitches on any given day and not let him know what's going on. There's a lot of, a lot of recon going on in how I even do my...
GROSS: Right, right.
OJEDA: ...how I do my warm-up pitches in between innings. Believe me, they're noticing, wow, he's not throwing this in his warm-up pitches, because I'm on the mound in front of the other team during the game. So they note all that stuff. Well, he's backed off on this. As the game progresses, they'll notice if you've backed off on a certain pitch, and they'll adjust their approach to you accordingly.
So a part of the beauty of the game is I have to constantly keep trying to trick them as much physically as I do mentally. I have to let them know that, no, I've got all my weapons today, so you better pay attention to all of them.
GROSS: Has the windup itself kind of changed in the past few decades?
OJEDA: It has, and my particular theory is all little kids, we emulate what we see on TV or we see at the ballgame. And I used to copy Sandy Koufax. He was my guy, so my delivery - and guys of that era. You'll notice in eras of baseball, the deliveries are kind of the same. They're almost similar in, in - in certain aspects of it - there's always the individual take on them.
But nowadays, today, because of the sexiness of lighting up a radar gun, you see a lot of max-effort type deliveries, and those are violent deliveries. Those are sort of disjointed deliveries, and in my opinion one of the reasons why you have rampant arm injuries, because the arc of pitching has been lost on the radar gun.
And I think it's returning a little bit when you have, I think, you know, I'll delve into it, is the lack of chemical enhancements on these bodies. You're not able to come back from those tweaks that you were able to come back when steroids were a part of the game.
GROSS: Ah, interesting point. So you think now that you can't use steroids, the windup is different?
OJEDA: Well, the thing about - yeah, I've never used them myself, but the word on the street is they help with recovery. So if you have a max-effort violent delivery, it may not help you throw harder long-term, but short term it'll help you, and then if you can take something to bounce back quicker, no one's the wiser, and you're able to go on with it.
But I think what you're seeing now is one of the most popular pitches coming back in baseball is the changeup, and that is a pitch that across the board everyone knows is the least stressful. And you don't see as many guys throwing 97, 98 miles an hour as they were there for a while.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is retired pitcher Bob Ojeda. One of the teams he used to play for was the Mets, and he's now a pre- and post-game analyst for the Mets. He wrote an article recently in the New York Times about his arm and pitching, and it was called "My Left Arm," and it was about the glory and the pain of pitching.
So take us back to 1986, Game Six of the National League Championship Series. You were pitching for the Mets against the Astros, and you pitched a complete game and a five-to-one victory against the Astros, and your arm really hurt. And the doctor said that your only option was a shot. So tell us what happened.
OJEDA: Well, at that point, you know, I threw the game in Houston. Then we came back, and I was scheduled to throw a bullpen. You pitch your game, and then you usually take a day off or two or then throw a bullpen session. That's where you practice out beyond the wall there. We have a whole mound set up.
And for me, it was at a point where that session just wasn't going to happen. If I got through it, I don't recall exactly if I got through it. I probably did because I was still - I could not let on to anyone, other than that circle of myself, my trainer and my team doctor, the only three who knew anything. So I probably, you know, went through my session and, you know, said yeah, no, I'm fine, everything's good.
But after that, I confided with the trainer that we've got to do something, and that was when the plan by the doctor was for me to go down and meet him in Washington and get the shot. Because that was the only thing left at that time. I'd never taken any pills other than anti-inflammatories, and there's - at that point I'd already tried quite a few different ones, and I was just about out of rope. So the only thing left was the cortisone in the elbow.
GROSS: So how much did it help?
OJEDA: Once I did it, it didn't feel a whole lot better, but then when I started to throw in the bullpen in Houston to get loose, it literally felt, and this was a sensation I'll never forget, it felt like sandbags were inserted in my elbow. It just was this added product in there, and it just took a while to get it out of there.
The first inning, it was just, it was in there, and I couldn't, I really couldn't make the ball do what I needed it to do. After that, it began to - it literally began to just dissipate through there, and eventually it felt much better. By the time I was out of that game, I believe fifth or sixth inning, I felt it had been a success. That shot worked for me.
Now, they're not long-term solutions, we knew that going in. I knew that going in. This is a temporary fix to alleviate the pain in that area and to, you know, help clear things out, I guess. I'm not an authority on cortisone. But whatever it was intended to do, whatever it was supposed to do, it worked for me, at least temporarily.
GROSS: But here's the thing. It always seems like it's a tradeoff, like if you get the shot and it works for you temporarily, so you could go back in the game, are you trading off long term the ability of your arm to actually really heal?
OJEDA: Potentially, but at that point this little guy from that town in California, growing up with a dad who this was his dream and my dream as well, I'd pay that price any day of the week. And I did...
GROSS: To be in the series and keep pitching.
OJEDA: Oh gosh, yeah. At that point you could not have kept me out of there. I would have done anything. I would have done anything and accepted the consequences. I didn't do them and then, you know, years later, oh, you know, why did I do that. No, I did them fully, fully conscious of what I was doing and what I was risking.
But it was worth the risk. I got a chance to go to the World Series. This was my dream since I was a, you know, a little guy making up my own uniform when I was five years old because I loved the game so much. So no, there was nothing I wouldn't have done, you know, legally, to stay out of those games.
GROSS: So how did you do, and how did the Mets do in the series?
OJEDA: We did pretty good. We did pretty good. I had the biggest game of my life after that game in Houston, after the shot. We were down two, went to Boston, and I really, I threw a great game, seven innings, I didn't give up anything. So that was by far the greatest game I ever pitched, the most emotional game I'd ever been in, not knowing what was ahead of us, not knowing what was ahead, but I knew at that particular point, we lose Game Three and we're in deep trouble.
GROSS: So soon after this, you were diagnosed with a chip the size of your thumbnail in your elbow. What does that mean?
OJEDA: That means a piece of your elbow bone area in the - right in the elbow area, right where you hit your funny bone, that is the ulna nerve, a piece of the elbow in there. And most pitchers have little debris in there, that's just part of the business. It's part of what you do.
This particular large piece broke off and was actually scraping the nerve, and that was the problem. That's why it was not going to heal. That was why the shot alleviated the pain temporarily, allowed me to continue, but when I came back the spring of '87, after a couple months off, which I never took a couple months off after the season ended in October, I started throwing with my father, and you know, a couple of sessions into it, I knew I was - I knew the next year was over.
I knew it. The same exact pain was there, and there was no - perhaps I was going to try to Band-Aid it, which I did, but I knew that this one - going into a season, I was never going to hold up. I knew it. It wasn't the end of the season where I said, look, I can just hang in there for a couple, three, four more games. This was like I've got 35 starts ahead of me, it ain't happening.
GROSS: So you had surgery.
OJEDA: I had surgery, yes. I got examined. The doctor said I can scope it, or we're going to have to open it up and move the ulna nerve. Scope, he would've gone in with a little incision and basically blew up the chip and cleaned it out. And I said, well, what's the rehab on that?
He said, well, if I scope it, you're six weeks. If I open you up, you're out for the year. I said, well, let's scope it. He said: If I scope it, it's got a 10 percent chance of working. I said: Good, I'm really thrilled with 10 percent. Let's go. So he goes: Listen, I've got to talk to your doctor. So he calls the doctor right there in front of me, and he told him: I do not recommend the scope.
And then I got in the phone with our team doctor, Dr. Parks(ph), a wonderful man, he's passed on now. I said, you know, I want the scope. He said, look, it's not going to work. And he convinced me. I said, all right, today's - whatever day it was - I said two days from now I want that surgery done. And he said, OK, I promise you.
So I flew back to New York, he did the job, and then I began my rehab.
GROSS: My guest is former Major League pitcher Bob Ojeda. We'll talk more about pitching and pain after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Bob Ojeda, who pitched for the Mets, the Red Sox, the Dodgers and the Yankees. He recently wrote about the glory and pain of pitching in the New York Times. When we left off, we were talking about the problem he had with his elbow in 1987 that led to surgery on his ulnar nerve. It took him out of the game for most of the season.
So what do you do when you're on the injured list? How do you spend your time, outside of physical therapy? And how does it feel to watch the game that you can't play in?
OJEDA: It's brutal. It is like being on the outside looking in, and there's a party going on, and they can't see you, they can't hear you. You're invisible, and you feel invisible, and part of you doesn't want to be seen or heard because you're not a part of it. You're not able to go out there and be a part of it.
Good, bad or ugly, you're not a part of it. So it's an awful place to be, the disabled list. It's terrible. But it actually drives you to get back out there. And the sooner I could get back, the better. That was why I began my rehab as soon as possible, and originally it was three days a week, and I told the lady, I said no, we're doing this five days a week, seven days a week, whatever it takes.
So I really pushed the envelope to get back because it was for my own selfish reasons. I didn't like being on the outside at all.
GROSS: How did it go when you went back?
OJEDA: I wound up coming back in September. I threw a couple games, I think I started a couple, and it did not feel good, but it was a different kind of pain. It wasn't that same - it wasn't that locking thing that was going on. So I knew the end of the season was there.
There again, I said earlier, I can tough it out for three or four starts or what have you, knowing that winter was winter was right around the corner, and that was my thing. I just had to get back out there before going through another winter with the question mark of is this going to work. So as much as it hurt, I still knew it worked. I still knew the original type pain I'd been having was gone.
It was a new pain, but I just attributed that to obviously the surgery and all that.
GROSS: So in your article in the New York Times about your arm, you wrote: Relationships between pitchers and their arms are unique, focused partnerships full of fear and pain and trust and hope. Did you see, like, your arm as almost separate from your body, as this like separate entity, this separate like personality that had to be kind of catered to and pleased and that, you know, if you did the right thing, it would work for you and like your life depended on this arm, and you know, you had to bow to it in every way? You know what I'm saying?
OJEDA: Well, yeah, I know exactly what you're saying, and it's an important appendage that you can't do without to do the job you love, to do the game you love. There's this symbiotic relationship, without a doubt. You certainly do pay a lot of attention to it, and you learn how to adapt. I would never sleep on my left side, as a matter of fact, because I did one time, and my shoulder - I had a lot of problem with my shoulder after I slept on that.
So there's certain things you do. Your life revolves around that. You have to alter what you do as an everyday person as to not aggravate that thing you count on.
GROSS: How did you know it was time to end your baseball career?
OJEDA: Emotionally I was done. Emotionally, really, my shoulder my shot. I knew potentially another surgery was on tap, and I just didn't want to do it anymore. I reached a point where for me I had to be all in, and that all in was 100 percent. I had to want to get you out 100 percent. For me, 89 percent, 98 percent was not going to get you out. I had to be all in, 100 percent.
I wanted to get you out, and I want to get you out in the worst way. Once I lost that, once I lost two percent of that, I was done. I didn't have that burning desire to get you out that I needed to. And the end came emotionally before it became - before the end came physically.
GROSS: So what was that last game like for you?
OJEDA: Well, besides being lousy on the mound, I think the last day - I was at Yankee Stadium - and I pretty much - I was waiting for the tap on the shoulder. The way it usually ends, you get a tap on the shoulder - back in the day, anyway - you're sitting by your locker, you're actually a little reluctant to get dressed because you know you're failing. You know it's a matter of time.
And sure enough, we're at Yankee Stadium, the tap comes, says Skip wants to see you. And that's - you know, I know at that point it's not we're pushing you back a start. We're, you know, it's been nice knowing you. So it's very - you know, I'm not an emotional-type person. It's very - it's not this big ceremony. It's like, hey, we've got to let you go. It's like, OK, I'll see you later.
You go, you grab your gear, and you head out the door and don't look back. I was in a sense relieved. I wasn't glad it was over because it was the funnest thing I ever did in my life. I mean, my goodness, I played baseball for a living. It's ridiculous. But it was a relief in the sense of, like, I don't have to wait for the tap on the shoulder, man. It's here. There it is.
GROSS: So does your arm still hurt?
OJEDA: Yes, it does, but I don't got to try to throw a baseball anymore. Ironically, when I would coach, I coached with a good friend of mine, Rich Gadman(ph), I would throw a bullpen for fun with him. We're old. This was, you know, six, seven years ago. You know, it's something you miss being able to do, but it's something that I've moved on from because it's just life.
GROSS: So were you watching the game when the Phillies pitcher, Jose Contreras, tore something in his elbow, and it looked like he was really in pain?
OJEDA: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: What did you think about when you saw that?
OJEDA: Well, you just cringe. You cringe because, one, it's horrible for any human, whether you've pitch or not, to watch another human hurt himself like that. But in my case, when you know pretty much kind of what that feels like, it makes it even worse. It gives you the, you know, you get a little squeamish watching that, and you tend to look away rather than - there's no curiosity from a guy who used to play who had som pain. I know what it is, and I'd just as soon look away.
GROSS: Bob Ojeda, thank you so much for talking with us.
OJEDA: Terry, it was my pleasure.
GROSS: Bob Ojeda is a former Mets pitcher who is now the team's pre- and post-game analyst. You'll find a link to his New York Times article about the glory and the pain of pitching on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you heard our interview last week about how fermentation changes milk to yogurt and cabbage to sauerkraut, you may have felt cheated that we didn't talk about how the process of fermentation creates wine, beer, cheese and salami, which is why we now present part two of that interview.
Sandor Katz is the author of "The Art of Fermentation," and has taught hundreds of fermentation workshops around the country. His book explains how and why bacteria transformed beverages in the fermentation process, and why some of these foods have probiotic qualities that are good for the digestive track. He also offers advice about how to make fermented foods. Katz grew up in New York and now lives in Tennessee, where he ferments many vegetables from his garden.
Let's talk about wine, which is fermented fruit. Why are grapes such a natural for fermentation?
SANDOR KATZ: Well, grapes have a really great balance of sugars and acids and so that they are a, you know, particularly good nourishment for yeast. I mean making wine from grapes is incredibly easy. It's easy to get the juice out of grapes. I mean "I Love Lucy," I think, you know, sort of showed us all how to make wine. I mean if you stomp on grapes it releases the juices.
And, you know, when I was on a farm in Italy a couple of years ago at the grape harvest, well, we weren't stomping with our feet but they had this very clever little set of rollers that crushed the grapes a little bit. And so we picked the grapes and crushed them into grape juice with the grapes and stems floating in it, then we went to eat lunch and by the time we came back from eating lunch, the crushed grape juice was bubbling vigorously. The fermentation had begun immediately. So grapes are really easy to ferment. But any fruit can be fermented.
And like where I live in Tennessee, we have this great tradition called Country Wines. And so actually, yesterday I was driving on the road and saw a plum tree dropping plums all over the road. And I stopped my car and I take a big bag of plums and then when I got home, we mixed up some sugar water and poured sugar water over the plums - we'll have plum wine shortly. So you really can make wine out of any kind of a fruit or even you can make flour or flavored wines or vegetable flavored wines or herb flavored wines. You know, the idea of, you know, fermenting a sugary liquid into alcohol, you know, can be applied with, you know, all sorts ingredients beyond the most famous ones, like grapes.
GROSS: So what is it that turns the juice into alcohol? Is it the yeast?
KATZ: Yes. Yes. I mean, you know, yeast consumes sugar and transform it into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
GROSS: OK. And is there a certain kind of yeast that you use to make wine?
KATZ: Well, you know, all fruits are covered with yeast. Yeast is really everywhere, so certainly...
GROSS: Oh, so you're not adding yeast. It just has the yeast in it - for the grapes, anyways.
KATZ: Yes. Yes. Yes. Really, I mean all sweet foods have yeast. Yeast are just everywhere and they find their way to all the sweet things. The skins of grapes and plums and blueberries and other really dark colored fruits you can actually see a little white film and that white film includes lots of different types of microorganisms, including yeast.
Usually when people talk about yeast in relation to the fermentation of fruit into wine, they're talking about saccharomyces cerevisiae, that's the most famous yeast. If you go to buy a packet of yeast that's what you're buying. And so that's the yeast that, you know, people have been cultivating for thousands of years. But, you know, all sweet fruits have yeast on them. All honey incorporates yeast. Yeast is very easy to, you know, find on any of the, you know, foods that you might be fermenting, and it's just a matter of, you know, kind of working with it to develop the yeast that's there. So what I'm doing with these, you know, plums sitting in sugar water is stirring it frequently, and this basically distributes yeast activity and the stirring introduces oxygen which can really stimulate the yeast growth and proliferation.
GROSS: Once you've made wine you have to, you know, bottle it and make sure there's no air in it. That, you know, that the wine is exposed to the air because if it's exposed to the air for a period of time it's going to turn to vinegar.
KATZ: Well, yeah. I mean you really have a number of options. I mean one way you can do it is enjoy fresh. You know, ferment it for two weeks and you already have, you know, more than half of the potential alcohol has been produced and you can just have a party and enjoy your wine without ever bottling it or aging it. That would be a green or young wine partially developed and, you know, in a lot of the ancient indigenous traditions of making alcohol, people had no means for fermenting it to dryness so people drank, you know, fresher more lightly fermented beverages.
But, yes, you're correct. If you want to ferment it for dryness, you know, meaning to the point where all of the sugars are converted into alcohol, then once you're bubbling peaks and begins to slow down, then you need to transfer it to a different type of vessel where it won't be exposed to oxygen. So typically, we move it into a vessel that's called a carboy, which is a narrow neck vessel. It looks like what's on a water cooler, and then you put this device in it that's called an airlock that enables carbon dioxide that's being produced to escape but doesn't allow air with oxygen from outside the vessel, you know, in to allow for vinegar formation. Then once the bubbling stops, typically people will siphon it into a second vessel, which can restart stuck fermentation and get the last of the sugars to be fermented. Only then after it stops again would you bottle it and cork it for long-term storage. And, you know, as we all know, you know, storing wine can really allow the flavors to mature and become, you know, much more refined and wonderful.
GROSS: OK. If you're just joining us my guest is Sandor Katz. He's the author of the new book "The Art of Fermentation." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Sandor Katz. He's the author of the new book "The Art of Fermentation." Fermentation is his thing. It's what he writes about. It's what he spends a lot of his time doing is making fermented foods and teaching people how to do it.
We've talked a little bit about making wine. Now beer is made out of grain, not fruit. So what's the difference in how you would ferment grain to make an alcoholic beverage?
KATZ: Grain-based alcoholic beverages, they're much more technically demanding than fruit-based or honey-based alcoholic beverages because fruit and honey will really spontaneously ferment into alcohol, whereas grains, which are a complex carbohydrate, long chains of carbohydrates rather than simple carbohydrates need to be predigested. They need to have those complex carbohydrates broken down into simple carbohydrates.
In the Western tradition of beer making, we do this through malting, which is germination or sprouting and that sets in motion enzymatic changes that breaks down the starches into sugars. In the Asian tradition molds are used, which accomplish the same kind of enzymatic breakdown. And really, the most ancient method of doing this is chewing, using our human saliva and the enzymes that are in our saliva to break down starches into sugars, and then you brew the beer from the grains that have already been malted or otherwise enzymatically broken down into starches.
But beer is wonderful and, you know, there's a thriving movement of home brewers all around the United States of people making beers themselves. Just last night, I had some Nepalese-style millet beer. That's a warm beer. You know, beers are made out of every kind of grain in every part of the world and, you know, in my limited explorations, they are all delicious.
GROSS: So you said that sometimes with beer you can chew the grain?
GROSS: Like chew the barley to like mash it up? Like has anybody really made beer that way where there is a lot of people like chewing with the grain and spitting it out? Like that doesn't sound really appetizing.
KATZ: Well, I mean this is a traditional method in the Andes Mountains of South America for making a corn beer called chicha. There are also examples of, you know, beers that have been made in other parts of the world using this process. It's generally regarded as the most ancient form of enzymatic transformation of starches and grains and tubers into sugars that are fermentable into alcohol. So I don't think that there are a lot of people doing it these days. I've done a number of, you know, experiments, you know, in my own practice and, you know, gotten people to sit around and, you know, chew corn or in my most recent experiment, chew potatoes with me, you know, to produce an alcoholic beverage out of them. And it's fun and some people get really, really freaked out at the suggestion of it.
GROSS: I could see why.
KATZ: Well, then cook - I mean...
GROSS: But it's...
KATZ: ...then you brew it after that.
GROSS: Oh, oh, oh, you cook it after that?
KATZ: Yeah. Then you brew it after that. You cook it for a really long time so, you know, I mean I understand how, you know, conceptually that it's difficult for people but, you know, really, you know, anything that would be alive in the saliva that chewed it gets, you know, gets destroyed during the cooking. So I don't think it's, you know, any kind of, you know, danger.
GROSS: I feel better already. OK. Very good.
KATZ: And chicha is really delicious.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. OK.
GROSS: Let's talk about cheese, which is also a fermented food. What's the difference between making cheese and making yogurt?
KATZ: Well, with yogurt you're typically not removing any liquid. You're just, you know, it's kind of this magical process where you're transforming the liquid into a solid. With cheeses, typically you're removing some of the liquid. You know, most often this is done with a group of enzymes that we call rennet, and the rennet curdles the milk. The milk solids and fats all come together and then there is a byproduct, which is this thin, yellow, liquid that's still really quite nutritious called the whey. But part of what preserves cheese is the removal of liquid from the milk so it becomes more solid. I mean we could really think of, you know, a chunk of cheddar or Parmesan cheese as, you know, a form of preserved milk. I mean think how stable that is, you know, the cheese compared to the milk. And one reason for this is the removal of liquid. Another reason for this is the acidification. So just as with sauerkraut, the acidification makes it impossible for bacteria that we would regard as pathogenic or threatening to us to develop, because they can't tolerate an acidic environment.
GROSS: So how does fermentation apply to meat?
KATZ: Well, I mean meat is certainly the most perishable of all the foods that people eat - meat and fish. And so, you know, it has really been, you know, imperative for people to, you know, figure out ways of preserving meat. And people use a range of techniques to preserve meat without refrigeration, including drying, salting and smoking. And, you know, sometimes it's been a little bit elusive, you know, which cured and preserved meat products are products of fermentation. But in most of them there's at least some incidental fermentation that enhances the flavor of the meat that I think that the clearest example of a fermented meat process would be salami. So basically salami is ground meat that is mixed with salt and curing salts and spices and a little bit of sugar. And what the little bit of sugar does is it supports a lactic-acid fermentation. The nutrient for lactic-acid bacteria that meat lacks, is carbohydrates. So by adding some carbohydrate, you promote lactic-acid development, and so the lactic acid becomes part of what enables that salami to just hang on a string in a delicatessen for months and months.
GROSS: So how did you become, as you describe it, a fermentation fetishist?
KATZ: Well, the development of my interest in fermentation has a few stages. When I was in my 20s I did quite a bit of dietary experimentation, and for a while I was following a macrobiotic diet, and that was when I first became aware that there were some association with eating these, you know, live fermented foods and digestion. And I started noticing that whenever I would eat sauerkraut or pickles that the flavor of the lactic acid, even the smell of it would make my salivary glands start secreting. And so I just started really feeling how these foods got my digestive juices flowing. But it wasn't until I moved from New York City to a community in rural Tennessee and got involved in keeping a garden that I ever actually tried fermenting anything myself. And what motivated me was, you know, the practical desire to make use of the bounty of the garden, you know. It came as a little bit of a surprise to me that all the cabbages are ready at the same time and all of the radishes are ready at the same time. So this is really a practical dilemma, you know, that gardeners and people who grow food have always faced.
And, you know, this is really - has been the incentive for people to, you know, develop fermentation methods. I mean, really, agriculture makes no sense without fermentation and, you know, that's what got me to look in "The Joy of Cooking" and learn how to make sauerkraut for the first time.
GROSS: You're very public about this so I feel comfortable asking. But I know you've had HIV for many years and, you know, you're on one of the drug regimens which has really helped you a lot. Does having HIV connect at all with the kind of emphasis on fermented foods that you've had?
KATZ: Well, living with HIV has just forced think a lot about, you know, what I can do in my life to, you know, help keep myself healthy. You know, think of it as, you know, rituals of self-care and, you know, these have to go beyond, you know, popping pills. It's, you know, thinking about good nutrition. It's thinking about, you know, things that reduce stress and, you know, just, you know, observing how fermented foods improve my digestion.
And, you know, learning about how, you know, probiotic bacteria really stimulate immune function, you know, and, you know, generally feeling good day to day has really, you know, confirmed the idea that these foods are part of a strategy for keeping healthy. I mean, I am very suspicious of, you know, miracle cures, panaceas, you know, promises of specific benefit from specific foods.
But, you know, as a group, you know, these foods really can help people digest their food better, get more nutrients out of their food and have, you know, better overall immune functioning. And these are great benefits, you know, regardless of whether they cure any particular disease.
GROSS: So what did you have for breakfast today?
KATZ: I had eggs and toast.
GROSS: OK. Very plain.
KATZ: Well, OK. But I mean, I would just point out that, you know, and I had coffee. I mean, most people eat fermented foods every day. I mean, not all fermented foods have...
GROSS: Wait, wait. What's fermented in that list there?
KATZ: All bread is fermented and coffee is fermented.
GROSS: Oh, see, I don't think of them as fermented foods. I'm not thinking correctly.
KATZ: Well, you know, it's like, you know, you need to, you know, in typical contemporary breadmaking, you know, you add your yeast and the yeast activity is what rises the bread, the carbon dioxide that's produced by the fermentation. In traditional breadmaking, you use natural leavens, which are mixed communities of yeast and lactic acid bacteria that are really found on all grains.
And so it's a slightly slower process, but actually improves the bread's nutritional profile, introduces more complex flavors and makes the bread storable for a much longer period of time. But either way, the bread is definitely fermented because the microbial activity is, you know, sort of key to the bread not being a dense brick.
GROSS: And now you're going to tell me coffee is fermented?
KATZ: Yeah. Coffee is good. Coffee, as well as chocolate, are fermented on the harvesting end so we really never see it. But, you know, with coffee, it's just the freshly picked beans are moistened and, you know, held together, you know, in some sort of a box or vessel and they are fermented for a few days before they are dried and roasted.
GROSS: All right. Well, Sandor Katz, thank you for telling me a lot that I didn't know about fermented food. Much appreciated. Thank you so much.
KATZ: Well, thanks for having me. It's an honor to be on your show.
GROSS: Sandor Katz is the author of "The Art of Fermentation." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews the new album by Ray Anderson and his Pocket Brass Band. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: Trombonist Ray Anderson came out of Chicago in the 1970s playing early on with fellow Chicagoans like Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill. Anderson co-leads the trio Bass Drum Bone and his own groups include his long-running Pocket Brass Band. Ray Anderson lives on Long Island, but Chicago stayed in his blood. It's the subject of his new album. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review.
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KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Ray Anderson's Pocket Brass Band is about watch-pocket size. With three horns and drums, it couldn't get much smaller. On their new "Sweet Chicago Suite," Anderson makes what they do sound easy. Just write some catchy, bluesy tunes and then have the band blast them out.
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WHITEHEAD: Brass bands are usually at least twice as big as this quartet. It's tricky making a little band sound this big, but Ray Anderson knows his tricks. The loose harmonizing and rough tone suggest a blurry high-school half-time outfit, so do Ray's multi-part tunes, ready-made for marching. The old Sousa concert bands featured showy brass players.
Trombonist Anderson and trumpeter Lew Soloff improvise together, shadow each other and fill in the other guy's backgrounds. Nobody just stands around.
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WHITEHEAD: The rhythm section makes a racket, too. New Orleans' Matt Perrine plays sousaphone, the marcher's tuba. His presence is one reason Anderson's suite for his hometown Chicago - the wooden back stairs, the rowdy community meetings, the old Maxwell Street Market - can sound like St. Charles Avenue on Mardi Gras day. But then, Chicago was the first place early New Orleans jazz players settled up north, bringing their vocalized brass techniques. And both cities love a blues mambo.
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WHITEHEAD: An outsize drummer will really make a compact band sound bigger, and this quartet has one in Bobby Previte. The pianist Stephanie Stone, who saw the great swing-era drummers up close, always says Previte has that same kind of big-beat charisma. There aren't so many moderns who echo Gene Krupa at the tom-toms.
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WHITEHEAD: Ray Anderson's Pocket Brass Band was deep into a tour when they recorded "Sweet Chicago Suite" in 2010, but that's partly why they sound so tight and revved up. But they had been playing together for 12 years by then, and Anderson wrote most of this music in 2001. It's a sign of the dismal state of the record business; it's only coming out now, but good things come to those who wait.
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GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for EMusic.com and the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Sweet Chicago Suite," the new CD by Ray Anderson and his Pocket Brass Band on the Intuition label. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprFreshAir and on Tumblr at npr.FreshAir.Tumblr.com.
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