Bright, accomplished nutrition therapists, chefs, and home-cooks fill the room. We are devout foodies in the most literal sense. We make our own almond milk, kefir, yogurts and champion DIY cooking to our clients and anyone else that will listen to our recipes and rambles. Diana Walley of Every Bite Counts Nutrition, and the host of the fermentation class that brings us together, introduces the day with the shared desire: “We need to encourage people to get back into the kitchen.”
I am here to teach a simple class on vegetable fermentation. I decided, based on discovery of 20lbs. of farmer’s market pickling cucumbers, that a basic kimchi and pickles are the seasonal cultures of choice for our gathering. I come prepared with Mason jars, freshly harvested garlic, backyard grape-leaves, and other bright, local vegetables. Before the class begins, I line the clear, classic Mason jars along the bartop, strategically stack books by fermentation pioneers, Sandor Katz and Sally Fallon, and place Ozuke’s crisp pickles in green-tea brine and a yellow, tangy citrus kraut on display, a gracious donation from Willow and Mara, and soon-to-be snacks for our attendees.
I have a singular obsession with decomposition- compost chemistry, autumnal decay, fungi of the saprophytic variety, and fermentation- yet until now, my adventures in microbial matter have been solitary, something I had not shared in practice nor taught. Yet, despite my kitchen confinement, the act of fermentation always has felt incredibly connective in its process and history.
Fermenting is a basic formula really. Water, vessel, air, temperature, and matter (i.e. vegetable, fruit, etc.) of choice – these elements create a framework for us to interact with the microbial world. Each determines our ferment’s progress and flavor. Slight changes in temperature, access to oxygen, vegetable cut, and water quality inform the culture we create, crisp, tangy, and satisfying or a demoralizing moldy dud. These elements combined promote culturing, cultivating certain beneficial bacteria that will keep our food preserved longer, tastier, and infused with beneficial bugs for our bodies and bellies.
I stand at the front, as women happily shred cabbage, grate ginger, and mince garlic, and describe the elements of fermentation, how we monitor and develop our ferment through awareness of this matrix, and about the abundant creativity that comes from understanding how they react and interact. Botany of Desire by Michael Pollen describes how plants use the human emotion of desire to propagate their life. Similarly, I believe, kimchi, kombucha, and our living foods use our desire for its tangy goodness to bring us into a deeper awareness of environment. Our ability to culture requires our commitment and ability to see systems, to understand interactions, to stay attuned to each individual element and how it relates to the whole.
I do not have a baby, a plant, a dog, or other entity dependent upon me. Burping kimchi, monitoring invisible microbes, saying sweet-nothings to pickles are my late-20s expressions of nurturance. This unconscious maternal substitution, always something I relayed to friends with humor, captures this living food’s gifts beyond balancing the flora in our modern bellies.
Busy hands, laughing smiles, and passionate chatter fill our gathering as we set-about creating our take-home ferments. And, in this moment, I am impressed by how our kimchi seems to culture beyond the pint-sized confines of its glass vessel, but replicates and initiates culturing community that goes beyond the jar or bottle into our daily lives.