Declaring that food is nourishment is like teasing out an essay’s “thesis statement” from 7th grade composition class just before passing out from boredom. What truly pings with interest is that what we eat tells a story. A story about culture, history, rules; about tradition, superstition, and pleasure. Following my great-aunt Matilda’s handwritten recipe for bourekas – mini cheese- and vegetable-filled pastries – is like having the Jewish matriarchs of the Ottoman Empire drop in to read coffee grounds and fill the kitchen with white clouds of flour.
Some foods are as alive and diverse as the hands that tend them: kombucha, kefir, yogurt, sourdough, honey meads, sauerkraut, and kimchi. All products of fermentation, their stories are of yeasts and bacteria with multisyllabic names, invited to the banquet in exchange for the byproducts of their metabolism. This relationship is reciprocal. These microflora must be fed, and in turn will nourish you as generously as any Jewish auntie. Keep generations of microorganisms in top form and they will grow and multiply, culturing vats of kombucha, oceans of kefir, and barrels of sour pickles, requiring that you find good homes for their ever-increasing offspring, that you pass along odd amalgamations of bacteria and yeast with the fervor that selfies are passed through the Instagram set. Now, who’s tending whom?
Mike Harris, an Ignacio schoolteacher, has been caring for a single sourdough starter for sixteen years. “Smell it,” he beckons, lowering his nose to the whitish-grey gloppy offspring of the original. It throws off the desired scent of yeasty alcohol, Harris notes, proud as any parent of a well-behaved child. It can be assumed that those original wild yeasts present in Harris’ kitchen ecosystem back when Bill Clinton was president are subtly different than those which made San Francisco sourdough famous (later named lactobacillus sanfranciscensis). Though to Harris, they’re no less precious.
A sourdough starter is simply flour and water, the desired microorganisms being experts at converting starch to lactic acid, the coveted souring agent. People often use grapes to speed up activity. In Mike Harris’ case, it was the leftover water from a pot of boiled potatoes. This is known as wild fermentation, or the “you build it they will come” model, trusting that if you leave a sweet treat of flour, water and potato broth on the counter, the wild yeasts surfing the air will touch down like Santa Claus to a plate of cookies.
Harris feeds his starter about once a week with more flour and water (microorganisms must eat, after all), and has brought his starter back from the neglected brink of “grey yuck.” For this work he is rewarded with the makings of weekly sourdough pizza dough (half the starter goes to the dough, half remains to inoculate the next batch), as well as “a satisfaction similar to nurturing children or pets.” His pets may number in the millions, but his duties don’t keep him from an occasional two-week vacation in Mexico. “I get someone to feed the cat and the sourdough starter.”
Today, it seems every foodie hipster has his own kombucha Scoby sipping sugar and burping out acetic acid, gluconic acid, B vitamins and more. Kombucha is a tea-based fermented drink made from a Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast, known as a Scoby, which, floppy and tan, looks somewhat like an alien contraceptive diaphragm. Rowan Hill, a wilderness therapy guide, lives in Durango with three roommates, three dogs, and an ever-growing, multi-layered Scoby pressed into continuous service.
Hill’s Scoby is currently floating in three gallons of root beer-colored solution. He pushes on its rubbery surface and it burps on command, much like a well-practiced middle school boy. Being a freewheeling 28-year-old unlikely to pass up adventure, Hill has had to find good homes for his Scobys while on extended rock-climbing trips. Upon return, like some new, cool, locavore version of 1950s suburbia where neighbors always had a spare egg to lend, Hill says, “friends always have extra Scobys lying around.”
Hill’s primary reason for making continuous batches of kombucha is taste and health benefits. But inextricable from the above is the satisfaction of tending a living thing, assuming, in essence, the role “Rancher of Microorganisms.” “With my schedule, fluctuating attention, and being a renter, I’m not quite ready for chickens. So being the caretaker of this,” he motions to his burping, hard-working symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, “is perfect.”
When Durango home inspector Todd Wright spent a winter in Italy with his family, he stopped at a Tuscan farmhouse whose sign advertised “soap and kefir.” Wright was seeking soap, but when a clump of kefir grains was pressed into his hands by an Italian farmer, Wright did the obvious: emptied out a lotion-containing 3-ounce travel bottle to transport those kefir grains home. Serendipitously, at airport customs, the piles of Italian moss Wright’s eleven-year-old son tried to smuggle home for his salamander acted as kefir diversion.
Kefir grains are not actually grains, but white, cauliflower-like combinations of yeast and bacteria which culture milk into something thick, yeasty, and drinkable. Wright’s living Italian heirloom has grown to a softball-size clump and been passed to friends, who have in turn passed it to friends, suggesting that six degrees of separation exist even among our food.
The kefir bacteria are the first to start digesting milk, creating an environment too acidic for putrefying bacteria to take hold. The slow-acting yeasts, arriving later to the party, break down lactose into ethanol and carbon dioxide, giving kefir a bubbly, carbonated taste. As a result of the fermentation, very little lactose remains, allowing many people with lactose intolerance to enjoy kefir.
You may pretend your attraction to kefir is due to its bacterial profile being superior to even yogurt, when the real reason is that kefir is made in absence of stove, thermometer or even measuring cup; you only have to get off the couch once to toss the grains in a jar of milk.
In the Wright home, kefir culturing is a daily affair, but kefir grains can be stored in milk in the fridge, where they go pleasingly dormant until you’re ready to revive them.
MICROBIOME, A NEW FRONTIER
San Francisco miners were rumored to wear sourdough starters around their necks, guarding them as fiercely as any irreplaceable possession. If, before mass commercialization of food, you happened to capture the wild yeasts which spun your honey into a particularly memorable alcoholic drink, you too might have kept a continuously-fed starter batch, as prized as any family heirloom.
And though kombucha Scobys and kefir grains are still reverently passed along, there are new reasons to cherish these living foods. It’s well documented that non-human cells in our bodies outnumber human cells ten to one. What’s just becoming clear is how these trillions of microorganisms in our guts, reproductive tract, skin, mouth, and lungs affect our health. Studies suggest that a poor (non-diverse) mix of bodily microbes may aggravate autoimmune disorders, as well as predispose people to obesity. And because some of our intestinal microbes can modify the production of neurotransmitters found in the brain, altering gut flora may allow for some relief for schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder and other neuro-chemical imbalances. The National Institute of Health refers to this as the “microbiota-gut-brain axis.” Clearly this is a new frontier. However, eating fermented foods to populate our guts with a diverse set of microorganisms is some of the oldest health care still available.
Mike Harris recalls the Hermosa trailer he lived in sixteen years ago – two elderly dogs parked continuously by the woodstove – when he launched that first sourdough starter. He’s been producing sourdough pizza for so long, it’s like a weekly date with old friends. Does his current starter, uncountable generations beyond the first, contain some of the original microbes called by the siren song of that long ago potato water? Is there some imprint of those beloved dogs and particular terroir of his kitchen circa 1998? If food is literally alive, does it carry memory? “I don’t know,” Harris shrugs and peers into his grainy gruel. “There’s been a lot of loss and gain over the years. And a lot of sourdough pizza.”