“Fermentation & life-changing new skills”
With a review of Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz
By Jessica Burke (with additional commentary by Anthony Burdge)
On the night of July 20th, Anthony & I attended a ‘reskilling’ workshop hosted by Evolver NYC & Cami Arrow as part of their Spores series. Within the below text Anthony has made some comments to various portions of the event, however this was one of the most memorable events I’ve been to in a very long time—and it made an indelible mark on my life—and our kitchen.
When Anthony first told me about the event, I didn’t think too much about it. It sounded neat—but I have to confess, neat like a novelty, not like a life-changing event. Many of the things to be taught as ‘new skills’ to learn, we already do or don’t have much of an interest in doing. I already am an herbalist, so making herbal concoctions is second nature and so the workshop on tinctures didn’t seem that it would be a ‘reskilling’ for me. The workshops regarding dumpster diving & bicycle care were on the totally not interested list. I don’t ride a bike, so knowing how to change a bicycle chain has no bearing on my life. My husband &I used to work with a woman who was an avid dumpster diver. But, she was also a hoarder who didn’t think too much of personal hygiene. So, that wasn’t a workshop that was of interest to us either.
But, then Anthony showed me the info on the kombucha making and sauerkraut making workshops that appeared on the event’s Facebook page. I figured, there was nothing to lose, so we went. I soon realized this was a life-changing event. I learned information that has become part of my foundation, not to mention we met people who were incredible, soul-giving, and vibrant. I found myself using my new skills—fermentation particularly—when I hit some personal low points this summer while trying to find work and trying to heal from some health issues of my own. If I hadn’t attended this event, I think my summer—and my life—may have taken a downward turn that would have been life altering in a different, less positive sense. The workshops were limited to 20-30 minutes each with several running at once. The time limit was fine as each of the presenters were clear, focused and concise on their respective topics.
(Anthony here) To kick the evening off Cami introduced Aloka from Unitribe to open the event with a blessing, acknowledgment of the elements and union with one another. I was not entirely on the defensive but my past experience with energy workers in a more “magickal” or “occult” setting has not entirely turned out well. However, this was not the same setting as groups we have attended in the past. The union of “OM”, the blessing of the elements and our placing of hands upon one another's shoulders rapidly dismissed and dissipated the defensiveness from my past experiences and enveloped Jessie and I with a peace we have never felt before in a group setting. This clean and pure energy carried with it the vibrancy of unified Spirit, intellect and friendship throughout the evening. I later felt the need to find Aloka and thank him for the best group ritual we have ever experienced. This experience has assured me of the pure, peaceful, unified intent Evolver has in its cause and purpose.
(Jessica) The first workshop I attended was conducted by Spiro of Beyond Kombucha. In brief, kombucha is a fermented beverage using tea, sugar, and a kombucha mother, a starter or Scoby (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast). The result is a sour, almost vinegary effervescent drink that’s become a health-food phenom. While I don’t personally believe all the wild claims that kombucha helps cure cancer, after I first became exposed to it, I do believe it contributes to my overall health. Years ago, while en route to a meeting that couldn’t be postponed, I started developing what I thought was a stomach bug. There was a health food store right near our meeting place and while looking for ginger to settle me down, I came across this magical elixir called kombucha. It was recommended by one of the store workers, and inside of a half hour after drinking the initially off-putting sour drink, my stomach was fine. I’ve since learned to love the almost vinegary flavor, and find that even having a bottle a week helps me to manage my other health issues—from allergies to monthly ‘female’ symptoms to the chronic pain I now suffer after a mini-stroke I had a few years ago.
Our great stock of tea from Mountain Rose Herbs has been put to good use once we started making kombucha. From Spiro’s talk I learned that kombucha won’t take to anything but refined sugar (meaning, no honey, no turbinado sugar & certainly no natural sugar alternatives) and any kombuchas blended with additives—fruits, herbs, roots, etc—will explode at some point either in processing or bottling. I always wondered why the kombuchas we bought with things like ginger or hibiscus, had the annoying tendency to burst forth like mini geysers upon opening.
I’ve only just started making kombucha, since it took several weeks for me to acquire some gallon jars. But, the scobie mama was a gift from the universe—and specifically from Spiro. After the evening wound down, since it was outdoors – on the amazing rooftop garden of The Commons in Brooklyn—it was pretty dark. The only lights on the roof were from the dim, Chinese lanterns and the occasional firefly & I noticed a forgotten jar smack in the middle of the roof. It was the scobie jar Spiro had used as part of the kombucha demo—and then I spotted him looking for it in the dark. After pointing it out, he graciously gave it as a gift—and I accepted hearing, The Goddess Provides resonate in my soul. I hugged him in thanks and hugged my scobie mama all the way home to Staten Island—on public transit.
It took us more almost 3 hours to get home so late at night, and the entire way, you could almost hear the WTF thoughts as people saw this deranged hippified chick hugging a jar of wtf on the subway at 2am. A scobie in a jar looks sort of like a milky, compressed brain. All is beautiful in the eyes of the Goddess, especially something as nourishing as a scobie mama. Needless to say I bonded with my scobie and she was eagerly waiting to be put to work. So far we’ve made a blend of white tea & yerba mate that we drank pretty young. I have the second batch of the same that I want to leave longer. The benefit of getting yourself one scobie is that with each batch, your scobie will give birth to a new one. So, after the first batch, we have 2—the original plus the baby. We created another blend of white tea, Dao Ren, and Green Rooibos. Anthony has some designs on making a blend with guayusa, and I’d like to make a blend with rhodiola. Even though that first batch was young—only a week old—it was some of the best kombucha we’ve ever had.
|Jessie and the Mother Scoby|
|Spiro's Original Scoby mother and its "child" on right|
The tincture workshop wasn’t life-changing, but it did teach me a good bit, and was helpful in clarifying some things that weren’t so clear on the scads of material I’ve read about making tinctures. Sometimes the authors writing about tinctures seem purposefully vague (about amounts or time frames) or sometimes it seems like whole steps are missing in the process. I’ve generally stuck with tisanes, brews, oil infusions, salves &balms. Tinctures were always a little intimidating. Part of what we learned dealt with fact that making tinctures was a closely guarded secret. Sometimes authors still find themselves wishing to retain these ancient mysteries, but in our world where medicine is so expensive—and so utterly beyond the scope of so many people—we must turn back to the ancient practices that kept so many in health for so long. We also learned one of the highly secret but ancient practice in tincture making that was truly alchemical—burn the soaked material, the herbs/roots/bark used to steep. After they’re strained out of the liquid tincture, burn the material to a fine ash & reintroduce it to the tincture. Who knew? I haven’t started making my tinctures yet, but have plans to do so once I restock on my vodka, or make a trip to PA to get some EverClear—which I found out is illegal to sell or purchase in New York. Who knew that either.
While I attended a great talk on beekeeping in the city Anthony attended the “How to make your own Dideridoo” workshop (see his comments below). I had a chance to taste a white-flower honey that was the most exquisite honey I’ve ever tasted—but way beyond my price range (at $12 for maybe 4 oz; not astronomical, but not something I could afford being an adjunct…maybe next time). I found out a lot I didn’t know about bees—like all the workers are female & that unfortunately with all the lawn-tending, home pesticide & fertilizer use in my neighborhood, beekeeping isn’t something I would be successful at. The lack of bees in my area because of all the lawn-tending & pesticide use is probably also the reason my husband & I haven’t been very successful with our backyard container garden. We have beautiful healthy plants, but barely any fruit. The flowers that do come out, often fall off, unpollinated—because we have no bees. Our herbs are doing smashingly, but for about a dozen tomato plants and nearly as many pepper plants, we got only 4 tomatoes so far and have about 9 chilis growing.
(Anthony here) For a few years now I have thoroughly enjoyed utilizing Didgeridoo music for meditation. I have always wished to learn how to play one and make use of it as a tool of raising consciousness. As Jessie learned about beekeeping, I learned from AJ Block of the Didge Project on how to make a didgeridoo. It was simpler than I originally thought: a particular length of PVC, beeswax for a mouthpiece, and perhaps additional paint for decoration. AJ has numerous examples on had made my members of his group and for sale as well. Unfortunately I did not have enough ready cash on me to purchase one, but I may in the future.
At first, the technique sounded very simple, however, I'm not entirely musically inclined but have used similar breath techniques in meditation. I worked at the breath and mouth techniques of playing a didgeridoo, but did not get it at first. What I do appreciate was AJ taking the time for individual instruction, pointing out how each person can improve what they are doing and correcting, such as myself, what they may be doing wrong. I have a lot of work to do in order to master this instrument but I walked away from this transformed, thanks to AJ's instruction I do not have any more doubts about myself when approaching an instrument.
(Jessica) The cornerstone event though, would have to be Daniel Sage's (of Golden Drum) sauerkraut making workshop. I know. Sauerkraut? How the heck would sauerkraut be a lifechanger? Easy—because that’s where I first truly learned about fermentation. My husband & I are avid readers of Mother Earth News and several years ago, there was an article that talked about a couple who left a life on Wall Street to retire, go ‘back to the land,’ and live out the rest of their lives more sustainably. In the process, they discovered fermentation and wound up opening a small, farm-stand business selling their fermented veggie concoctions. I found it a fascinating process, but there weren’t any recipes. I think the article was actually a chapter from a book the couple wrote about their endeavors, and felt a bit miffed that in order to get recipes, I’d probably have to buy their book. I didn’t think much of it, and never followed through to find recipes. Mostly because I didn’t know what to look up. The article didn’t name any of the foods, and I didn’t make any connection between fermentation and foods like sauerkraut or kimchi.
Until Daniel’s workshop.
His method was simple, approachable, and straightforward. That very morning, over my wake-me-up cuppa, I was reading about sauerkraut in what had been—prior to Daniel’s talk—my go-to book on preserving and canning: Stocking up. It was a book I found for maybe $1 in our local thrift store and I found it easier to understand and follow than the canning recipes in The Joy of Cooking—which is my kitchen bible for just about everything else. I had recently started canning after we found ourselves with more than 5lbs of cabbage—another gift from the universe. I needed to know what to do with said 5+ pounds of cabbage. So, I read about making sauerkraut, and was confused almost immediately. The recipe also called for 1 tablespoon of iodized salt or kosher salt per pound of cabbage.
It so happened to be payday that week and after the bills were paid, I decided to splurge and ordered a copy online for little less than $12, used. It was the best $12 I have ever spent in my life. Not only are all the recipes broken down in an easy to follow format, the art of fermentation isn’t as complicated as canning, making jelly, or any of the other preservation methods I’ve read about. You can’t be a lazy person and ferment though, because you do have to keep on top of your fermenting babies, checking them at least once a day to make sure that no detrimental bacterial whoozits have taken up shop where you want only wholesome microorganisms.
When we discovered that our almost new half-gallon of unsweetened soy milk had taken a sour turn, I turned to Wild Fermentation and adapted Katz’s recipe for Farmer Cheese. I had 34 ounces of soy milk, added 2 tbsp of red wine vinegar & put it all on the stove to simmer on low heat until curds began forming. I then poured out the mixture into cheesecloth, to separate the curds & whey, added a scant teaspoon of sea salt, some smoked paprika & dried thyme, mixed it around, then took hold of the ends of the cheesecloth, & twisted the cheese into a bundle to hang for a bit. The remaining whey came out & the cheese firmed up nicely. We had it for dinner last week with some pasta.
My only complaints with Katz’s book have to do with him—not the recipes. The book is a combination personal journey and recipe book. It’s written in a warm, inviting way, but isn’t for –shall we call them, close-minded folks? Katz is a long-term AIDS survivor and counts fermented foods as part of his daily health regimen. That’s not my complaint at all, my complaint is that he says specifically in the book that he’s open to receiving emails if there are any questions readers might have about his recipes, about stories readers might like to share about their fermentation adventures, or if there are any bumps readers might hit in the fermentation journey that he could help clarify.
I hit a bump in my first batch of sour beets. I followed his recipe to the letter and by the second day, I noticed a strange, dark brown, cloudiness at the top of the beets, where the beets met the brine. I read and reread Katz’s recipe. I looked through the book to see if there are any references to mold and how to identify it. I looked on his website to see what I could find, and Googled the issue—and came up totally empty handed. I didn’t want to throw out a 2 pound batch of sour beets for nothing and needed some help. So, I emailed him. It was a short & sweet email, but asked for advice—even to point me in the direction of anywhere I could find the information I needed. I mean, there weren’t any pictures on his site of what the beets should look like—and what they should NOT look like. And, if you’ve ever tried Googling moldy beets, you get all sorts of weird shit in your search.
I got a response about a day later from some dude that could have either been Katz’s webmaster or his publicity person, or both. It was a form letter basically saying that Sandor Katz was too busy to get back to email. It told me to do 3 things—don’t worry, when in doubt stir, and something else that was to the effect of enjoy the journey.
I’m asking if the dark material at the top of the jar of sour beets is safe to eat or is it toxic mold & he tells me to enjoy the journey & stir THROUGH his publicist? I thought for a moment. Ok, the man’s not well, maybe this was a nice way of saying that without saying that.
Then I read it again. It said, quite clearly, that Katz received too much email to actually respond to it. It seemed, to use a term from Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, dickish. Why have your email on your site for people to contact you? Why tell people ON your site and IN your book to contact you if you’re just going to send them a dickish form letter that says, “I’m too busy to respond to the emails I requested that you send?” I’d actually have preferred not to get a response at all instead of a form letter like that.
Then I realized, I’ve received emails from some folks a mite busier than Sandor Katz. Neil Gaiman, for instance. I mean—NEIL fucking GAIMAN responded to my email. And, the kicker is, I didn’t even know I was emailing HIM. I thought I was actually emailing his webmaster. But he sent me a short response, taking the time to answer my question. He didn’t have to. His web dude could have sent me the info just as easily. I mean, Neil Gaiman is perhaps the most prolific author alive today. He has over a million followers on Twitter and Facebook—each. He has countless legions of readers on his blog. He is constantly on tour between publicity events and book signings and his personal appearances, talks, lectures, fundraisers, et cetera. And then there’s his writing. And the fact that he’s a newly married man who has children, dogs, and his own hives of bees AND HE STILL HAS TIME TO RESPOND TO FANS. He finds the time to reply to his fans and colleagues via email, Facebook & on Twitter. Granted, he isn’t a fermentation guru suffering from AIDS while living in a alternate lifestyle commune in America’s heartland, but Neil Gaiman is about as busy as you can get and he’s responded to little old me—and that was years before he knew I was editing a book about him. Who knows Mr. Katz, the person you snub today via email could be writing your biography years from now.
Mr. Katz, perhaps you should take the time to respond to your fans—or at least to answer their questions on your site. If you bothered to put up more information about the ‘what could go wrong’ department on your site, perhaps you wouldn’t be so bombarded with questions.
Still, it’s an amazing book that I HIGHLY recommend.
Some things to do or avoid that I can share from my own, admittedly short and new, fermentation experiences.
- DON’T use plastic bags as weights.
When fermenting, you have to submerge the food beneath the brine with a plate and then put something to weigh the plate down & keep the food submerged. This will make more sense after you read about fermentation, but air can’t come in contact with the food that’s fermenting. And, food, like cabbage for sauerkraut or cucumbers for dill pickles, will float in salted water—aka brine. So, Katz instructs you to use a plate (or disk of wood or food-grade plastic) to fit inside the pickling vessel and to sit on top of the food, preventing the food from floating. You then get something (a jar or bottle filled with water or even a sterilized rock) to place on top of the plate to keep the plate and food submerged under the brine. Katz—and others—recommend using a zip lock bag filled with salt water brine to replace both the plate and the weight. I almost lost my entire first batch of sauerkraut because of this.
- Make sure your fermentation station rests inside a sheet pan.
There’s no mention in the text about how much liquid comes off the vegetables as they ferment—especially as the fermentation process is young. If I didn’t use common sense, I would have had a hideous, moldering mess in my kitchen. After putting the sauerkraut to bed after the first day, there was a good 3 inches or more of headroom between where the brine ended and the top of the vessel I was using. I used a 1 & ½ gallon mason jar that I had placed on a 1” deep sheet pan. I didn’t think any more brine would be produced—and certainly not enough to fill 3 inches of space in a 1.5 gallon jar. WRONG! When I woke up the next day, the jar was swimming in about ¼ inch of liquid. Brine was overflowing from the jar and it would have gone everywhere. It was a very hot day to boot, and had been a really hot, muggy night. The liquid in the sheet pan had started to congeal and grow its own species of fungus.
After this incident, I got some sheet pans with a slightly deeper lip, just to use for my fermentation station so I wasn’t keeping the pans I use to bake with held up. I do have to keep on top of the pans, keep wiping them down or swapping out really messy ones for clean in order to prevent mold, but overall, it’s easier to deal with a contained mess inside a sheet pan, than one spilling over the side of your counter or over the back of your refrigerator (if you put some longer term crocks up there to ferment).
- CLEARLY label everything.
Invest in some rubber bands & post-it-notes or a good wax pencil. You’ll need them to clearly mark each of your fermentation projects. Once you have several crocks going, you MUST keep them all straight in terms of when what was put out to ferment and what’s in what, because it’s very easy to lose track. That’s perhaps how I lost my first sour dough starter. I lost track of how long it had been fermenting & it went bad. That’s also how I decanted a small batch of sauerkraut too early, when it was saltier than sour. It was still exceedingly good, but it could have been better had I allowed it to sit longer.
I’ll post more as I continue the fermentation journey. But, I don’t believe I’ll be doing much more canning—as in hot water or pressure cooker canning. You need too much equipment, risk losing food if jars burst, deal with super hot temperatures, and need to worry about zeroing in and killing off microorganisms. With fermentation, you’re taking advantage of what was the first process of life on our little blue planet. You’re literally reaping the bounty that the universe provides, and you’re making food easier to digest, not to mention increasing the nutritive value of the food itself. Canning often decreases the nutrition because the food is killed either through heat or vinegar, or both.
If you’re on a zero salt diet, however, fermentation isn’t for you since salt is a primary ingredient needed to make sure only the right microorganisms are growing in the right spot.
My thanks to Evolver for their Reskilling event, to Spiro for the gift of the scobie mama, and to Daniel for turning me onto sauerkraut and Wild Fermentation.