Getting Cultured

My kitchen can be something of a science lab, and no, I’m not just referring to those forgotten experiments growing in the back of the fridge.  Over the past several years, in my quest for alternative food preservation, I discovered culture.

Art may be in the eye of the beholder and music might soothe the savage breast, but probiotics provide therapy for the gut.  Before our modern conveniences of canning and freezing, humanity relied on a couple of other methods to store up food for the future: drying and fermenting.

Fermenting is expressed in several ways.  If you’ve ever drank wine or beer, or chowed down on sauerkraut or yogurt or sourdough bread, you’re interacting with protagonist bacteria.  How else would you expect a writer to describe the good guys of microbiology?  Don’t worry, this rambling will get tied to writing by the end.

Creating these things from scratch makes you realize how hungry our ancestors were to sample what was probably a mistake or accident in the first place.  The fact they thought “Okay, this didn’t kill me … and I think I know how to make it even better” is testimony to human ingenuity.

Sourdough bread begins as flour and water that gets bubbly from wild yeast that falls into it and goes wild. Just add a few more ingredients and bake it into something chewy.

Yogurt is milk with yogurt added to it so that it becomes more yogurt.  How did that very first batch of yogurt come about?  Some theorize that milk was sloshed around on a warm day, in an animal-stomach-turned-into-a-bag.  Yep, somebody was really hungry….

Real buttermilk is a byproduct of making butter, something more akin to skim milk or whey.  The cultured buttermilk is milk with, you guessed it, a culture added so that it thickens and sours.  Where that first culture came from is another mystery.

Sauerkraut, which is shredded cabbage crushed with salt, is only one example of fermented vegetables.  Ever hear of sour or half-sour pickles?  They’re fermented cucumbers, or pickles made by salting and aging instead of soaking in boiled vinegar.  All kinds of other fresh vegetables can be treated similarly.

Notice the sour trend?  You can also make your own apple cider vinegar by soaking chopped up apples in sweetened water for a few weeks.

My latest adventure has been with kombucha.  You start with a batch of sweet tea and add a Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast (SCOBY) and top it off with kombucha from the last batch.

scobys

These are jars of SCOBYs.  Yep, somebody was really thirsty….

Beer and wine also get their starts with fermentation, but their alcohol content becomes high enough I think the probiotics wind up passing out.

So there you go: a brief description of items that were probably originally perceived as icky, but some brave soul decided to perfect them anyway.  How does this tie into writing?  Many people look at their first draft and perceive it as icky, but decide to perfect it anyway.  And if they work hard enough at it, give it a little culture, they can produce something others enjoy consuming.

Such testament to human ingenuity….