Crackling Open: On Fermenting Things

I want to tell you about my new-found obsession with fermenting. I have been unsuccessfully trying to tell it here for months now. Where to begin is daunting and the words are always lost before I can find them.

I have played at fermenting things in the past, but it was always an after-thought. No big thrill. But then this summer… wow! The whole microbial action phenomenon business whatnot really captured my imagination and caught fire inside my mind. One day I was minding my own business and the next I was imagining herbal mixes to try, and juggling bottles of this and that in various stages of bubble. Fermenting is an alchemy of sorts and it is this that has tapped into a fascination with weird and wonderful natural processes that seems to be at the root of a lot of my food- and garden-related hobbies/obsessions with a precision that caught me unawares.

I am hooked. And the house reeks of kimchi.

There are many silences here (on this website) where real life collides with what is appropriate to write about on a website that is first and foremost about plants, along with food and travel. Fundamentally these three things co-mingle with, twist into, and smash up against just about every other part of my life, both good and bad. I’ve written extensively about the messiness that is inherent in these acts, yet somehow there is always this block around the less-than-shiny things. The things that feel too big, too mucky, too dangerous are avoided, especially when I am feeling vulnerable. It all comes out sounding like the lyrics from a badly written Joy Division-alike song written by an EMO teen with one of those awful, what in the hell is going on (?) asymmetrical, that side part is WAY too far over to the left hair, and at this age I really do try to be more mature about how I wear my hair as well as maintain some modicum of restraint when it comes to public over-sharing. (Not really)

All joking aside, I have struggled for years with the invisible line that lays between what is and isn’t appropriate to write about on this site. I’ve just begun reading May Sarton’s, “Journal of a Solitude” (it is fantastic so far) and in it she talks a bit about how so much of that particular kind of messiness was left out from “Plant Dreaming Deep“, a highly successful, much-loved book that she wrote about her garden (I am yet to read it).

“I have begun to realize that, without my own intention, that book gives a false view. The anguish of my life here — its rages — is hardly mentioned.”

I don’t want to regret leaving the important elements out or miss telling the whole story because I was too afraid or concerned with consequences (true or imagined) that don’t really matter.

It is this feeling of vulnerability and the desire to do things with my hands that is at the core of why fermenting things has managed to grab onto and maintain a firm hold on me lately. When I am struggling with the destabilization that comes with grief and loss as I have been these past months, making things (especially food) with my hands is grounding. It is something I can trust and that I can trust myself in doing. Of this I am capable. In this I can find easy footing and confidence. It is where I feel most myself without fear or anxiety.

Writing is a disaster right now. It is painful, and it is painful that it is so painful. All I think about is writing and the not writing. I obsess about everything that was lost in one small swoop and how to get it back. I desperately want to write, but since I can’t do that I ferment garden produce like a mother fucker and concoct surprising and delightful fizzy drinks in crocks. This, besides digging in the dirt in the garden and on the proverbial couch, is my other therapy. I need a lot these days.

My kimchi this morning. Made with savoy cabbage, garlic, green onion, ginger, pimento pepper powder, shallots, ‘Watermelon’ radish, purple carrots, and brine.

And so it is to that end that I currently find myself with a gallon of hard cider, a gallon of honey wine (with herbs), a small crock of red cabbage sauerkraut, a jar of apple cider vinegar, and a large, stinky crock of kimchi on the go. This is followed by two bottles of syrupy tepache (a Mexican fermented drink made by fermenting pineapple rinds), herbal sodas, and endless batches of ginger beer.

And I am not done yet. Not even close. There is so much more to ferment. I’d like to try making ginger champagne next, and I’ve been talking to friends about having a tasting once our honey wines and ciders are further along.

If you’re looking for direction in getting started, I highly recommend the book “Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods” by Sandor Katz. It is a fantastic wealth of information and I can’t believe it took me this long to buy it. What I love most is that unlike most instructional texts he is not overly concerned with “purity” or the proper way to do things, but is much more interested in letting things happen, experimenting with ingredients, giving it a go just for the heck of it, and letting wild yeasts do the work rather than relying on store bought concoctions. There is a certain amount of control that one can employ in these processes, yet the lack of control is where some of the real magic happens through unexpected results. It’s a good metaphor for life. Beyond instruction he writes about food, life, health, death and dying, and relates it all back to fermentation in a way that has connected with me as I struggle with some of these things myself.

Are you fermenting anything right now? What do you want to make next?

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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13 thoughts on “Crackling Open: On Fermenting Things

  1. Your list is inspiring! Our first batch of kimchi, made when we all the veggies were available either in the garden or at the farmers market, was successful and spicy and delicious. Kombucha going now, in the dark, warm depths of the pantry…

    I always enjoy your more personal writing. Whatever your hurt is… I wish you healing.

  2. We have 4 gallons of cider in various stages of fermenting right now. We’re experimenting with different sweeteners and yeasts, to see how they affect the taste. Hoping to try our first batch this weekend – it’s been aging a month, and that’s about as much as we can stand to wait!

  3. As soon as I read the list of what you have brewing and that you wanted to make ginger champagne I thought – she must have read Wild Fermentation! I’ve got that on my coffee table right now and have sauerkraut (with carrots, ginger and garlic) and ginger beer bubbling away.

  4. Thanks Zoe. I’m worried that I made my brine too salty.

    Kristine: Mine has been going less than a week and I’ve tasted it already. HA! It still tastes like cider.

    Jennifer: I started some of these items before I got the book — none of mine have been made via his directions. However, I will likely follow the directions for Ginger Champagne. Seems like the next logical step since I made so many batches of ginger beer over the summer months!

  5. The jugs look like the ones in my kitchen!!! just want to say how I love all things Gayla! I too am in the midst of bubbling stuff. We have a 3 gal crock of kraut about 3 weeks since it was cabbage, already yummy. a 5 gal carboy of grape, 1 jug each strawberry and huckleberry and 2 gallons dandelion wine. They are mostly experiments except the annual kraut and dandelion wine which I made before, when I was too young to buy anything fermented.

  6. Must be going around. I also have sauerkraut and kimchee going. And I have a one-week old nukazuke bed. In two or three more weeks it should be ready to make pickles.

  7. Yay kimchi! The saltiness settles down as it matures, I find, and that gorgeous sour flavour comes through.

  8. I love to ferment, but in my new house everything dies! Two kombucha mamas and a few batches of mushy sourkraut later and i’m officially off the open-air fermentation train. I think it’s time for me to take a deeper look at those more scientific methods that have been too inconvenient to pay mind to in the past.

    Something good did come from my inability to ferment: finally getting around to making tinctures.

  9. I have a large crock of kraut (it sounds funny, which is one of the pleasures in speaking that phrase out loud) going as I usually do this time of year. It definitely helps ease the transition into winter and not doing so much hands on outdoor type gardening.

  10. Kimchi rules, and is made regularly around here, despite my husband’s protests. There is a gorgeous head of cabbage on the counter waiting to be turned into sauerkraut (and kimchi, don’t tell Dave). There’s rejuvelac in the fridge with more on the way in the form of sprouting wheat berries. Fermentation is the natural next step, after growing and cooking. The Momofuku cookbook has killer recipes for kimchi and pickles. Grief and food prep are so good together, fuelling and curing each other. Your writing isn’t suffering, even if you are.

  11. thank you. I agree that “putting up” is an art and a solace. Blessings and good times for you. I am glad to encounter your blog. Thank you.

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