A Fermentative Community and Finding Home
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This newsletter issue is a somewhat vulnerable one, because it details my experiences as a Queer person in connection with my fermentation practice.
The purpose of this particular newsletter issue is not to debate the merits of my identity, but rather to explain some of who I am to you as readers.
If you aren't comfortable with that, maybe skip this issue: There are plenty of others to look forward to in the coming year that I hope you'll enjoy.
If you are interested, read on!
Personal power as fermentative
While I'm very open about my identity as a Queer person, I also don't often write about the experience of being Queer. Instead, I find that it comes up organically in conversations.
But I also understand that there is a lot of power in being vulnerable and open in intentional, genuine ways, particularly since my identity is so intertwined with my writing. Sharing the nuance of my identity and experience helps center me within myself, and my fermentation practice has become a critical part of my own empowerment.
This practice has shaped my thinking around (and relationship to) power, both collective and personal. In our fermentation practices, the communities we nurture express power slowly and with intention: I'm not throwing my food over flames and searing it, and I'm certainly not going to experience immediate results.
Instead, I am putting something in a jar as an investment in the future, in meals I won't have now but can enjoy later. To ferment food is to hope, and is an act of trust in a collective process.
Fermentation is slow to express, but authentic in doing so: We see the influence of the microbial communities at work, we see changes that take place in their environment (our ferment) based on the actions of these communities. It's a tangible reminder that good things may not happen overnight, but they do happen. And, looked at through the lens of expressing power, they're also a reminder that we don't have to be giant or powerful in order to change the world. We just have to work together.
I found these ideas percolating in my mind on my book tour, and had some great conversations both during and after events about how Queerness informs my worldview as an author and a cook. Thank you to everyone who dove into these conversations with me!
If you'd like to dive more into the interconnection between fermentation and identity, Sandor Katz' Fermentation as Metaphor, Stephanie Maroney's Sandor Katz and the Possibilities of a Queer Fermentative Praxis, and publications from Food, Feminism, Fermentation are a great starting point.
Community as fermentative
Growing up, I never felt like I had a safe space to explore or even question my orientation, and certainly never to express it (note: I did and do have supportive family and community members outside the church I was raised in! I did not know that at the time, though).
Being raised in a very toxic, evangelical church space, I was told people like me were not only unwelcome but were active forces for evil in the world. When my uncle (my only openly gay family member) died, the church's youth group leader responded to my loss through physical violence and parading me in front of the room, telling everyone my uncle was in hell where gays belong.
In this environment, being openly Queer was a dangerous act. And hiding my true self was a survival strategy. My growing awareness of my own identity also took place in tandem with the AIDS epidemic: Watching my uncle and friends die, and the government's lack of response felt like a macrocosm of my mom's church. Both shouted loud and clear that the support structures they offer were for other people, and if I wanted to experience their support, I'd have to keep hiding. But, if I wanted to be able to be myself and be supported, I'd have to find or build a home for myself. Thankfully cooking, and fermentation in particular, has provided me just such a space, which has blossomed out from a few friendships to a beautiful, rich community.
Over the years, I found my ultimate expression of self often happened in the kitchen, and I was eager to combine my love of community building, history, and fermentation. In 2018, I applied to Sandor Katz' fermentation residency, thrilled to grow my own home practice and learn more about fermentation as a whole.
While I had been out for a while, Sandor's home was a completely new model for me, and I was so intimidated when I first met him (which is extra funny because he's the nicest person you'll ever meet!) It was refreshing to see someone unapologetic about who he is, who keeps his home as someplace safe and loving, and who uses his skills to put good into the world.
But I also loved my time there because I was in a space that was not only openly Queer but was what I’d call celebratorily Queer: A place where it's understood that Queerness, in its many individual iterations, adds richness to our lives and our communities, and deserves pride of place. It was vastly different from the environment I came from!
I soon found many other Queer fermenting friends and greater comfort in myself as a result. While I thought I had been "out" for years, I really hadn't been empowered to value the Queer parts of myself as ones that required (for example) boundaries on how people spoke about Queerness in my presence. I simply had never had the ability to see my Queerness (and by extension myself) as demanding respect.
As my ties in the community deepened, I felt empowered both to be myself and continue to grow the community that connected with that self. It's a gift Sandor has given to many of us, and the fermentation community is such a beautiful home for many Queer folks in part because of him. By building our Queer fermentative community, we have collective power. And we have collective joy. That idea, of community building through culinary creation and joy, is at the heart of so much of my work today.
An Ecosystem in an Ecosystem
What is it specifically about fermentation that facilitates our ability to be our authentic selves in community? I suspect part of it has to do with seeing ourselves within an ecosystem: When you ferment, you're engaged in collaboration even when alone, and you recognize that nature isn't something 'out there,' it's in your kitchen and inside and all around you.
When community is a tangible, constant presence, you're more likely to value your human community and to appreciate its nuance. In particular, I think fermentation draws people who have long felt like outsiders or felt unclassifiable in some way, since fermentation itself is not a perfectly replicable cause-and-effect experience. We're allowed room for surprise and variety: No two wild ferments, even if made with the same ingredients, will have an identical microbial makeup.
Creativity and generative exploration become central tenets of our existence: whether trying new ingredients or repurposing old ones, our generative actions lead to discovery, and this regular act of discovery and learning asks us to stretch ourselves and to discover in other ways too. In other words, we are more open to learning and to finding new and different truths, including those that teach us about ourselves.
Fermentation is about a lot more than just its ingredients, or just gut health, or just flavor, or what have you. Each person's fermentation practice is a culmination of experiences, traditions, and our own tastes all rolled into one. Fermentation is multifaceted and asks us to take a more complex view of the world.
By understanding a world in nuance, we can more easily come home to those parts of ourselves that are nuanced as well: through fermentation I've been able to appreciate all the ways my Queer perspective is precious and so critical to the work I do to make the world a better place. Thanks to fermentation, all parts of myself are an asset and beloved.
As I think about my culinary practice's alignment with my true self, I feel a sense of expansiveness and gratitude. I relish in knowing that I have a window into my own soul that never would have been possible without dances in the forest, experiments in the kitchen, and a community for whom fermentation is an act of collaboration and discovery rather than transactional. For those who have welcomed me into and shared community with me, thank you. And to everyone else who's read along, thank you.
I’ve been inducted into the Royal Historical Society as an Associate Fellow!
I am finalizing plans for my early 2023 tour stops, which so far include Winston-Salem, NC as well as Edinburgh, London, and Wicklow, Ireland. As always, you can see the latest details as they come out on my website!
Speaking of books, Our Fermented Lives is in stock at many local bookstores (I recommend buying it on Bookshop.orgor from your favorite local bookstore). It makes a great gift, and I'm happy to send you a signed bookplate too.
Our Fermented Lives has ended up on a few ‘best of’ lists for 2022 including in the Smithsonian Magazine and Salon.
Need a 2023 day planner?
Make sure to also check out the digital version of the 2023 Hidden Cosmos day planner, which is available for instant download so you can gift it or use it right away.
If you need a last-minute gift (or you want to pick up some new kitchen skills yourself), I've got plenty of self-paced online fermentation and food waste classes to explore.
You can also hire me to teach a private, virtual fermentation class. Just email me details about what you would like to cover and how many attendees to expect and I'll send you a quote (I only have a few of these left for 2023, so best to book now if you haven't!)
This year, I’m inviting readers to join me in brief vision journaling exercises each month to help us intentionally craft a meaningful and hopefully joyful 2022. You can learn more and see the year’s prompts here.
This month’s journaling prompt is:
How do I live my life in a way that honors and embodies my whole self? What parts of me feel most precious? What am I most eager to share? What do I keep just for me? What parts of me have I been hesitant to express, and how can I give them space to shine? How do I protect my boundaries and communicate my needs in a way that honors all of who I am? What does it look like when I shift my focus away from pleasing others and towards being the truest, fullest version of me I can be?
Studio ATAO has released a toolkit: The Neighborhood’s Table: Empowering Hospitality Businesses to Resist Gentrification & Invest in Their Neighborhoods. It's a must-read for hospitality business owners and those of us writing about hospitality.
For Food & Wine, I shared opinions I already had about the best canning supplies, and learned I also have opinions about the best vegetable peelers. Both of these were a lot of fun to research!
One of my former students sent me this article on her recent award win, and it's wonderful (as always!) to see your students out in the world doing wonderful things.
I always love running across studies that highlight the wonders of the natural world, including the feelings of bumblebees, the blue color in blue cheeses, and the importance of nitrogen-fixing microbes.
This piece by Kasia Tomasiewicz on family, identity, and herbal tea.
To Make: Hot whiskey
Forever my cool weather favorite, hot whiskey has many regional and individual variations, honey and cinnamon being two common add-ins. I like this simple version though, which reminds me of visiting Ireland in winter and which lets the flavors of each ingredient shine through.
2 oz Irish whiskey
hot water (4-6 oz)
-Slice your lemon into rounds, I usually get 4-5 out of a large lemon
-Take one round and push a clove into each segment. Put in bottom of a heatproof glass or mug.
-Pour hot water over whiskey to desired strength (most common is a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio)
(After drinking, I'll save up my lemon rounds and simmer them on the stove as a DIY air freshener).
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