Unplated: An Interview with Trevor Ring
On microbes, music, and the power of fermentation education
This conversation is part of the Unplated series, a collection of interviews with folks whose work intersects with food, but who work outside culinary spheres. My hope is that these conversations not only spark your curiosity, but help you think about how what you eat is connected to the world well beyond your plate.
Trevor Ring is one of those friends you meet online and, even though you've never met in person, you feel like you've known each other for years. He runs Pittsburgh-based Community Cultures, which offers fermentation classes and CSAs, but he also is a musician. He joined me to talk about how fermentation education can be a community-strengthening practice, and about the intersection of his culinary and artistic lives.
JS: To start out, tell me a bit about what you do. How did you come to fermentation as a practice?
TR: I've been consciously exploring my relationship with food, both on a personal and professional level, since I was 20 years old. I've also had digestive health issues for most of my life so when I discovered the profound healing nature of extraordinarily acidic, dorm-brewed kombucha on my stomach aches, I was immediately sold. Throughout my early 20s I made various ferments with friends, which led to creating fermentation programs for farms and communities and assisting Sandor Katz with a fermentation course at my alma mater (Sterling College).
I never thought I'd be a teacher, but after going deeper down the microbial rabbit hole I felt called to share my knowledge and craft of fermentation. Since 2014 I've been teaching workshops, working for different fermentation businesses, and developing my own products. In 2018 I officially established my business under the name Community Cultures. While this has always been a “side business” it’s been one of my deepest passions—I plan to finally transition it into a full-time career within the next year.
My aim is to bring people together to learn about the wonders of fermentation, while selling seasonal products with my local community. I also started learning ceramics in the past year, which has become a meditative passion of mine—my long-term plan is to integrate different types of pickle weights, jars and crocks into my product offerings for Community Cultures.
JS: You are, in part, a fermentation educator. How do you approach pedagogy in a hands-on, practical skills space? Are there any theories you draw from, or educators who inspire you?
TR: Since I naturally fell into teaching, I honestly haven't studied many education theories or pedagogies. In a broad sense, I value experiential, hands-on and communal education. Since Sandor was my first teacher and the main person who inspired me to teach and share about fermentation, I've adopted his focus on low-tech, simple and straight-forward techniques.
This comes through in how I instruct a class—I always try to break down ferments into their origins and preferred care. Most of my workshops are geared towards beginner/intermediate fermenters so I do my best to make the information as accessible and low-cost as possible. I'm especially inspired by communities around the world who ferment to celebrate culture, tradition and seasonal ingredients. This inspires me to create a sense of community during a workshop (especially when in person). I do my best to de-center myself when teaching—of course, participants show up to listen and learn from me, but the class isn’t about me—it’s about microbes, deeply rooted historical/cultural practices, and creativity.
I always learn so much from my attendees and try to share the spotlight by asking them about their experiences with specific cuisines or ingredients. I believe everyone has something valuable to share and feel the web of community strengthening most during the workshops where participants are talkative and open to sharing.
JS: One thing I appreciate about your work is your inclusive approach to fermentation education, including sliding scale pricing. You work very hard to ensure that everyone who needs these skills is able to access them. Can you talk a bit about why inclusivity and accessibility are so important to you?
TR: My interest in sliding-scale and pay-what-you-can pricing is multi-faceted. My master’s thesis actually focused on exploring if pay-what-you-can pricing was a viable option for running fermentation workshops within a for-profit business model (spoiler alert: it is viable!). On that note, I have a lot of thoughts on this topic! First off, during my time teaching workshops I noticed that many other educators/venues were often selling a 2-hour workshop for $40 or more.
I also recognized how fermentation education was popping up in more up-scale/upper-middle class areas and that offerings in low-income areas, or for low-income people, were generally absent. I additionally learned that most SNAP-Ed programs don’t touch on fermentation as a means of preservation or source of nutrition. I find it pretty ridiculous that something so ancient as fermentation has become so inaccessible in modern life.
Of course, there are many aspects of life that have the depletion of fermentation knowledge, whether that’s industrialization, oppression or capitalism (the ultimate culprit). Throughout the pandemic I’ve offered different types of virtual workshop series and international events (such as Ferment for Food Justice, which was inspired by you and Sandor Katz’s Fermentation as Metaphor) that acted as a form of mutual aid, donating proceeds of the pay-what-you-can model to various BIPOC-led and food justice-oriented organizations.
It was rewarding to forward this money to organizations doing great work, but what felt the most rewarding was making fermentation knowledge accessible and getting to know so many fermentation educators and enthusiastic participants. After doing an herbal apprenticeship in 2019, I realized I could combine the healing power of herbs and local medicine into ferments (through a soda CSA). This not only encourages connection to the land, but increases accessibility to knowledge and health.
In my personal life I’ve taken up political work that is only bolstering my thought-processes behind these business decisions—grounded in eliminating oppression and capitalism. As I transition to doing Community Cultures full-time in the next year, I won’t be doing as much mutual aid through my business (so that I can do this work without additional jobs for income) but plan to keep pay-what-you-can pricing as key pillars of my mission to make fermentation workshops affordable for all.
JS: You're also a musician. How does your fermentation practice connect with your musical practice?
TR: I'm so glad you asked this! First off, my current band is deeply inspired by fermentation—we're called Fermented Beats and play psychedelic fantasy jazz. After years of dreaming and composing next to my shelves of cider and mead, I formed a small group; we are just getting off the ground and are starting to book our first gigs this year. While we're an instrumental band and I'm the only fermentation nerd in the group, our compositions and approach to music embody similar qualities as fermentation.
Our compositions combine complexity, spontaneity, adventure and textures in ways that embody the life of microbes and different types of ferments. Soon enough our band will also embrace fermentation in other ways—selling jars of fermented beets* at our merch table, composing concept albums focused on specific microbes and ferments, and bringing jars of ferments to the live stage to be infused with our music. My vision of having this band embody fermentation is endless, so I'm just trying to take it one step at a time. As much as I appreciate lyrics/poetry/spoken word, I especially like the challenge of highlighting the fermentation theme in this band without lyrics. : )
JS: I'm curious how you apply this perspective more generally: What do you think we can learn by viewing our culinary efforts through the lens of other creative acts, and vice versa, by considering our art and music as informed by our kitchen creativity?
TR: One thing that food and fermentation have taught me is connection. Cooking and fermenting connect people–whether it’s in a communal setting, or simply practicing an art or science that has been passed down for generations, these acts bring us together and ferment (i.e. break down) the linear construct of time. Microbes can teach us a simple virtue like patience (watching food ferment over time) and to understand the natural world on a deeper, more innate level. Friends call me patient and observant–I like to think that comes from years of interactions with a world full of microbes and ferments. They also bring life (literally!) to your home. I often tell people about adopting a starter culture before a pet– before I had a partner, I would greet the microbes when I came home (and you never knew what exploded bottles might await you). I haven’t yet experimented with ferments for our foster cats, but I’m excited to see what probiotic tuna pate might be in their future.
My brain has become so wired on fermentation that all of my passions embody some form of fermentation: I named my band Fermented Beats; I practice ceramics to create fermentation tools and vessels; I use fermentation metaphors in my political work (ferment capitalism!); I forage food and make herbal medicine for ferments; and I practice yoga and meditation to be more present with my passions. To flip that around, I also love the idea of infusing ferments with music–I joke in my workshops that lactobacillus in sauerkraut might love Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. I don’t have a scientific article to prove anything along this claim, but I like to dream about what vibrations specific microbes get off on. I love these playful mysteries and I wouldn’t think the same if it wasn’t for my exploration with fermentation.
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