1:30PM, EST. Kombucha tasting day.
I opened the crock. The kombucha was there, bubbling away.
“In 7-10 days taste with a straw. Don’t be alarmed if the liquid is cloudy. That’s part of the natural fermentation cycle.”
There are a lot of weird things that are “part of the natural fermentation cycle”–bubbling, hissing, warnings like “could possibly explode.” Still, brewing was safer than drinking water back in the day. I was feeling confident. All those monks and Founding Fathers survived. I would, too.
I pressed forward.
I wrote about kombucha in my book “Don’t Sniff the Glue: A Teachers’ Misadventures in Education Reform“–how all the cool kids in San Francisco had kombucha, kegurators, flexible schedules, masseuses, baristas, and daily lunch at work but I–a teacher–had all the freedom of someone in Cellblock C.
I was awed and envious– startups with kombucha and kegurators symbolized all that was right with the world. Even though kombucha became my symbol of freedom, I hadn’t tasted it until a woman did a demo at a local store. I was hooked. Then I saw the San Francisco price tag. I’d never drink kombucha again–unless I brewed it myself.
“I grow my own food,” I said. “I can do this.”
What could possibly go wrong?
Turns out, a lot. There are a thousand ways to die when brewing, canning, and pickling, so it takes big cojones to taste the first batch of anything fermented. You don’t get to be wrong twice.
Cloudy, goopy, slimy–strings of yeast looking like little Loch Ness monsters floating? “It’s normal.” I googled it. I trust Google. No one lies on the internet.
Now was the moment of truth–time for tasting…
Then, I saw something. A fuzzy blue-green bullseye swimming in the middle of the sludge. Two, as a matter of fact, little vacationers crashing a resort pool.
“Want to shut that lid? I’m getting a chill…” said the big one with the drink umbrella.
“You’re not supposed to be there…are you?” I asked.
I googled again. I’ve read pages upon pages, “Don’t throw weird stuff out, cultures sometimes look different.” Was this “different” or “bad?”
“A little mold never hurt anyone…” I thought. “I just ate a big chunk of bleu cheese. It looked exactly like this… Maybe if I scoop it away…”
Denial. Complete and utter denial.
Denial’s a natural part of the grieving process when things go wrong in the kitchen.
After I spend a week, month, or longer on one of my pioneer projects, I need to taste results.
The devil on my shoulder handed me a straw.
“Taste it. It’s fine,” he said. I wanted to, very much.
I’m studying as many artisan food crafts as I can–they’re important. Whether it’s canning, pickling, growing, or brewing, these skills are fading into American lore–the things our grandparents did to survive and thrive but we buy in the store. Most things are cheaper and better crafted at home and not so hard to do with a little practice.
I’m trying to resurrect these arts.
This particular brew needs resurrection. It looks very bad.
“The only thing you’ll need to resurrect is yourself if you drink that,” said a little voice, the angel on my other shoulder. Good thing devils and angels always come in pairs.
“Do you think it’s bad?” I asked.
“It’s fine!” the devil argued. “Don’t waste! If you were a pioneer, you’d drink this.”
“That’s because there were no stores,” said the angel. “You will certainly die.”
I’d had this conversation once before.
It was during the Great Dill Pickle Incident last year.
After five weeks of waiting for my first batch of kosher dills, tasting day arrived. When I opened the crock, one moldy pickle floated to the top like a half-sunk u-boat. Could I throw it out and eat the rest?
I asked my friend, the master gardener and Ph.D.
“You will certainly die,” she said.
Her Ph.D’s in history, not pickles, so I needed to clarify. I’d have fought a rabbi for one of these kosher dills, I was so excited for them to be done.
“Dead, dead? Or just…a chance of death?” A “chance of death” is like playing in Vegas. That, I’ll take.
“Dead dead. Painful. Guaranteed,” she said. Being a master gardener made her an authority on cucumbers, and having a Ph.D in history meant she studied generations of dead people, not just some idiot giving herself botulism. I threw the pickles away.
Here was history repeating itself.
I couldn’t stand there forever staring at green Rorschach mold spots. I asked Google to break the tie.
“If you have mold, don’t drink it, discard the culture. Weep and plead with another friendly brewer to give you another culture or to give you some ‘buch to drink while you are restarting.” Weep? Kombucha Brooklyn saved my life. They felt my pain–they really knew what it felt like to put a week, month, or season into something that crashes and burns.
Death by food poisoning? Not attractive.
I would not cave to temptation.
That’s the dangerous thing about temptation. It takes the seemingly reasonable and twists and distorts it into something absurd. If you handed me a glass of mold on a normal day, I’d toss it and drink something else. After five weeks of obsession, we’re talking about something else entirely–the devil in the desert.
“Go ahead, drink it.”
Temptation gets into spots you’d never suspect when the context and conditions are right.
That’s why it’s important to stare it in the face and say no.
I dumped the liquid down the drain. I went over to the next batch fermenting in a proper water-sealed crock.
“I’ll wait.” I said. “I’ll be patient.” It gurgled.
Giving in to temptation always seems good in the moment but has disastrous results in the end.
For now, I would wait.
My patience would pay off in the end.
This lesson isn’t about kombucha, by the way. It’s about life.
Though the kombucha I waited for turned out to be simply delightful, in case you were wondering.