Ready, Set, Ferment!

I remember thumbing through a friend’s copy of Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef (2000! So young!) and chancing upon his yoghurt recipe. Unlike his other recipes with lists and steps in clear linear form, yogurt was written in paragraphs. In stories. Same with his bread recipe, and it would take me another fifteen years to finally understand what “when the dough pushes back” feels like in my fingertips.

Fermentation recipes are rarely straightforward. Or, they’re formulaic to start, but they’ll veer off into troubleshooting territory. (Sandor’s book is good for this.) Or they’re so simple (“set on counter until bubbly”) that they seem too good to be true. Much of this variation has to do with the environment in which food ingredients transform. As I’ve written elsewhere, human control is a bit of a myth in fermentation worlds. Humans don’t do the fermenting—microbes do. Humans can only setup the conditions favorable for certain processes to happen over others.

That fermentation varies from kitchen to kitchen, from batch to batch, or from maker to maker is both its charm and its headache. For many, it’s an anxiety barrier too high to mount, often served with a side of “but what if I poison myself—or others!—in the process?” Humanity (and nonhuman animals for that matter) have been fermenting foods with way less stringency and we’ve lived to tell the tales. This isn’t to say ferment willy nilly or aim to compromise those you love (don’t), but in a hyper-sterile ethos of Western kitchens, a little dirt don’t hurt.

Two jars of booch show bubbles, a sign of life.

Fermentation can create communal spaces. More than anything, I wanted to create one such space where folks could talk freely about their wins and fears about fermentation and everything in between. Given that fermentation knowledge cannot be codified, prescribed, or universalized, how can it be taught? This ‘universal’ quandary made me think of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and how it rejects a “one size fits all” approach to pedagogy.

Fermentation and/as pedagogy. Rather than fixate on my positioning as an authoritative fermentation expert, how could I decenter myself and create a specific context for other knowledges—that is, others’ knowledges—to emerge? How could I create spaces for others to learn and co-learn?

I solicited folks in my community to gauge their interest about a low-stakes and low barrier-to-entry gathering that centered fermented foods and the lively conversations that they would likely generate. I called these gatherings Ready-set-ferment.

A call for participation via Instagram: this is not a one-day, one-day workshop.

I described it as:

  • an experimental gathering 
  • part conversation, part hands-on workshop 
  • that’s meant to share food knowledge 
  • in delightful ways
  • to demystify the inaccessible (like biochemistry or product labeling)
  • with no learning objectives from the outset
  • just a space for curiosity and wonder
  • to celebrate learning together
  • to be inviting, not intimidating

They were themed around ferments, like bread, cheese, and booch. I hosted them in my own home. I never announced the start or the end of the gathering, much like a social event that follows its own crescendos and fade outs, and participants naturally socialized around the food. As people gravitated towards the fermented food—to touch it, eat it, handle it, smell it—conversations would emerge.

These conversations allowed others to muse aloud. Wonder. Contradict. Seek clarification. Share stories. Rather than perpetuate the prescriptive model of “do this, not that,” I leveraged the collective expertise of the participants, understanding that what we can learn together is better than what one can know on one’s own.

#readysetferment sessions gathered folks who were interested in talking/tasting all things related to bread-making, cheese-making, and booch-brewing

Here are some of the ways participants described Ready-set-ferment: 

“It’s a friendly gathering.” 

“It’s the kind of thing that I feel is so beneficial for everyone involved and it’s such an accessible way of allowing ideas to percolate.”

“It makes fermentation accessible and not something scary or weird to attempt in your own kitchen at all.” 

Comments from #readysetferment participants

These sessions have been a helpful heuristic to re-imagine food pedagogy as a practice of co-learning. It acknowledges that participants always-already come in with pre-existing food knowledge that can build on and contradict others’ food knowledge. It also requires an invitational spirit.

And in reflecting on that invitational spirit, I thought about two themes of inclusivity and specificity. These themes may seem at odds with each other because being specific means being deliberately and carefully narrow, whereas inclusion means casting a wider net with careful intentionality.

I do not see these as dichotomous. Fermentation has taught me the importance—and value—of building specific spaces that are also inclusive.

Thinking about fermentation and/as pedagogy led me to these takeaways:

  • I am not an instructor; I am a facilitator and co-participant. My job is to sense those around me and connect them in generative, meaningful  ways.
  • I do not transform what is around me; I create spaces conducive for transformation. My actions do not guarantee change and my intentions cannot underwrite my relations.
  • I know some knowledges but they are not the only ways of knowing. My knowledge is always partial and never “above” or “more than” what others may know.

Together, we can learn more.  And the more “we” varies, the more we can know. The objective, then, becomes how to cultivate specific environments for exchange and conviviality. And, that, is the type of pedagogy that I’ve been missing from cookbooks, from classrooms, and from institutions. I’ve encountered it with elders and community, and perhaps we’ve still lots to learn from their (pedagogical) approach to life and giving.

A small child examines bamboo shoots with immersive wonder.

As a postscript, readysetferment came to a natural hiatus when I had to travel for dissertation fieldwork. And upon my return, a global pandemic was making indoor gatherings challenge in itself. I’m still at the proverbial drawing board on how best to (re)imagine these sessions in digital form. Until then, I’m keeping my phone lines open for questions and troubleshooting with everyone’s new sourdough starter and brewing hacks.

NB: A portion of this post was presented at the 2020 World Critical Dietetics Conference, “Calling In, Calling Out, Pushing Boundaries: Towards a Just and Inclusive Dietetics” hosted by the University of Akron. The accompanying slides can be found here.