I Make Do (or fermentation as mindset)

An editor of a food magazine contacted me and asked for a story.
This version never saw the light of day, so I’m parking it here. For now.
two white plates of napa kimchi sitting on top of a white counter by the window; there are two potted plants on either side of the kimchi (c) Maya Hey 2022, CC-BY-NC

This is my third kitchen in a year. Home kitchen, I should specify. Setting it up, I place my knives here, bowls there, trimmings, towels, salt dish like so, and choosing one cupboard (this one!) to store all the ferments. Home is where the larder is—or that’s what I’ve been telling myself after each relocation. And my larder is mostly microbial: bubbling ciders, quiet misos, vinegars that tickle. All of these take time. And arts of attending. And, well, standing still for long enough that giving time and attention can be possible. Ferments are a testament of time. Grounded time. Imprints of plant, crock, and microbe that spell out, “Maya was here.”

Maybe that’s why I stopped labeling my ferments. (Why put a date when you know you’ll be leaving again soon?) I already know what’s inside. My nose knows. My mouth remembers. 

The nearest pan-Asian grocery store was a 90-minute drive when I lived in northern Colorado last year, and I’d already been feeling out of place by the time my hankering for ferments gripped me. (The first salutation from my neighbor in Fort Collins: “Is it true you don’t have a car.” It wasn’t a question, and my walking/cycling commute was enough to render me alien.) It always finds me, this craving for flavors so complex that only a cacophony of species can concoct over time. I’ve long championed my internal compass for food cravings—no different than the Canadian geese I saw in NoCo who simply know when to head southward—so I’ve let the pucker of lactoferments keep me going in the colder months. Having gone through the trouble of renting a car, driving down the atrocity of I-25, and navigating the monster aisles of a mega-market, I carted around a dozen daikon and seven heads of napa while I searched for gochugaru. Luckily, the tiny, brined shrimp were easy to find and I used them liberally when smearing the ginger-garlic-chili-paste in between sheaths of cabbage.

That March, I made enough kkakdugi and baek kimchi to last me the rest of the calendar year with quick meals and midnight snacks. It even fueled me through a month of covid, with the alliums serving as a frequent litmus test for signs of anosmia. Compared to other local fare on offer (the sushi-takeout and the umpteen million variations on chicken fingers), I felt grounded in my rice-and-pickle escapades. Amazing how, although not my food culture, kimchi allowed me to access a not-from-here-ness that felt very grounding to me in the here-and-now. And in the same way that kimchi is less a recipe and more a mindset and technique, ferments give me a diet that makes MyPlate and pyramids look like 90s clipart. I get the regularity of vegetables that prioritizes texture over richness. A little bit of this-and-that instead of big hunka something. My meal planning doesn’t rely on ledgers of calories in and calories out. I follow the seasons, I adapt to my surrounds, I make do with whatever is around.

close-up photograph of daikon cubes with kimchi paste (c) Maya Hey 2022, CC-BY-NC

I learned the logic of kimchi from a friend, who warned me (as aunties had warned her) not to press the napa leaves too forcefully into the fermentation crock. We were seated on the floor, futzing with the chili paste, and I asked why not push down the cabbage leaves, comparing it to the way that kraut and such rely on the salt-and-squeeze method to draw out liquid.

“Why?” my friend parroted back, sounding incredulous. 

“Ye–uh” and before I could round out the word, my friend smushed my cheeks together with the palms of her hand, her fingers flayed outward so as not to get the brilliant red of chilis on my face. My lips pursed together like a fish, my eyes shocked at the suddenness of it all, staring back at my friend who grinned. 

“I asked the same thing when the aunties taught me kimchi, and the aunties did this to me too, asking ‘do youuuuu like to be smoooooshed?’” and we both cackled. The tenderness of aunties, the perspective of cabbage quarters, the lineage of knowledge, it all added up.

My recipe for kimchi—if it could be called that—follows the metaphor of playing by ear. I cook by taste. I use what’s on hand. I know when to substitute and when to stick with the originals because this is a lifelong collection of sense-memories passed down from elder to child, friend to friend, lest we forget that word-of-mouths and desperation—not Michelin stars—were the original drivers for preserving ferments in the first place (teach a man to fish, and so on). Recipes, for me, are care packages for my future self: thinking ahead of dishes to come, meals to share, and ways to care for this aching body that ages.

My latest batch marks my first ferment in Helsinki, and it’ll serve as the gateway to all other food-schemes ahead (waiting in the wings: broadbean misos, cultured butters, blueberry vinegars, spruce tip something-or-other because that’s what’s here. As am I). And nothing marks the sign of placedness more than a ferment born of person, kitchen, and context. (The trick being how to gather the invisible.) What I make here tastes of here, made possible by the microbes of here. Ferments tie me down to here in ways that ground me, feed me, compel me in a few weeks’ time, and again, and again; the gift of a thousand microbial lifetimes. None of this Leone-esque frivolity that drains fermentation of this basic rootedness; making ferments is intentional time. It’s investing in a co-fed future.

Of course, the current hype is to invest in one’s own health, as if a Smokey Bear were pointing at youuuuu to prevent gut rot. Eat this, not that—or so the mantra goes in the insidious ways that food capital yokes the neoliberal eater. Today’s messaging is slightly more nuanced, but not by much: eat ferments (probiotics) and feed your gut microbes (prebiotics). How? According to Science™, with a liter of booch per day. Or a cup-and-a-half of pickles; your choice. It’s in the fine print. As if that was a diet I could finance and live off of, let alone the amount of salt and sugar I’d need to consume as collateral. Food might be medicine if one has the means. Better yet, it is what you make of it. Literally. A pharmakon of sorts.

I’d like to think that my time in the kitchen is a meditation on making do, an exercise in relying on whatever is available in the season and what I can access. (Knowing, also, that there will be times of dearth, and prepare care packages for myself ahead of time.) I throw a playful middle finger up to the diet dictocrats who tell me what to eat and how much, partly because I studied dietetics and couldn’t cope with the absurdity of prescribing grams of this-that-and-the-other as if every body was interchangeable. (Hence why I left that field.) Without knowing where someone comes from, what stories give them hope, what cravings steer their tastes, who am I to tell you what you are. (Not a question, since any axiomatic, aphoristic, allopathic prescription is alienating, pointe finale.)

There’s no one-way megaphone for the masses to balm the anxieties around what to eat or how. There’s no point talking about health like a formula and optimized like we’re machines, when neither are true. There’s no use in mythologizing “if only they knew” since that comes with its own racist, classist ills. Access to food and access to medicine have always been two lines that entwine, two pursestrings pulled taut by The Haves who take for granted the means of eating and healing. Except, unless we do something radical to attend to the lands, communities, and creatures upon whose lives and liveliness we depend for food, we are all in for a nasty treat of depletion. So then: how do we create the conditions living together? Fermentation is the very stuff of setting up invitational spaces, spaces that spell out “we are here” for the time being.