What’s fermenting in Jackson?

Gallon jars of Fermentation on Wheels kombucha and kimchi.

Gallon jars of Fermentation on Wheels kombucha and kimchi.

Many of those who know me or have lived with me also know my jars of pet SCOBYs (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast) for making kombucha, the smaller, more inconspicuous jars of milk kefir, and the occasional experimental container of bright pink beet kvass or bubbling sourdough starter.

Prepping for a fermentation lesson at a Jackson public school.

Prepping for a fermentation lesson in a Jackson public school garden.

I first started making kombucha with a friend in Madison, WI. I was so sure that I would mess something up, but bacteria is surprisingly hardy. Fermentation, like cooking, is a magical process, but unlike cooking, the fermented product is still living, full of probiotic goodness that aids digestion, the immune system, and overall health and well-being.  Almost as magical as the process of fermentation itself, is the vast community of fermenters across the country who, through the wonders of social media, have been able to connect with one another. This is how I met Tara Whitsitt, the driving force (pun intended) behind Fermentation on Wheels, a community that raises awareness about food sustainability through free fermentation workshops, literature, and visual arts projects.

Checking out some sauerkraut.

Checking out some sauerkraut.

The inside of her converted school bus feels like the cozy kitchen of an artistically-inclined mad scientist. The most impressive installation is a two-tiered hand crafted counter containing cultures in varying stages of ferment. Giant carboys of hand-pressed apple cider bubble away contentedly, mason jars of colorful kimchi sit alongside more jars of sauerkraut, water kefir, milk kefir, and sourdough starter. A cloth covered container of grapefruit sage vinegar rests on top of the counter, respirating in its initial phase of fermentation. The cool thing is that each of these jars contains a story from different stops along the Fermentation on Wheels journey; whether it’s the story of a farmer who grew the vegetables in the sauerkraut, or the pebble-shaped water kefir grains that hail from Tumacacori, AZ.

Sniffing some sourdough starter.

Sniffing some sourdough starter during a lesson on the bus.

Tara initially contacted me because of her interest in FoodCorps. And because her project aligns so well with FoodCorps’ mission of connecting kids with healthy foods, our schools were more than happy to have her lead workshops with the students. The kids (and teachers) were enthralled by the bus and the cultures, which they found strange but also fascinating. Of course, there were plenty of upturned noses at the unfamiliar smells and sights, as well as the occasional “hey, this smells like my dad’s beer!” But one of the most heartwarming moments was when a class of 10 year old boys got to taste some of Tara’s red cabbage sauerkraut. After the first boy tentatively ate a forkful of the kraut, he smiled shyly and said “I actually like this!” to the cheers and applause of his classmates. That prompted each of his peers to also proclaim their love for fermented cabbage amidst more clapping and cheering. This class came away with their own kombucha SCOBY, and another of my classes is now taking care of a Fermentation on Wheels sourdough starter.

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"That looks like an alien baby!" Yes, yes it does.

“That looks like an alien baby!” Yes, yes it does.

Tara also taught a community fermentation workshop at the local Rainbow Natural Grocery Co-op where we made sauerruben from turnips, rutabaga, fresh turmeric, and shallots. Later we feasted on kimchi and krauts, kefir dip, sourdough pizza, and fermented beverages at a small potluck that we hosted at our house.

Chopping rutabagas for sauerruben.

Chopping rutabagas for sauerruben.

It was an inspirational and educational five days. Fermentation on Wheels is an ambitious project that requires dedication, organization, and the ability to work tirelessly. When she wasn’t teaching workshops, Tara was making sourdough bread, feeding her cultures, transferring jars from cooler to fridge, cleaning the bus, answering emails, working on commissioned drawings, restocking her food supply, etc. In my own journey to find a meaningful yet sustainable career, I look to female role models like her who use their knowledge and passion to help mend the fissures in our broken food system.

Cultures, cultures, and more cultures.

Cultures, cultures, and more cultures.

If you’re interested in keeping up with the Fermentation on Wheels adventure, check out their Facebook page. I’ll be helping with grant writing to keep the project going, so if you have any suggestions on where to look for moolah, please let me know! If you’d like to donate to the project, you can do so through Fractured Atlas, the Fermentation on Wheels’ fiscal sponsor.

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On spreading the good news…of kale, that is

Greens from the Magnolia garden.

Greens from the Magnolia garden.

One of my mother’s favorite pastimes is getting my stepfather to unknowingly eat his vegetables–and enjoy them. Kale and beets are her current champions, but during summer’s bounty, she’ll creatively experiment with varieties of eggplant, tomatoes, and summer squash. Mom’s surreptitious cooking exploits have slowly chipped away at Cecil’s white-bread-and-bologna upbringing. He now reluctantly eats tofu and vegetable curry, enthusiastically enjoys a bowl of homemade chili (unaware of the finely diced kale and ground beets within), and I even saw him eating the seaweed from his bowl of ramen.

Mom and Cecil, loving husband and culinary guinea pig.

Mom and Cecil, loving husband and culinary guinea pig.

I am my mother’s daughter in a lot of ways, and this is one of them. Once, I brought black bean avocado brownies to an office party, waiting until the entire plate was devoured before revealing the identities of their secret ingredients, to the horror of some of my coworkers.

Garden goofballs.

Some of my favorite garden goofballs.

Although it was tempting, I decided to keep the secret ingredients to a minimum when preparing for our first school garden open house event. With the chaotic energy of the holidays enveloping the school in a Christmas-themed cloud, I thought it appropriate to host a celebration in honor of how far our garden program had come in the past three and a half months. Of course, the ulterior motive was to recruit parent volunteers and co-opt more teachers to the ways of the garden

Central to the occasion was the food, relatively healthy food. Prentiss made a delicious sweet potato cake; I made a salad with quinoa, dried cranberries, and a few pounds of garden fresh collards, kale, and broccoli leaves. And to entertain the Santa-crazed children, I had a craft table set up making holiday-themed potato prints (but actually y’all, this activity is not just for kids).

Lots of good food. And a raw potato, acting as a paperweight.

Lots of good food. And a raw potato, acting as a paperweight.

Potato prints.

Potato printing: surprisingly easy and addictive.

Overall, it was successful. Even though only one parent showed up, there was a good turnout of teachers and staff, a few community members, and all of the Jackson FoodCorps ladies. I especially enjoyed talking to the people who, though initially dubious of the whole “garden business,” were now excitedly asking questions about growing beets and making kale salads. Some of the kiddos picked giant bok choy leaves as party favors, a few of which were devoured before making it into the building.

Potato print champs!

Arts and crafts champs!

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As much as I enjoy manipulating people to eat vegetables, moments like these, when kids (and adults) independently make choices that benefit their health are far more gratifying. I think that allowing kids to make healthy choices on their own is the best way for them to form lasting healthy habits. The key is providing students with the means to make those choices, educating them about food, and encouraging them to step outside their comfort zones.

Eating their greens, and looking into the sun.

Eating our greens and looking into the sun.

It can also mean not being personally offended when an 8 year old sprints to the trash can to spit out that organic, locally grown radish or collapses in dry heaves at the sight of the school compost pile.  Cherishing the small victories are reason enough for me to keep doing what I’m doing. Because witnessing that same radish spitter-outer nibbling on kale stems of his own accord is, to me, on par with any Christmas miracle.

The cutest combination: kids+vegetables

From top left: fall vegetable transplants, tire herb garden, cardboard weed suppressant in the pumpkin patch, rosemary in bloom.

From top left: fall vegetable transplants, tire herb garden, cardboard weed suppressant in the pumpkin patch, rosemary in bloom.

After about 5 weeks, I feel like the garden education program at my school is finally starting to take off. Teachers and staff know and recognize me, I work steadily with 2 classrooms (hopefully adding more soon!) plus some music classes, and the garden is *mostly* planted and growing.  Last week Prentiss and I planted our fall/winter transplants: collard greens (a Southern staple), kale, broccoli, cauliflower, red cabbage, brussels sprouts, and spinach. On Wednesday, my oldest class helped us plant. I showed them how to gently loosen the roots before putting the plants in the ground and covering them fully with healthy black top soil.

Planting seed tapes.

Planting seed tapes.

Watching how much pride and care each student displayed in handling their plants made me aware of how often adults, including me, underestimate children’s ability to successfully take on responsibility. I’ve noticed this in terms of eating too. A teacher will say “Oh, Daniel would never touch a vegetable,” yet when Daniel learns about the vegetable and helps prepare it, he’ll eat it, leaving his teach flabbergasted.  I’m excited to take on more challenging lessons  with my classes that empower them to try new things.

Nature bracelets, pea shoots, and pumpkin seeds.

Nature bracelets, pea shoots, and pumpkin seeds.

One of my favorite lessons so far was making a “roots, fruits, and leaves slaw” with red cabbage, carrots, apples, and raisins.  We had just learned about the six different plant parts, so this lesson was meant to tie in that concept while encouraging the kids to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. The students helped cut and spiralize our ingredients, prepare the dressing, and then taste the fruits (and veggies) of their labor.

Mixing the salad dressing. Cool layers!

Mixing the salad dressing. Cool layers!

A month ago, this activity would have probably been accompanied by a chorus of “nasty!” and “yuck!,” but throughout the whole class kids were covertly tasting pieces of cabbage and apple peels. Almost all of them finished their entire bowls of slaw. The only negative comment came from one student who exclaimed “this smells like an armpit!” But then I realized…cabbage does kind of smell like  an armpit.

Crunchin' on some roots, fruits, and leaves.

Crunchin’ on some roots, fruits, and leaves.

Other activities have included making “nature bracelets” with painter’s tape and wildflowers, planting seeds, smelling herbs, measuring the heights of various sprouts, and singing songs about dirt. I’ve also been coordinating with a farmer friend to come to my school later this week to talk to the students about how he grows vegetables and raises animals. He’ll even be bringing some of his silky chickens for the kids to hold and touch. On Saturday, I stopped by the farmers’ market to pick up a big box of his produce so that I can do taste testings ahead of time with the kids. I want them to make the connection between the vegetables and the person who grows them. I’m really going to have to get creative, though; most of the vegetables in season now are varieties of mustard greens, herbs, and radishes, which, while beautiful and tasty, may be a bit of a stretch for some of the students’ palates. BUT, never underestimate, right?

Showing off our nature fashion accessories.

Showing off their nature fashion accessories.