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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.