In traditional societies, fermenting food is considered an entirely normal procedure, part of the hygiene of daily life.
In the modern West, fermenting your own food is almost never done. This means that those people who do ferment food are, by virtue of that fact, unusual. Lo and behold, I have discovered that an interest in fermentation is usually not their only unusual trait.
A jar of kefir, with the "grains" visible at the top. These are strained out before consumption and used again, like a sourdough starter.
I’ve recently dipped my toe into the world of kefir (toes AND fermenting milk in one sentence, NICE!). Kefir is a fermented, usually dairy-based drink, similar to yogurt but containing a wider variety of microorganisms. First World kefir is dominated by a handful of characters, as far as my Google searches can discern. In apparent ascending order of dominance, allow me to introduce some.
The first is this lady, who secures my fascination by belonging to one of those non-muslim religions where you wear a headscarf, and professedly being 28 years old but looking 16. Perhaps it’s the kefir. Her site, Tammy’s Recipes, contains such gems as this:
“If you are a Christian and are interested in being featured, contact me. I will need at least one high-quality photo of your food (the picture has to be of food you made yourself!), your recipe(s), and whatever information you wish to share about yourself, your recipes, and your cooking style.” Non-Christian recipes will not be entertained.
Secondly, we have this crew:
While watching this video, I speculated furiously about the family dynamics, the lifestyle of this teenager, her worldview, her parents’ opinions of her worldview’s congruence with their worldview, her gentle, mature tone (acceptance? resignation? quiet pride?) and so on. I then had to watch again to actually learn about the making of kefir.
Finally, any casual Googler of kefir will inevitably come across a reference to the granddaddy of kefir, Dom. Dom is an Australian gentleman who maintains what I would consider a highly curatable gem of a website – note with a nostalgic sigh the tilde in the URL – where pages go down and down, jazzed up by blinking gifs and 20+ font colours and studded with gems of incongruous wisdom and capitalisation. “A PERFECT MARRIAGE… is to persevere and continue without a full stop. May WE bathe in the fountain of Life, Love, Health, Joy and showered with Prosperity of KEFIR GRAINS,” reads the front page (just scroll down about 24 screens).
Dom, who may well be the kind of Dom to follow his website’s referrals and find this entry, is also just the kind of Internet weirdo I like. I know Dom will take being called a weirdo with grace. He has spent years of his life refining… no, perhaps not refining… expanding upon a body of knowledge on a subject that is obscure, yet to him, is captivating. And so it is to me, to a lesser extent. He shares his knowledge freely and unreservedly, just like all people did on the internet in days of yore.
Dom comes across as more of a folksy hippy than a sheltered biblical literalist. Kefir Googling will also thrust you into the orbit of Crossfitting libertarian paleo eating yuppies, vegan Wholefoods parking lot warriors, and dedicated carers for the chronically ill. A figure in the broader fermentation scene, Sandor Ellix Katz, author of Wild Fermentation, links home fermentation to a spirit of self-empowerment, punk, DIY and zine culture, squatting, activism and dumpster diving. Review pages for his book are a perfect microcosm of the fermentation scene, where one reviewer bemoans his endorsement of and unashamed digressions on his “gay lifestyle”, while the next raves in excitement about liberation from what Katz calls the “cult of expertise”, that would otherwise send them rushing fearfully to the sterile prison of chemically controlled foods.
The mysterious and ancient Caucasian matrix of bacteria and yeast that is the kefir grain has mushroomed across the internet. As a social meme, it now ferments at a paradoxical intersection of diametric fringes. Drink up.