As Haraway posits in her latest book, Staying with the Trouble, “we—all of us on Terra—live in disturbing times, mixed-up times, troubling and turbid times. The task is to become capable, with each other in all of our bumptious kinds, of response.” This statement brings to the fore questions about how we move through the troubling present and how we stay capable of response. Later, Haraway argues that staying with the trouble requires that we “reinvent the conditions for multispecies flourishing […]. We must ‘dare to make’ the relay; that is to create, to fabulate, in order not to despair.” In thinking through response-ability and responsibility, we take up the conceptual framework of “making the relay” to fabulate and reimagine how we always already live within a complex entanglement of relations with invisible microbes.
In the face of dystopian and hypersanitized narratives about living with microbes, we wanted to provide an alternative way of envisioning life with these invisible messmates. Such a paradigm shift would give depth to the ambient environment that animate our ferments. We wanted to capture, in text, what else goes into ferments besides the food ingredients. What gets shared across cultures—both human culture and microbial cultures—with the sharing of ferments? In exploring the intangibles that make up the multispecies, multi-scalar processes of fermentation, we enacted the relay metaphor through an experimental writing method that we will tentatively call, “relay writing.” Our writing process was a literal relay: we wrote simultaneously on an online platform, taking cues from each other in real-time, linking the content with a connective through-line. Below is a relayed narrative that alternates between two fermentistas and their shared stories.
Montreal, for all its legacy and character, is a revolving door of people and restaurants. One of my friends, a former pastry chef who ran her own jamming business, moved to Hamilton and had to empty out her larder. I became the beneficiary of most of her commercial grade, industrial size odds-and-ends: 3kg of black pepper, a liter of Chinese black vinegar, and a 5-gallon bucket of honey. Having read the opening chapter to Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation, I knew that mead was a relatively simple affair: honey, water, and time. I diluted the honey with water (making quite the goopy mess) and let the ambient yeasts do the rest. As I was tying off a piece of fabric to the bucket’s opening, I thought about the rituals and environments that shape fermentation. I started thinking about what else goes into ferments.
// Living in Vermont in the summer lends to endless fodder for fermentation experimentation. One afternoon, I came back to the goat dairy where I was living after spending the morning picking bushels upon bushels of apples. Having already put away apples by the dozens in the form of applesauce and apple butter, I decided to try my hand at cider. I put on a fiddle tune and got to work peeling and chopping and pressing. I tucked one jar in the shady corner next to the kombucha, set another in the sun beneath the windowsill, and crossed my fingers that the right yeasts would work their magic (maybe I can coax them with my singing…). I covered both jars with cheesecloth and promptly forgot about them. Perhaps two weeks later, I went to bottle the kombucha and found the shady cider had turned to something resembling vinegar, and the sunny cider had bits of mysterious mold floating on top…
I recently had to save Gigi from a bout of mold after I’d left her unattended for a few weeks. Nothing out of despite or neglect; I’d just taken for granted that some ferments (like the vinegar next to Gigi) can quietly bubble away while others need more tending to. You see, Gigi is the last living iteration of her human form; Gigi-the-human is no longer with us but lives on in kitchens like mine in the form of her sourdough starter, which was passed down from Gigi’s hands through mutual friends to me. Imbued with heightened stakes and a more grave sense of responsibility, I was keen on saving Gigi. Like a patient recovering from surgery, I was continuously monitoring her stats with my nose and neurotically checking for any mysterious bits floating on top. Just this morning, I spotted another bloom of mold on the jar’s inside, so I transferred her to yet another container, re-fed, and re-aerated. Transfer, feed, aerate. Transfer, feed, aerate…
// I was leading a group of students through my baking process at a sourdough workshop when, unbeknownst to me, the baker from my favorite local bakery made a guest appearance. I sheepishly explained my sourdough maintenance routine: scoop a little bit out of the glass jar (to make a levain for that day’s loaf); add flour and water in equal parts to that same jar; mix. The baker clucked his tongue and shook his head. You need to transfer the starter to a clean jar each time you feed it, he said. Baking is a science, he added, with every detail figuring into the do’s and don’ts of sourdough maintenance. When his starters change their character, for example, he scraps them and restarts from scratch. In comparison to the baker, my sourdough maintenance is more laissez-faire: my starter crossed the Atlantic Ocean with me in the toe of my snow boot, after I had originally adopted her in northwestern Italy. I feed her sometimes with bread flour, other times with ground up rye berries, sometimes with warm water and other times cold. When I see a bit of white mold forming on the sides of the jar, I transfer her to a new one, to take on the character of whatever might have passed through that jar in its past life. She is constantly evolving, but always maintains a sort of sweet apple-y smell. I’ve passed her on to countless friends along the eastern seaboard, where she has taken on new life.
Wide mouth jars in Italy are hard to come by, so when I was bequeathed one from an alumna of my program, I accepted without hesitation. I sat on the floor, held the jar in place with the soles of my feet, and unscrewed the lid with two hands. Like an initiation ritual, I brought the jar to my face to take a whiff. The mouth of the jar was wide enough for most of my face to fit inside it. I could sniff out remnants of fish. And the smell of green. But the aromas were not unpleasant—more along the lines of capers and baccala than gefilte fish. I thought about the umami compounds left behind as resins and, with the church bells ringing in the distance, instantly pictured the open-air market around the corner where my favorite vegetable vendors convened weekly. The market technically closes now, I thought, but maybe I can haggle a few misshapen turnips off of one of the farmers. And I did. And I peeled them on the floor with my paring knife with the balcony doors open and nonnas’ cigarette smoke wafting in from across the courtyard. I sliced them and tossed them together with ginger, garlic, scallions, and chili peppers in a make-shift kimchi that I ended up sharing as part of my thesis project at the completion of my degree. When I graduated some months thereafter, I looked back at this wide-mouthed jar as a way to make the relay from one alumna to another, somehow bringing full circle all of our food rituals.
// When I inherited a beer brewing kit last winter, I couldn’t wait to start playing with it. But I only had four small burners, three medium pots, some second-hand hops, a big bag of barley, and a friend eager to help. We’d never brewed beer before, but that wasn’t going to stop us. We put on some folky jazz, threw open the porch doors to let the sunlight stream in, and meticulously (stickily, messily, haphazardly) boiled the wort in three separate pots. Then came time to cool the wort down, and we balked because we hadn’t thought that far ahead. We filled the small sink with ice and nestled the pots inside, laughing as the neighbor’s pesky cat rubbed against our legs and demanded our attention. The cat made quite an obstacle course for us as we each carried hot pots of wort down the hall to the small sink, careful not to spill but careful not to step on the cat either! Eventually, the wort cooled, we pitched the yeast, and set it to ferment. Weeks later, when the sort-of-brown-ale was bottled and carbonated, I brought a few small bottles to every gathering I attended, eager to share my creation. It wasn’t very good (first beers never are, I’m told), but it was beer. It was more than beer: it was wonder and laughter and curiosity in a bottle.
I’d just walked into the R&D lab, pristine with stainless steel countertops and drawers. Against this reflective metal background stood an unassuming ceramic vessel and, on top of it, a lid with a swirly blue detail. Curious, I lifted the lid and swooped down with my nose in one move, only to be met with an intensely fishy smell. Oily fish. It must’ve been mackerel or herring. Recovering from my initial shock, I also saw flecks of grain. Turns out, this was a modern rendition of the Roman-era garum, or fermented fish sauce, with sardines and koji-inoculated barley. In other words, this was a double substitution: barley koji for rice koji, and today’s techniques for ancient praxis. I caught on to the idea of substituting fermentable ingredients by function and have been experimenting since. When I finished at the lab and moved to Montreal, I took to maple syrup as a fermentable substrate, tossing it into tepache, kombucha, and the like to jumpstart yeasts. When someone asked about the bucket of mead I’d made after my friend had moved to Hamilton, I immediately started on a maple version of mead…
A previous version of the piece was published in a zine for the Journal of Culture and Agriculture.
All Photo Credits: Emily Farr and Maya Hey
Emily Farr is a research fellow at the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries, where her work explores fishers’ local ecological knowledge. She is a recent graduate of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and is a former Fulbright Scholar while attending the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy.
Maya Hey is a trans-disciplinary researcher, foodmaker, and educator, combining her backgrounds in the arts and sciences to investigate ways that engage the everyday eater. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Communication Studies at Concordia University (Canada).