If you’re in my kitchen on any given day (as I am, for most of my day, it feels like), you’ll probably notice the jars. Like, copious amounts of jars. Jars with dried stuff in the pantry, jars of soup and stuff in the freezer, and jars of weird smelly liquids in the cabinet above the stove. These last jars are the ones I want to talk about today.
Over the past year or so I’ve gotten really into DIY fermentation. I started with apple cider vinegar, moved on to sourdough bread, sauerkraut, and most recently, ventured into an assortment of milk kefir varieties. On the surface this seemed like just one of my many phases, kind of a natural progression from the zero-waste/plant based thing, but over time, as my personal life fell apart, I realized it was a lot more than that.
After spending the majority of my 20’s in a really dark place, feeling alone and useless and like everything I did just made things worse, I’ve spent a good three-ish years now really intentionally nurturing whatever little bits of light I can find. It’s been grueling, discouraging work. I had always known the relationship I was in wasn’t good but over time realized that it was a cesspool of narcissistic abuse that I had gotten myself stuck in. I knew my self-esteem was shot and I couldn’t do the BIG things to make myself feel better, but I could dive into the little things. I mean that’s what you do when you’re trapped and can’t control the big things, right? You control the little things.
Making all our food was something that grew out of necessity: we didn’t have a lot of grocery money and my son and I have dietary restrictions. I needed a way to make our diet affordable, and doing low-waste plant-based with a lot from scratch really helped. And it made me feel confident and productive, knowing that at the very least I made us some decent food every day. No one likes just living on rice and beans (actually my kids really don’t like beans), and branching out into fermentations allowed me to do previously “expensive” things for practically free.
But something else was growing with the lactobacillus and wild yeast: I was growing. I couldn’t see myself making progress, drowning in the day-to-day responsibilities with the kids and walking on eggshells to avoid another big fight (thanks church “counselors” who told me the abuse was because I provoked it!), but every day I burped the kraut or fed the sourdough, and I could see the transformation. With just a little bit of time and care, regular foods could be transformed into something special. And maybe I could too.
I started to see myself in those jars: I felt like trash, but so were the apple cores that would become the apple cider vinegar that we used a lot of couldn’t really afford to keep buying. I’d been crushed over and over again, but the cabbage had to be too in order to become sauerkraut. The sourdough kept growing and getting better as long as I kept it fed, turning plain flour and water into something magical I couldn’t find anywhere else.
I’d tried DIY fermentation once before, years ago, and it went horribly. I’d convinced myself I couldn’t do it. But here I was, older, wiser, more experienced, more patient, and I was doing it. What if I tried again for me? What if I could put that same care into myself? What could happen?
I could become someone that’s not deeply entrenched in self-loathing. I could be someone who asks for help with the kids and goes out with friends. I could be someone that takes time to enjoy things, someone that doesn’t wait around for others to make plans, someone that tries new things, someone that goes on crazy adventures, someone that doesn’t live in a constant existential dread that something terrible is about to happen. I could become someone that isn’t (as) easily manipulated.
I could become all of those things, and destroy all that was left holding my abusive relationship together. I could keep pushing forward, keep learning and growing, keep feeding myself, giving myself time…
I could make plain milk into creamy yogurty kefir. I could become someone thats strong enough to leave.
It didn’t happen overnight. But neither does sauerkraut.