I ferment lots of foods. Working with ferments is initially very lonely. Most of them stink and drive away the people close to you. In no time at all it’s just you, salt, and whatever item you’re attempting to preserve. This leaves you with a lot of time to dissect, analyze, and observe the seemingly magical transformation items go through when they are fermented.
Over time I’ve come to the realization that I’m not alone in this work. Bacteria, yeasts, and molds are doing the grunt work. The more time I spend experimenting, the more I get to know each of them. Aspergillus is soft and fuzzy and smells like ripe fruit, fresh yeast, and sun-kissed roses. Acetobacter smell musty and sour and feel like mucus. Penicillium is hard and rough to the touch with a damp dank cave-like aroma. These are my constant companions.
In my kitchen setting up the proper micro-climates to make vinegar, I am calibrating the alcohol content of different solutions, adjusting the air space in bottles, transferring colonies of acetobacter, known as a mother, from one container to another. I stare at the mother of vinegar in my hands and wonder, “how old are you?”
If life as we understand it evolved from single cell organisms, why didn’t this colony of acetobacter go further? Why am I here as I am, yet they are here as they were?
These kinds of questions drive the work I do with fermented foods. They consistently push me to further explore what food is and why it’s important to us. The fact that food is more to our physiology than just fuel intrigues me. It can also be powerful medicine.
One of the intriguing things about eating is that not all the things we eat agree with us. For example, some foods make the acid level in our stomachs flare up, or inflame the mucous lining in our intestines. Other foods don’t provide the proper fuel the symbiotic bacteria in our gut needs to keep us healthy. The pharmaceutical industry has done a fantastic job of letting us know that this happens and offers us a wide variety of fixes.
One of those fixes is probiotic supplements. Probiotics are fermented foods that have a number of interesting properties. They contain bacteria that are symbiotically beneficial to our health, and act as fuel for the bacteria already within us. Many foods, such as yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi, are probiotic.
To put the power of a fermented food into a concept that’s relatable, consider that a one-gallon jar of sauerkraut contains more micro-organisms than there are known celestial bodies in the universe. Universal forces of nature, such as gravity and electro-magnetivity, are present in that single jar.
My deepening knowledge of probiotics became personally significant one day when my wife and I went for a prenatal checkup. During the appointment we discussed the option of saving our soon-to-be-born daughter’s cord blood. The doctor explained to us that by saving her cord blood, we could access her stem cells in order to cure or prevent future medical maladies if they develop.
On the car ride home I shared an idea with my wife: What if I could create a way to preserve the flora and fauna of my daughter’s digestive system to create a personalized probiotic for her? I theorized that if my daughter’s stem cells could treat her, then a personal probiotic might too, and could be more effective than the generic varieties of probiotics found in supplements.
To test my theory, I would need to create a ferment that expressed her personal internal biosphere and be able to maintain it indefinitely. The good thing is that there are many documented ferments that are centuries old. This is achieved by saving a sample from one batch of ferment and using it to inoculate the next batch. This sample is called a mother and with proper care it can be maintained for eternity. Babies drink mother’s milk, so I decided that I would use my wife’s breast milk as the base for a ferment. I’d make yogurt.
The other crux was finding an expression of my daughter’s biosphere. I came to the conclusion that I would literally need to swab a sample from inside her digestive system. That ended up being simple—turns out babies spit up constantly.
During the first week of my daughter’s life, I cultured her spit in breast milk and made yogurt. Yes, you read that correctly and yes, I too, find it just as weird as you do. My daughter is now one year old and I still have her personalized probiotic mother in our fridge. Thankfully, she hasn’t been in a medical situation that would lead to the need to rebuild her internal biosphere yet.
Keep in mind that this experiment is completely theoretical. There are many variables that could contribute to the long-term success or failure of this quest.
My daughter’s biosphere could easily grow and evolve to a point where it’s drastically different from what can be found in the mother that I nurture in my fridge. There’s also the chance that the mother could spoil or die, although I’m fairly confident that this won’t happen, because I have another yogurt mother that I’ve been propagating for the better part of 10 years. Another variable could be that the strains of bacteria that started the mother could be overthrown by any of the other strains present.
On the flip side, none of this could happen and the mother will live on and do exactly what it was intended to do, nurture and heal my daughter.
How all this will play out is anybody’s guess.