As autumn nears, I’ve been thinking about contamination as a matter of perspective. Take, for example, the garden snail. My spouse Josh and I recently planted fall vegetables in the raised beds shared with our next-door neighbors Petia and Iain, and about seven of the small gastropods hitched a ride home on one of the broccoli plants from Richfield Farm and Garden Center. After planting spinach, pole beans, kohlrabi, and most of the broccoli rabe, I noticed the miniature logarithmic spiral shells nestled into the last of the broccoli sprouts. I was enamored as they began to slink up and down the shoots. For a good ten minutes I took photographs and videos of them. The slow and steady have a way of entrancing, and I longed to learn the way of slime. That night around a fire with Iain and Petia, we told them all about the snails. They smirked and raised their eyebrows. You’ve got to get them out of there, they urged. They’ll eat everything! Iain recommended setting out a flat dish of beer, which the snails cannot resist. Since they’ve already devoured one of the broccoli plants, we agreed to try it. Time will tell what, if anything, will be spared. Let’s just say we’re learning as we go.
But even if all the fall vegetables end up in the bellies of slugs, I’ve decided it’s enough if they only live on in this short essay. I will not go without food because of their partaking in our silly little garden. The cucumbers, okra, carrots, and arugula are now thriving thanks to Hurricane Isaias, which felled the dead tree that housed the squirrels that dug up so many of our summer vegetables. The tomatoes, peppers, and yellow string beans made a comeback from being picked on, so we are grateful. The stakes never cease to be high, though. I wondered about how easily captivated I was by the very thing that was about to take from me. I guess that’s the reputation of being slimy, or at least that’s one way of telling the story. I looked intently, not at, but almost through the slugs, just beyond them. I watched how the shiny, transparent mucus traced their paths while I ignored my hunch that these creatures may be considered pests. I could have Googled it, but I wanted to learn by experience.
I can’t stop thinking about Iain’s beer trick: fermented plants are an offering unto the plants themselves, restoring balance to their environs, even a garden. Fermentation had become the summer’s theme. Already, recalling the sweltering heat of July elicits a sour, fizzy tang, a palette of memories that I can trace like the snail’s viscous wanderings. Since sheltering in place back in March, my cravings for fermented nutrients increased a hundredfold. I noticed it after I stopped commuting to New York City from my apartment in Montclair, New Jersey, and I began waking up with sour stomachs, an uncommon ailment for me. I grieved the loss of my regular routine, physical isolation became bacterial isolation, and my microbiome changed. I had stopped sitting on NJ Transit train seats, steadying my balance by holding a subway pole, and leaning against the elevator wall at the School of Visual Arts. The wide periphery of bacteria shrank to the container of my house, with the occasional delivery and grocery store run. My shrunken periphery altered my body’s relation to, well, everything, including itself. I craved an alkalizing tonic to restore balance, not as stability but rather agitation. Remembering Vim & Vigor, a Hoosier herbal drinking vinegar that my mom gave me growing up in Indiana, I ordered it online to nurse the burning. After drinking a couple tablespoons in a glass of seltzer, burping became a ritual for adapting to my new surroundings—not new in that they were unfamiliar, but in terms of overexposure. Home had never been this homogenous for my body.
Imbibing our neighbors’ fermented elixirs offered good company through quarantine, once the shelter-in-place mandate was lifted. One neighbor brought us two batches of ginger beer and sorrel. Another shared a couple bottles of kombucha that we stored in a dark cabinet for a week before chilling. Don’t forget to strain The Mother before drinking, they reminded us. We shared many a bottle of natural wine around the physically-distanced firepits after weeks of protest, meetings, and town initiatives to reimagine public space and collective action.
After planting our silly little garden in June, I registered for a fermentation workshop with new media artist and educator Ashley Jane Lewis. I never fermented anything before, but the pandemic revealed how little I understood about the properties of air. A change of scenery wasn’t possible, so I welcomed a change of smell and taste. Hosted by Toronto’s gallery and education non-profit InterAccess during their virtual Vector Festival, “Fermenting a Revolution” interwove a six-day sourdough starter recipe with fermentation as a framework of revolt. Tracing its lineage in feminist and Black activism, the workshop is an extension of Lewis’s practice, which explores the Black diaspora through food design, bio art, networked devices, machine learning, and data weaving. Each day from July 18th to July 23rd, about a dozen of us opened the #fermentingarevolution channel in the Slack app and ruminated on Lewis’s prompts before following the feeding and monitoring instructions.
On the first day we Zoomed, and Lewis discussed bacteria rituals as place-based, shared, and adaptable. She described how location determines flavor, and how the microbiome adapts according to the subtlest changes. “Maybe that’s why I miss NYC,” I wrote in my workshop notes. Perhaps my longing for the commute was my emotive gut requesting a change up in my microbial population. Lewis taught the 100-percent hydration method for fermentation, which is a 1:1 ratio of flour and water, without discarding any. A sourdough starter is considered The Mother, like the scobi in kombucha. As microbes eat sugars, they “exhale” carbon dioxide, forming bubbles. Lewis’s praxis is as alive as this ecosystem of yeast and bacteria, where education is critical for challenging systems and sites of knowledge. This workshop participates in ongoing research-creation at the intersection of art, theory, ecology, and education.
Lewis looked to Raya Dunayevskaya and C.L.R. James’s mid-century organizing tactics, as well as suffragist cookbooks as encryption tools. We considered bacteria as ancestors and guides for reimagining, concluding by creating our sourdough starters together. We mixed flour, dechlorinated water, and honey in large glass jars. Over the next five days, while life spawned, the Slack app became a forum of engagement, where Lewis posted “Introspection & Questions” and “Starter Examination & Feeding.” She made a sourdough starter, too, keeping us in the loop on her own process. We, in turn, responded with observations, reflections, and questions. The making and thinking came together and informed each other.
On day two, Lewis provided excerpts from Maya Hey and Alex Ketchum’s essays “Fermentation as Engagement” and “Fermentation as Agitation” in the Slack channel. Microbes model nonhierarchical relations as a metaphor for addressing systemic inequity, and Lewis prompted us to consider accessibility within our own networks, especially with regard to ingredients. As I continued reading the feeding instructions, Lewis cautioned against using a metal spoon to combine ingredients when adding honey. This got me thinking about metal as a biochemical agent. That night around 9 o’clock, the time Josh and I designated to feed the starter, I grabbed a silicone spatula out of my kitchen drawer. I removed the tea towel covering, and stuck my nose in the opening. It smelled like beer and I heard bubbles fizzing.
As I stirred in the honey, I thought of how metal, especially lead, can become a contaminant. Lead, once frequently used in the manufacture of water pipes, causes detrimental health problems. In 2016, the nearby city of Newark, found extreme amounts of lead in much of the city’s drinking water, disproportionately affecting Black neighborhoods, similar to the case in Flint, Michigan, which drew national attention. Corrosion control failures had caused lead to leach from the pipes into the water supply. In 2019, drinking water samples in Newark still registered 57 parts per billion, nearly four times the federal regulation of 15 parts per billion. Reports of lead contamination in neighboring Essex County towns surfaced in 2019, and by May of that year, Newark switched to Montclair Rechlorination Station’s orthophosphate treatment, which decreases corrosion. Two weeks before I enrolled in this workshop, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka announced the end of the crisis when samples registered at 14.1 parts per billion, while the city continues to replace 18,000 lead pipes. Still I couldn’t stop thinking about the term “corrosion control.” It’s a system designed to manage the effects of racism, not to combat it. I considered how neighboring towns, including my own, seemed to act only when the crisis leached into their own communities. Calling it “Newark’s” crisis deflects responsibility of the suburbs, as if suburban design isn’t a culprit. Decades of meticulously coordinated redlining policies against Black Americans led New Jersey to be as diverse as it is segregated, with Essex County ranking the highest in income inequality.
“I start where I am,” I wrote on day three.
On day four, we looked to renowned baker Georgia Gilmore and her Club from Nowhere as sustenance for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Lewis highlighted the importance of the movement’s overt and covert operations in relation to microbial networks. I typed a note on etymology: “overt = open, covert = closed.” The starter jar’s tea towel covering allows air to seep in and out, but at a slower rate, transforming the aroma from beer to butter. I thought of how things sneak in unnoticed (like my garden snails), sometimes as a result of being unseen, other times a result of ignorance. I worried about local residents—my neighbors—being intimidated by town police and federal agents for supporting Black Lives Matter. To elaborate further would only heighten the danger for them. At times I, too, must creep along, eating the system, trusting the process of redesigning.
Sourdough culture is about distribution: families, friends, churches share with each other. They last for centuries. The starter rejects the deep-seeded, Lockean, American idea(l) that laboring with something makes it property. It doesn’t even sound right to say, I made The Mother. Rather, it’s more of a guidance or encouragement, an invocation of cooperation. I invited The Mother. This is how I’m trying to undo the mine from making.
It’s that way with gardening, too. I’m beginning to accept that I don’t garden like my grandmothers, who tell me to check it every day, twice a day, to weed, to feel and look all around, to keep a watchful eye. I don’t even know if what I’m doing is considered gardening. I don’t go out every day. Josh tries to, but I can’t help but forget about the plants, perhaps only for the joy of remembering them. Plus, had I over-weeded, I’d have pulled up the purslane and dill that popped up unexpectedly from years past. Granted, the adjacent yellow string beans might have fared better without them, but what a welcome surprise.
By day five, the starter doubled in size and smelled like dough. I scrolled through excerpts from Lauren Fournier’s essay “Fermenting Feminism as Methodology and Metaphor” about normative versus queer time. Queer time is nonlinear, resisting productivity and embracing the flexibility and adaptability required to sustain The Mother. Fournier references Anna Tsing’s notion of contamination as collaboration, the first I’d heard of this. Neighboring bacteria and yeast blur distinctions between food and environment. The apparent distinction of where I end and you begin becomes a froth of liquid and air, both and neither, something else. I felt a power in multiplicity, in forgoing linear stories with origins and reproductions for narrative emergences instead.
I thought about the circle that “revolution” connotes, as orbiting or revolving. The Latin revolvere means to roll back, whereas to revolt is to overturn. But the spatula moving the contents around the bowl can be a contaminant, too. Even in the collaboration model, not every bacteria or organism has the same agenda. Lewis warned against unwanted bacteria because fungus growth pivots the content’s trajectory elsewhere. The path to bread is nonlinear, with exciting nuances of color, texture, aroma, flavor, and time, though specific parameters still contain it.
This got me wondering about the linearity of lineage. I never heard of my mother or grandmothers baking bread, only noodles and pies and cobblers. Nothing required yeast. My great-grandmothers Bessie and Ines are the last likely relatives to have made bread, so when Lewis asked us to name our starters, Josh and I chose Bessie. So much has changed in three generations. And something I neglected to mention is that I’m allergic to wheat. The very bread Josh and I would make from this sourdough starter will probably read as toxic in my body. This made me consider whether contamination has something to do with memory. My gut as a site of knowledge rejects instant yeast and industrialized wheat, yet here I am taking a sourdough starter workshop to relearn how yeast spawns. We did not look backward in time to how it “once was” but deeper into the relations that still are. Breadmaking knowledge in my family was not really forgotten, but more so suspended, or displaced, and time has allowed for a reimagined relationship. Maybe when I eat The Mother’s bread, my gut will recall Bread as the body has known it for millennia. I don’t know; we haven’t baked anything yet. The Mother is sitting in our fridge, its hunger materialized as a top layer of liquid. We’ll feed it again soon, but its care requires a different mental load, a reacquaintance to tomorrow, and this takes time.
Ashley Jane Lewis is a new media artist and educator. The “Fermenting a Revolution” workshop (July 18-23, 2020) took place during the virtual Vector Festival hosted by InterAccess Gallery, Toronto.
Lune Ames is a storyteller raised in Indiana now based in New Jersey and New York City.