I couldn’t say that my roommate was too happy when, upon opening our closet, she found a giant mushroom suspended in hazy liquid. This particular mushroom—also known as a SCOBY, or Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast—was part of my kombucha tea home brew kit, merely one of many culinary tools I had randomly brought back to the apartment. First it was the free espresso maker I found left on a street in New York City—it created a far better drink than the cheapest soy cappuccino at Harvard—and now this. At least the espresso machine fit in with the room’s décor. The same could hardly be said of my gelatinous SCOBY, full of black strings, floating in a yellow liquid as if it were some abandoned laboratory experiment.
A SCOBY is a necessary part of brewing kombucha, an ancient fermented tea product that tastes of acid and vinegar. The SCOBY culture is added to a tea-and-sugar solution. After a week or two, the culture feeds on the sugar and ferments the tea. Kombucha makers claim the drink provides a number of health benefits. The drink itself can be found in glass bottles anywhere from health stores to CVS, packaged in psychedelic wrapping with flavors like “cosmic cranberry.” It sells for upwards of three to four dollars.
I first truly understood the adage “Time is money,” when I learned that the same drink could be reproduced by the gallon indefinitely for an initial investment of 50 dollars and no more than an additional dollar per brew. This money-saving technique typifies the incentives behind the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) culinary movement.
Sure enough, kombucha is no exception to the trend. Homebrew kits are sold with simple instructions at the Kombucha Brooklyn tent at Brooklyn’s famous foodie market, Smorgasburg, As I sipped their ginger kombucha on draft, I noticed the proliferation of DIY in the culinary world. “It seems like we’ve come full circle,” someone nearby mused. It occurred to me that this stranger was quite right: we had surpassed the industrial and post-industrial search for convenience foods, finding ourselves in an era like the early 1900s, when baking bread and even cultivating yeast at home were common daily rituals.
A month after buying a homebrew kit from Kombucha Brooklyn, I was vigorously sanitizing my own gallon jug and cringing just a bit as I slid my slippery SCOBY into a sugar and tea concoction. Two weeks later, with immense hesitation I poured myself a glass of my first homebrew. What if I did it wrong? It didn’t smell like the pre-packaged stuff. As I brought the vinegary liquid to my lips, I yelped with joy. It was delicious. But more than that, I was amazed at all the factors that had converged to bring me this drink.
The whole experience reminded me of a meditation session with the Harvard Woman’s Club, where we were each given a morsel of dessert and told to meditate on it, to really focus on where the food had come from—all that had gone into producing it and bringing it to us—and how it smelled, felt, and tasted. The experiment exposed the mindlessness of everyday eating and reawakened my sense of awe and gratefulness for every culinary experience I was lucky enough to have. It sparked a personal connection to food, its origins, and its production.
The DIY movement fosters just that sort of reverence towards food, the earth, and those who labor on it—that we should appreciate every time someone roasts coffee beans in their home oven or plucks a leaf of basil from their windowsill garden. Somewhere in the midst of mass consumption and its plastic-wrapped vegetables, I began to take for granted our bounty of food choices and the possibilities for creating our own unique culinary experiences. But it was in that sip of my just-too-sour fermented tea that I began to appreciate it all again.
—Columnist Natalie C. Padilla can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.