Art, Literature, Fermentation: An Interview with Tara Whitsitt

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Tara Whitsitt is the founder of Fermentation on Wheels, a traveling project providing free food education through workshops, literature, and visual arts projects that raise awareness about food sustainability alongside teaching fermentation. Before going full-time with her grassroots organization, Tara worked in logistics and supply chain management in Manhattan. She lived in a dream apartment in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, but after being laid off in 2011, she struggled, eventually finding a new dedication in fermentation and foraging. She took a road trip in the winter and discovered the back roads of coastal Oregon. When she arrived home in New York, she settled her lease, packed her things and sold everything else, and moved west to Oregon.

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Describe your ideal world, your utopia. Is there anywhere in the world you feel is closest to this place?

After moving to Oregon, I found living communally difficult–I stood among many stubborn characters at Alpha Farm, so I farm-hopped for six months, pitched tents along rivers, picked wild berries for wine, assisted orchard owners with fall harvests, all while bartering with and selling the ferments I made. When winter came, I made my way to the city of Eugene and my friend and fellow activist, Geneva Gill, introduced me to a community, Heart & Spoon Community. I lived there for nine months.

Nothing is ideal, and in my own little universe, Heart & Spoon Community is as ideal of a place as it gets. I lived with nine adults and four children. We had a food share and made meals together nightly. Every person in the household was dedicated to and passionate about environmental and social causes. We worked together to make a comfortable home; we also offered each other emotional support in times of hardship, while also giving each other space when needed. I don’t feel we can move forward in society unless we learn to love more, make compromises, and work as a unit for bigger, greater outcomes. My community back home has hugely inspired my work as an activist and educator. I wouldn’t be doing this on the scale I’m doing it without the inspiration they’ve ingrained in me. 

Why do you think has there been a resurgence of interest in natural fermentation processes? You mentioned in another interview that your parents sometimes have a hard time understanding your passion. Do you see any generational differences in the movement?

Today fermentation is as popular as it is because we are sick, and we’re tired of being sick. The US industrial food system has pumped so much junk into our systems that we’re barely able to stand up for food rights, because we don’t understand food in its natural form anymore. Fermentation presents natural foods that can heal, and some times help reverse, the side effects of years of chemical food consumption and dependency. I became interested in fermented foods first because I was taken by the flavors; it wasn’t until later that I realized the importance of fermented foods on a larger scale, as a way to encourage thought for food and benefit our inner and outer ecosystems.

My parents are beginning to understand my passion for fermentation, but it definitely took time–my mother made her first kimchi last winter. This is a feat, given she was terrified by my experiments, especially the smell of my kimchi, the last time I was in her house. She grew up in Ohio and many of her ancestors were farmers, converted to industrial agriculture, which promised a new, better way of making a living growing food. I visited my Great Aunt Florence (my maternal great grandmother’s sister-in-law) in Marysville, OH last April, who at 95-years-old lives alone on her farm. Her ideas of farming and food were re-calibrated by the after-effects of WWII–she couldn’t understand my refusal to eat feedlot meat (other forms of meat don’t exist!) and deemed me a picky eater (I’m definitely not picky). So yes, it’s generational. Serendipitously enough, Aunt Florence’s son-in-law had recently been diagnosed with C. diff (Clostridium difficile colitis), a bacterial infection that overruns the intestinal microbiome, usually after taking antibiotics for an unrelated infection. When he heard a fermentation bus was camped out at the farm, he came running. By the time I left, my Aunt Florence had changed her mind about a few things in regards to food.

The sourdough starter I got from you–I have to admit that part of my attraction to them is because of the stories you told behind their acquisition. Do you see any connection between storytelling and fermentation?

All starter cultures began from a place in nature, just like seeds. Many people place great value on the stories behind seeds today, because they’re in danger. Though starter cultures aren’t in danger per say, I still see the value of age-old starter cultures, admiring them for their resilience, longevity, and unique flavor profiles. They come with histories and carry more micro-makeup. They’ve been populated with care. Of course, today you can purchase starter cultures on-line–I don’t find this process very thrilling. You might as well be buying a packet of GMO corn seeds! There’s no story, no history.

There’s definitely a connection between storytelling and starter cultures in fermentation. There’s something mysterious and gripping, collecting a tibicos strain harvested by someone’s great-grandmother, from the pad of a cactus 50 years ago, versus a tibicos strain that was produced in a lab yesterday. Sourdough starters, on the other hand, can be started wildly–with natural bacteria and yeast in your home kitchen. This is great practice for starting your own culture story. My favorite sourdough is a starter that originated in Alaska in 1913 by a pioneer woman. She had a large family, and the culture was passed down through her relatives until it got to me, in Portland, OR. These starter cultures have history in community and sustenance–it’s enlightening to look at the whole picture. 

Let’s talk about books. Name any three books that have been fundamental to you, that made you rethink your life–as a fermenter or otherwise.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera has long been one of my favorite books–its discussion of chance, mystery, and love ingrained core values in me about what speaks hardest in life; signs that we shouldn’t overlook and trusting oneself. John Steinbeck has been one of my staple writers. I read The Grapes of Wrath when I first moved to Brooklyn and was struggling to find work–it delineates transitional phases in life and the sacrifices we make to do what’s best for our tribe, not to mention it hits on the many topics of industrial agriculture and its dismantling of communities that I’m so passionate about reversing today. Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty is a simple, beautifully illustrated book with scenes from everyday life. Her images capture so much feeling. She’s an enormous inspiration for me as an illustrator. Few people can pull off words and images with grace and great meaning. I honestly think she’s the first person who made me want to draw, because of the way she attached meaning to her pieces.

I grew up on science fiction, especially Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin. I can still remember the thrill of reading Tombs of Atuan when I was 11 years old, the thrill of a different kind of world. Opening your mind to and having faith in a new world is an important practice as an activist, and science fiction inspires the framework. This past year has been food saturated, literary-wise. I read Chez Panisse Cooking and was surprised by the creative, passionately written, and let-nothing-go-to-waste recipes of Paul Bertolli. I’ll be integrating his recipes into my kitchen repertoire for a long time to come.

Where are you now in your road trip? Can you describe what a typical day is like? What kind of challenges do you face in driving a residential bus all by yourself?

Right now I’m trekking the Midwest. I’m in Iowa. It’s been a challenge–the culture is more reserved and there’s competition between fermenters rather than a desire to come together and build a bigger network. I’ve found pockets of competition in other regions too, but it’s definitely more widespread here.

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Unfortunately my routine is only regular at the times where I eat–in the morning, at noon, and in the night. It’s difficult working for myself and I’m still figuring out how to be my most productive, at every moment. Some days I need to dedicate to driving, other days to teaching, and then everywhere else in between organizing workshops, writing, drawing, photographing, farming, fundraising. It’s hard to strike a balance. I simply try to do what’s best at the time (based on time-sensitivity) and keep my sanity while I’m at it. I always wanted to make a living as a creative person–be an artist–and now that I’m doing it, I’m learning the challenges that come with it too. 

The greatest challenge of my bus is driving. My heart always pounds a little harder when I’m about to get behind the wheel–every time. That calms quickly once I’m driving and realize, “Oh, right … I am an expert at this.” But it nevertheless requires an enormous amount of physical and mental energy. Franklin, my cat, is a doll. His seat is below mine. I reach under and pet his little cat face at every stoplight. When we started, he chose the worst place to hang while in motion–in my bedroom. The back of the bus is so bumpy. Then he migrated to my shoulders, while I drove, and that was awful. He figured out below my seat was the best spot in middle California, so pretty early on. It’s decked out under there. Gotta keep the co-pilot happy.

What are some new things you’ve discovered in your trip and what things are you currently excited about?

I’ve grown so much since I left home in October 2013, so much I feel I’ve adopted a new human, that’s slowly converging with my old self. I’m equipped for some damn hard balls now. The difficulty of establishing myself as an artist and educator taught me massive patience. Patience is a great gift. Life is hard, and good things (whether it be microbe or revelation) come to those who wait. I’ve learned to work hard, love hard, and take care of myself better. I’ve also discovered the unprecedented generosity of other humans. Being generous with others, in time and heart, sends a great deal of good juju.

I’m excited for the food movement: It’s a really special time, seeing organic and local is trendy across an array of social groups and age levels. It’s been wild watching the hype grow as I’ve made my way around the country. Many of these individuals are not super informed on the reasons to choose organic and local–that, to me, is systematic change. You don’t need reasons to choose organic and local, you eat what tastes better.

Besides fermenting, you also do work as an artist. How do you fit your artistic endeavors into your current lifestyle? Do you go to museums and art shows while traveling? Do you find traveling conducive to art or does it temporarily take a back seat?

The only way for me to feel fulfilled as an artist now is to integrate my practice into Fermentation on Wheels as much as possible. Fermentation on Wheels is riding shotgun. While in Los Angeles, fall 2013, I met Karen Atkinson, a spokesperson for the horizontal artist–she did a TED Talk on this, too. We met in Los Angeles, she saw my bus, and said, “this is art.” It was confirmation and a relief. The idea of the horizontal artist is that you don’t focus on simply one medium to move forward, but that you integrate many mediums, mesh them into one, to achieve success. And with that, I’m a horizontal artist–I see my current artwork as an intersection of activism, education, and installation.

I want to be more focused on illustration, too, and I’ll do bigger, more satisfying pieces once I’m stationary. When I get home, I’d like to take some advanced art classes and improve my drawing hand. I’m self-taught, save one community college Introduction to Drawing class, so I’m looking forward to learning more. I want my work to reach wider audiences–it feels like I’m reaching a microcosm now. I’m excited to move on to new concepts and develop my style. 

As far as visiting art museums, my schedule is a little non-conducive to it. I did visit MOMA and PS1 each a few times this winter. I also went to Chelsea gallery openings on occasion. Other than that, art openings are far and few in between. I enjoy more contemporary work right now; I’m constantly seeking work that feels relevant. For me, great art is honest, relevant, or shows historical importance.

Where are you in the process of writing a memoir about your experiences? Do you keep a diary every day?

I write everyday, and in multiple notebooks, for different types of mind-farts. I play many roles right now, so my writing zone can be hard to get to at times.  I’m working on a proposal for an illustrated book based on my travels and recipes. I have an agent based in San Francisco, and she’s pushing me to pump out the best material I possibly can. It’s been an incredible amount of work and I’m transcribing journals into digital format, compiling the important notes and artifacts to make a complete collection that inspires people to get out in the world and ferment. I’m also uncovering huge chapters of my life and figuring out how I got to where I am today. The book is forcing me to think about my travels on a deeper level too–it’s an exciting process, and I think people are going to enjoy what comes out of it.   

Can you share a recipe that you love and that you think readers of MQR would enjoy?

My kombucha recipe, for those who are ready for another mother. Along the road, I often encounter people who seek a kombucha starter, more commonly described as a SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast). However, kombucha (the beverage) is the actual starter culture. Although the kombucha SCOBY assists in the fermentation process, providing the bacteria and yeast with her nutritious microbial presence, she is the by-product of their action, similar to the vinegar-making process.

Thus, you can grow your own SCOBY at home too. If you purchase a bottle of kombucha (preferably something small batch or local), you can transfer it to a wide mouth jar, cover with a cloth, and wait 1 to 3 weeks. Ultimately, you will have a SCOBY to get started with larger batches of kombucha in your own kitchen. You may also find a kombucha SCOBY and some starter from a friend who brews at home.

EQUIPMENT

Large stockpot
Strainer
Funnel
Glass or ceramic fermentation vessel (with spigot is ideal)

INGREDIENTS

3/4 gallons water
1 cup organic unrefined sugar
4 tablespoons black tea
Herbs as you see fit for flavor/herbal remedy*
1 cup of kombucha
Kombucha SCOBY

*My favorite herbal remedy additions are 2 tbsp St. John’s Wort, 2 tbsp oatstraw, and 2 tbsp gingko, while my favorite herbs for taste are 4 tbsp of mint or lavender. As you practice and get better, you’ll find creative ways to integrate herbs.

INSTRUCTIONS

1) Heat half of the water in a pot with the sugar. Dissolve the sugar as your water comes to a boil; once it reaches a boil remove from heat.

2) Steep your tea and other herbs for 10 to 15 minutes.

3) Add the remaining water to your pot. This should allow the sweet tea to cool to a temperature that is comfortable to the touch. It’s very important that your tea not be above 100 F when the culture and SCOBY are introduced.

4) Pour sweet tea through mesh strainer into your fermentation vessel.  Use a funnel to prevent tea from missing the container. Make sure you leave enough room for your culture and SCOBY.

5) Add the culture and SCOBY. Keep your kombucha-to-be in a temperature-stable place away from direct sunlight. Cover it with a tea towel, secure with a rubber band, and taste every 7 days or until a new SCOBY forms a layer at the top of your brew.

6) Taste your kombucha weekly as the flavor intensifies. When it’s to your liking, bottle and refrigerate. Keeping your kombucha cool will pause the fermentation process.  Don’t forget to save a SCOBY and one cup of kombucha for your next batch. Pass the other SCOBY on to a friend!

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You can find more recipes and more information on Tara Whitsitt and her projects here.

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