I usually didn’t call it a “mother”. It’s a fermentation starter. It’s a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. It’s a sponge when it’s for bread and it expands indefinitely. But most people shopping only knew of starts and SCOBYs as mothers, like when they accidentally swallowed one in their bottle of kombucha.
Those yeasty mothers were all-consuming. You gave them food to grow indefinitely and they take it all for themselves, like the ultimate narcissist. But the by-products are what we all ferment for. The Mother turns a sickly sweet tea into a sour, effervescent drink. She makes gluten networks in sourdough and pockets of air between crumbs. She is what turns sugar into alcohol and sugar into acid and dead food into living.
So unlike a real narcissist, she’s useful.
“It is tour day, my dudes!” Not like I’d ever let Jaime the fiancée forget that, mostly because I dreaded Saturdays for it. Fermentation was supposed to be a private affair for me until it became trendy and profitable. Everyone wanted to learn about it and be my competition too. But my real problem was talking about mothers, even of the microscopic kind. It tied up my tongue.
“Yeah, we’re all set up for it.” Sourdough loaves sliced and one keg of kombucha set aside for samples. “It’s that weekend, isn’t it?”
“Well, I made sure not to go away for Mother’s Day this weekend,” said Jaime. “It’s going to be full of people you don’t want to celebrate and all sorts of nosy students. But you did OK last year, hun.”
“I can hold it together well,” I said.
“Just think of the yeast!” Jaime had bottles to clean and at least she didn’t forget about them that day. “Also, somehow we got weeds in our greenhouse.”
We had time to tend to our peppers and cucumbers before the tours arrived. I had some mature plants that were starting to blossom, but my mind wasn’t with them.
I still had to say something during the tour, and it was easy to write it down. Jaime and I stayed together for a reason: she was a wild child for sure, but full of good ideas for my life. She didn’t worry as much and I always wondered how to think like her.
Think of the yeast was the perfect starting point.
For the sour taste it was actually easy to think about yeast and the mother they came from. They expanded into every part of my life, even how I smelled, because I smelled like beer all the time.
If nothing else, yeast taught me patience. It could take days for a cold ferment of bread or pizza dough or even a month for kombucha. What I remembered about my own mother were the impulses instead. Should I have left her alone in the shop, she would kill my starters in a boiling pot or mix the dough too soon for attention.
In a sense, yeast made the perfect mother. All her spores turned into children that worked with her and grew to a humble equal. No belittling, no doubts, no even having to bicker about chores. Everyone had the same work.
Of course it was foolish to think that it could ever be that ideal for people. We were multicellular and all that implied. Even bakers had to treat their mothers cruelly, like if yeast failed to bloom or other tragedy struck. But it made me a better person than I was when I bought the storefront. It improved me when my own mother made me feel as bitter and angry and selfish as her.
“…but the most important thing about yeast is that it makes everything it touches taste really, really good,” I told my crowd. “And my lovely assistant Jaime is gonna untap one of our kombucha kegs for all of you.”