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Betsy Block



Coming in July 2008 from Algonquin Books:
The Dinner Diaries: Raising Whole Wheat Kids in a White Bread World

Check out The Dinner Diaries website here.

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"Oh man, that looks like something you'd call the Hazmat people about. It looks like something you have to eat to get off the island."
         –Andy: husband, father, kombucha hater

A few months ago, we invited our friend, Bob, and his family over for dinner. He showed up with a lovely little hostess gift of kombucha in a jar. "Is that pee?" Maya  asked. "Ewww," Zack added. True, there were some mucousy, slimy-looking strands floating throughout the elixir. But the stuff itself was delicious: a light, refreshing, mildly sweet, slightly fizzy, incredibly refreshing non-alcoholic beverage, and there aren't nearly enough of those in the world.

Put simply, kombucha is fermented tea, whose origins, poetically, are lost in the mists of time. You combine tea, sugar and something called a "mother," or "mushroom," or SCOBY (symbiotic culture of baceria and yeasts.) This is a seriously nasty-looking thing, a discus of phlegm, a rubbery circle reminiscent of animals in the oceans' depths. Boosters claim it is antibiotic, antiviral, and antifungal, along with  many other virtues. I can't find any solid research to back this up, although this website tells me they have the scientific proof I'm looking for. All I have to do is send in $14.95.

But all is not lightness and joy when it comes to kombucha. Critics say it is potentially deadly, although the FDA has written that if it's made correctly – in sterilized glass using proper procedures – it's safe. (The FDA also, rather drolly if you ask me, cites the "unconventional nature of the process." I like that one. I think they could say the same about childbirth.)

When you're researching kombucha, you come across paragraphs like the following from (which of course begs the question: Is there conventional kombucha?): "To characterize the yeast spectrum with special consideration given to facultatively pathogenic yeasts, two commercially available specimens of tea fungus and 32 from private households in Germany were analysed by micromorphological and biochemical methods. Yeasts of the genera Brettanomyces, Zygosaccharomyces and Saccharomyces were identified in 56%, 29% and 26% respectively. The species Saccharomycodes ludwigii and Candida kefyr were only demonstrated in isolated cases. . ." etc etc ad nauseum.

I don't have time for all this. Like so much in life, kombucha could probably either kill you or heal you. All I know is that Bob and his family drink the stuff all the time and they seem better than fine. I also know that earlier today when Bob leaned toward me with a wide grin on his face and asked, I thought a bit nefariously, if I wanted a mother to take home, I backed away a little, declining his offer with a nervous laugh. I figure one mother per household is more than enough, and I'm not going anywhere.

Friday afternoon update:
My sister-in-law, Sheryl, writes, "Personally I wouldn't touch that stuff! Seems like a good way to ruin some perfectly good tea. Did we ever mention that other family rule -- no food with anything close to slime in it."

But then, I must point out, she grows mushrooms (Andy sent her a DIY kit) in an empty kitty litter container, so go figure. ("It only contained pure UNUSED litter," she clarifies. Still. Ick.)

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Getting Started
Kombucha, while tasty, is very expensive if you buy it at the store – in fact, one bottle will cost as much as a starter mushroom which, treated properly, will last for years. If, unlike me, you want to try making your own kombucha, here's how Bob does it:

Get yourself a mother, otherwise known as a mushroom, or SCOBY (symbiotic culture of baceria and yeasts). Put it in the bottom of a sterile glass jar.

Make some tea. Bob used China green mixed with Darjeeling. Let it steep for 10-15 minutes, then add about 1 cup of sugar per 3-4 liters of water. Stir well. Add ice to cool, then put the tea into a clean, sterile glass jar with the SCOBY. Top it off with cold water (not all the way to the top, though), cover with cheesecloth, and let sit for 7-10 days or so. When you take the cloth off, the kombucha will smell like vinegar, which almost caused Andy to lose his lunch. Transfer to clean glass jars, let sit on the counter for maybe four more days, then refrigerate and, as Bob says, "Enjoy." If you catch a whiff of rotten eggs, throw the SCOBY out, for God's sake.

The other thing about the mushroom is that it multiplies, which seems like a horror movie to me, but doesn't bother Bob in the least. He either throws out SCOBYs that have lost their allure (a differentiation process I couldn't begin to understand), or he gives them to other do-it-yourself-ers, who then sink or swim on their own.

Bottoms up!