Observing Christmas with a Mass Observer

Olga Lehmann, A Shelter in Camden Town Under a Brewery (1940; via)
I heard the planes go over
With shuttle and with roar
The moon looked down on Dover
And lit the winding shore.
It filled the night with beauty,
Our tired world’s release:
Old wardens at their duty
Invoked a prayer for peace.
–T. A. Agius, O.S.B., “Wartime Christmas,”

A sprig of mistletoe was all Pam Ashford wanted for Christmas, 1941. It surely would’ve livened up the office of the Glasgow coal-shipping firm for which the 38-year-old worked — an office she described at one point as “death heated up.” And it would’ve marked a welcome addition to the tin of shortbread biscuits and tiny cash bonus given to her by the firm’s honchos. At the very least, the bit of seasonal greenery would’ve leavened dull routine with a dash of the aleatory. Pam Ashford wanted it “just to see what would happen,” as she confided to a colleague. Later in private she walked back this wish. “But certainly I could never rise to that level of audacity,” she wrote in her diary.

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Alain Bombard’s Castaway Cuisine

The Shipwreck

Ivan Aivazovsky,
The Shipwreck (1884)
Obscurest night involv’d the sky,
Th’ Atlantic billows roar’d,
When such a destin’d wretch as I,
Wash’d headlong from on board,
Of friends, of hope, of all bereft,
His floating home for ever left.
–William Cowper, “The Castaway”


Of all the ways French physician Alain Bombard could’ve spent his 28th birthday, he chose to do so adrift some 1,500 miles at sea. In the wide blue immensity, the only thing between Bombard and Davy Jones’s locker was the deck of a dinghy he had christened, with cheek that belied the gravity of his situation, the Heretic.

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Fermented Foods: A History

In the spring of 2007, I received a small envelope containing a sourdough starter born on the Oregon Trail, a survival of American pioneers’ push westward. The starter could not have been more unprepossessing. It looked like dust and left me wondering whether I had erred in ordering it. I nevertheless mixed it with flour and spring water in a Mason jar and went to bed, only to wake to a bubbling goo that covered the countertop. As I cleaned up the mess it came home to me how much livelier than store-bought dried yeast this heirloom starter was.

The starter had a personality, and a finicky one at that. It sulked when I left it unused in the refrigerator too long. And it sulked even more when I forced on it rice flour and tapioca during a gluten-free diet lark I went on for a few months. Really, even keeping the thermostat too low in winter put it out of temper. Its spirits would rise with the arrival of spring. The warmer days set it enthusiastically digesting the organic rye flour I fed it, and it would reward my care with perfect loaves of crispy French bread, airy ciabatta and dense rounds of sour rye.

My success with it inspired me to attempt other ferments. For guidance I turned to Sandor Ellix Katz’s seminal Wild Fermentation and my family of ferments came to include, at various times, kefir, kombucha, lactic-acid-fermented cucumbers, beetroot and peppers, as well as tibicos (a fermented drink popular in Mexico), cider and even red wine.

Each evening I tended my ferments, the ritual anchoring me in what I saw as an increasingly tumultuous world. Financial markets might have been crashing along with my prospects of a steady job, but I could care for my ferments, each one a world in itself, and I would be rewarded with health and a hobby. George Orwell thought taking tea to be a mainstay of civilization. For me it was brewing tea for another batch of kombucha…

I have been told home fermenting is a waste of time. I have also been told that I will probably poison myself. Why? As it turns out, suspicion of fermented foods owes to a peculiar blend of scientific and market forces so influential as to sway consumer preference in the direction of bland, unappetizing mass-produced substitutes for the zestier originals we can – and did – make ourselves.

For more on the history of fermented food and drink, and how we came to be alienated from these age-old practices, check out my book Fermented Foods: The History and Science of a Microbiological Wonder, out now from Reaktion Books and available from bookshop.org.