There are two meanings to the verb, to ferment, and Tara Whitsitt embodies them both. Not only is she an accomplished culinary artist who makes her own yogurt, kimchi, vinegar, and sourdough bread; she ferments — or stirs up — interest in these cultured foods through her project, Fermentation on Wheels.
She tours the country in an old 1986 International Harvester bus that she’s turned into a traveling kitchen and classroom.
Fermentation on Wheels rolls into my driveway in Ada, Ohio this Earth Day, April 22, for a potluck and culture swap.
The 29-year-old Texas native’s obsession with fermentation was acquired. “I was never exposed to fermented foods,” she said. “I didn’t grow up with a rich food culture. I have, to my family, a bizarre palate."
Sour is in a sweet spot right now. Interest in fermented foods is high on account of the public’s growing awareness of the health benefits of probiotics. They’re those good-for-you bacteria like Lactobacillus that keep bad bacteria at bay and move things along in your gut. Yogurt sales are booming, driven by interest in Greek yogurt. It's been such a boon for dairy farmers in New York that Governor Andrew Cuomo started holding "yogurt summits" in 2012. Once-exotic products like the Korean pickled cabbage staple kimchi and the Russian fermented drink kefir can now be found in many conventional grocery stores, like the Kroger's in Findlay, where I buy kimchi.
But why buy it when you can make it yourself? That's what Tara Whitsitt wants to encourage you to do.
Whitsitt caught the probiotic bug in 2011 in Brooklyn, which makes total sense. That was when the borough's foodie scene was really hitting its stride, with young food-obessesed entrepreneurs making — and selling — products like beef jerky, chocolate (yikes, Mast Brothers is now opening a shop in London?!), mayonnaise and whiskey. A friend of Whitsitt’s encouraged her to make her own sauerkraut and kombucha, a peppery-tasting fermented tea. She was enchanted.
“I think it’s a really great intersection of science and art,” she said. “It’s a very aesthetically pleasing process as something ferments. You get to watch it happen before your eyes. I was very drawn to it from that transformational aspect."
She moved to Eugene, Oregon, to deepen her practice with other like-minded folk. “I’d done the whole New York thing long enough,” she told The New York Times.
Sounds familiar, that fed-upness with the whole New York thing. I went to the Ohio countryside, but Tara took off for the woods of Oregon. It was there that she realized she wanted to share her love and knowledge with others.
“The idea came to me in a dream,” she said. “I had the dream three nights in a row. I was intrigued and also a little scared.”
Again with the similarities! Not that moving to Ada was an idea that came to me in a dream. It was more a long-simmering dialogue with an inner yearning. The struck-dumb -- or maybe smart -- part came when I walked into Easter House for the first time with a realtor. I had this vision of holding events just like this one, with Tara, of filling up this large, beautiful space with people longing to share, to create, to grow, to make positive effort for the good.
Fermentation on Wheels is a starter culture for my dreams for this place.
Tara Whitsitt comes to Ada with 19 months of the road under her seat belt. Since striking out with her cat and her jars of starter in October, 2013, she's slept in truck stops or stayed with friends and like-minded fans of fermentation. Whitsitt supports herself with the help of grants and donations from attendees of her workshops. The event at my place is a potluck and is free and open to the public, to experienced fermenters and curious beginners alike. Those interested in attending are encouraged to bring food to share and starter cultures to swap, or $10 to purchase one from Whitsitt’s collection. Her bus will also be open for tours.
The potluck is from 6:00 PM - 9:00 PM, Wednesday, April 22 at 508 N. Main St, Ada, Ohio. For more information, and to RSVP for the potluck, visit fermentationonwheels.com.