Before the initiation ceremony begins, the candidate entering a French Masonic lodge is first placed in a dark room, often made to resemble a cave. Before them on a table sits a skull, crossed bones, water, a piece of bread, a saucer containing salt and another containing sulfur-all alchemical symbols of transformation. On the wall is a drawing of a cockerel, a symbol of resurrection, and the word VITRIOL, an acronym of the Latin saying visita interiora terrae, rectificando invenies occultum lapidem (visit the center of the earth and by rectifying you shall find the hidden stone). Here, in this chamber the initiate is tasked with writing a philosophical will, a good-bye to the world of appearances and a preparation for the transformative experience that awaits.
The alchemical symbolism of the Masonic initiation recalls the wedding in Cana, at which Jesus performs his first miracle: turning six stone jars of water into wine. In esoteric terms this is a multiple iteration of alchemical ideas of transformation. First comes the symbolism of water, which in itself is a substance that can transform into multiple forms gas, solid and liquid. Next comes the obvious miracle of turning that water into wine. Lastly, wine is, of course, a transformation of grapes in which sugars are converted to alcohol to yield an intoxicating substance capable of transforming our consciousness. And like the Masonic symbols in the chamber of reflection, Jesus, in this miracle, plays with images of transformation that have their ultimate expression in his death and resurrection and by extension our personal journey beyond the tomb.
The practice of alchemy is not, as many of us were taught in school, some sort of get rich quick scheme in which wrong-headed science was applied in the futile attempt to turn base metals into gold. Alchemy is instead a symbolic language, which like its descendent Freemasonry contains the transformative wisdom of western esotericism. Alchemy and Freemasonry are experiential arts, practiced in the lab and in the lodge. The symbolic message of these two disciplines are imprinted through physical experience. Just as you can't learn to ride a skateboard through reading a book or playing a video game simulation, symbolic journeys must have a physical component.
But you need not be a Freemason or esotericist to bring the wisdom of alchemy into your home. You can experience the power of transformation by practicing the near-lost art of fermentation. Over the millennia our ancestors learned to transform all kinds of foods wheat, fruit, even rotting walrus meat into more nutritious and longer lasting forms. Note that we're not talking about the most common methods of food preservation in our time, canning and freezing. Fermentation preserves food by transforming it, creating magic by playing with powerful processes of decay. With fermentation nutritional qualities are altered, and beneficial organisms are grown thus improving digestibility and flavor. As with the myth of the resurrected god, in fermentation death is not an end, it is only change. Fermented foods are alive, teeming with beneficial bacteria whereas canned and frozen foods are truly dead–they cannot change, and are held in a state of suspended animation.
Fermentation projects in your kitchen can range from the simple, such as making pickles with brine to the complex, like distilling your own whisky. By fermenting our own foods we physically engage with the transformative powers of nature, watch the processes as they happen, and then ingest them, making them part of ourselves.
There are compelling reasons beyond the esoteric to take up D.I.Y. fermentation. Governments tend to structure food safety rules in ways that favor industrial agriculture and the processed foods industry. Take for instance the case of sauerkraut which is produced through a method called lacto-fermentation. Raw cabbage is combined with sea salt and weighted down to press out liquids in the cabbage. Lactobacillus bacteria which can survive in a salty environment produce lactic acid which both gives sauerkraut its distinctive flavor and also serves to inhibit other kinds of bacteria which can cause spoilage. After a month or so the sauerkraut is ready to eat and full of beneficial micro-organisms and enzymes known collectively as probiotics. The problem is that the US Department of Agriculture recommends pasteurization which effectively kills the beneficial organisms as well as degrading taste. Done with a reasonable amount of care there is very little danger of lacto-fermented foods causing food borne illnesses. And pasteurization has the effect of encouraging careless mass-production of foods by unskilled workers, allowing for the application of Henry Ford's assembly line to produce foods that used to be made by small scale local businesses and in our own kitchens.
Fermentation also serves to transform inedible foods into more nutritious forms. Soy for instance, pervasive in processed foods, has detrimental effects including anti-nutrients which block the absorption of minerals and isoflavones which alter estrogen levels. Fermenting soy tempers these problems by producing probiotics and improving digestibility. The majority of soy consumed by Asians is in a fermented form such as miso, tempeh, and natto in contrast to the huge amount of unfermented soy now hidden in all kinds of processed foods in the form of oil, emulsifiers and flours.
Thankfully a new fermentation movement is… fermenting. Food activist Sandor Ellix Katz's, book, Wild Fermentation The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods is, in our opinion, essential reading for every urban homesteader. Wild Fermentation has an astonishing variety of recipes-everything from cheeses to pickles to beers and wines. Katz says, "Wild fermentation is a way of incorporating the wild into your body, becoming one with the natural world. Wild foods, microbial cultures included, possess a great, unmediated life force, which can help us adapt to shifting conditions and lower our susceptibility to disease."
The most symbolically rich act of transformation that we can practice in our own kitchens is making our own alcoholic beverages. In most cultures, with the exception of those dominated by religious extremists or debased by the marketplace (like ours–think of the insipid Red Bull concoctions swilled by spring breakers), alcohol is a sacred beverage. Stephen Harrod Buhner, author of Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation says that many ancient cultures believed that "the knowledge of fermentation was given to us to help us deal with the impact of knowing our own mortality." Buhner's book combined with Charlie Papazian's book The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing will get you started concocting sacred brews in your urban homestead.
The advanced urban homesteading fermenter can move on to distilling alcohol, known in the American south as moonshining. Distillation is the most closely related of the fermentations to alchemical symbolism and it's no coincidence that whisky is known as the water of life and French fruit brandy as eau de vie. Home distillation is illegal in the US, and requires an investment in equipment and the willingness to take a few risks. Guides to the subject are sparse, but a new book called Moonshine! by Matthew B. Rowley covers the basics and has a few recipes and directions for building two kinds of stills. More distillation information and a few alternate still designs can be found at http://homedistiller.org.
With the physical experience of making and consuming fermented foods we'll open up a new world of taste, health and meaning embracing a symbolism that holds the keys to the mysteries of what lies beyond this profane world.
A Recipe for Daikon Radish Pickles
This is the first lacto-fermented pickle we ever made, and it is still our favorite. It makes firm, salty, garlic flavored pickles that are pretty addictive. Best of all, it only takes a few minutes to make. This basic technique can be applied to other firm veggies equally well. For instance, think about doing this with tiny cucumbers, flavored with dill and garlic, or maybe try sliced turnips, or green nasturtium seed pods…
Daikon radish–enough to fill a quart jar, one big one is usually enough. Scrubbed, peeled and cut into any shape –rounds, quarters, whatever, about 1/4 inch thick.
One peeled garlic clove, and/or any other spice you might want to try, like dill, or peppercorns.
2 Tablespoons sea salt or any salt that is not iodized. Iodized salt will kill lactobacillus bacteria and interfere with the fermentation process.
1 quart of bottled water, or filtered water, or boiled water, or tap water that's been sitting out for a day to release the chlorine. Chlorine is undesirable because it might kill the wee beasties that you want to work for you.
Fill a very clean, preferably sterile (sterilize by boiling the jar for five minutes), quart-sized canning jar with your sliced daikon, and a clove of garlic if you like. Mix your salt and water together in a separate container and pour it into the jar over the daikon slices, leaving a little breathing space at the top, say a 1/4 of an inch. Close the jar tight, and put it in a cool, dark cabinet for a week or so.. The flavor changes over time, so try opening different jars at different times to see what stage of fermentation you prefer.
When you open it there will be some fizzing which is normal. The pickles will be crunchy (but not raw, definitely transformed) and pleasantly garlic flavored. If they are a little salty for your taste you can rinse off the brine before you eat them. Keep the opened jar in the fridge.
Homegrown Revolution's Kelly and Erik are the authors of the upcoming handbook The Urban Homestead, available in spring 2008 through Process Media.