Kombucha lessons


Over the winter holiday, I got really good at making kombucha.

I did my online research, copied and pasted a basic recipe from a website called thekitchn.com, then began riffing on my own flavors. Ginger-honey, pear-lime, pomegranate, verbena-kalamansi. I picked most of the fruits from trees in our yard — they don’t call it homebrew for nothing. At Whole Foods, 12 ounces of kombucha will set you back almost $4. Homemade, it’s basically free, just a jar of tea and a little sugar.  

My wife, Naomi, was leery at first. She’d adapted easily to my pickle- and yogurt-making spree, probably because her taste buds, like the rest of her, were born and raised in Brooklyn. The yogurt she now makes from a Yonah Schimmel’s starter culture is every bit as good as Yonah’s.  

But kombucha is from Asia, not the shtetl. It is black tea and sugar fermented with the help of a slimy blob called a SCOBY, which stands for a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. (You can buy the blob on Amazon, like everything else.) The plain gallon jar on our kitchen counter looked like an aquarium full of bilge water with a dead jellyfish inside. Naomi was dubious.

And yet, after seven days of creation, the kombucha turned out delicious. Dry, sparkly and slightly sweet, with just the tiniest hint of alcohol (less than .5 percent) – a marriage of tea and Champagne. The SCOBY set loose a zoo of probiotics, as well, which seem to soothe, strengthen and calm my innards. WebMD will tell you there are no double-blind studies proving the stuff works. But kombucha has been around 2,000 years longer than WebMD.  

We poured some kombucha into a jar for my booch-loving niece and headed down to Grand Central Market to meet her. It was a Sunday afternoon, and the place was packed, brought back to life by dozens of artisan food stalls. At Wexler’s Deli, Micah Wexler was selling house-cured lox and pastrami. There was falafel on freshly baked laffa, or flatbread. The longest lines were for tacos with hand-formed tortillas and stewed meats – recipes centuries older than the hipsters who swarmed the food stalls.  

After lunch, we walked down Spring Street to The Last Bookstore. It, too, was packed. Two warehouse-size floors of new and used books and a line at the cash register that made me wonder whether print is the new digital.

On our way home, we passed a large, well-lit music store on Santa Monica Boulevard and, on a whim, pulled over. As we crossed the threshold, I noticed the motto on the sign: “The Last Record Store.” It turns out that LPs, too, are making a comeback in their own niche. The Last Record Store didn’t have only gently used albums from the ’70s, such as “Yaffa Yarkoni Sings Yiddish” and “Tov ‘L’Shir B’Yahad — Best Songs of Camp SWIG” (really!); it also had the new, shrink-wrapped double-LP soundtrack from “The Hateful Eight.”

Everything old is new again, right? We had started the day tasting an ancient drink we had learned to brew ourselves. We ate lunch at a long-dormant urban space brought back to life with good, handmade food. We shopped for books on paper and music on vinyl. And in none of these activities were we alone. 

In droves, Americans are drawn back toward the traditional, the handmade, the old. Nostalgia may be a factor. In the chaos and constant newness of modern life, it’s easy to romanticize the past. But we also go back because sometimes what was is irreplaceable, if not better.

A new longitudinal study released late last month found that the best diet is the simplest: heavy on grains and vegetables, light on meat, minimally processed. Not sugar- and/or fat-free or vitamin-enriched or fast and quick, but real. A little bit of gribenes — chicken skin and onion fried in chicken fat – is good for you. Coke and Diet Coke – bad for you. Homemade kombucha, which costs about nothing to make, is awash in probiotics and has 35 calories a serving — great for you. Because it’s the real thing.

The lesson goes far beyond food, and books, and pieces of vinyl. It’s the reason not to worry too much about the future of Judaism, as well, thinking it is in inevitable decline.

“We assume Jewish life is linear — thinking every generation is less engaged than its predecessor,” the historian Jonathan Sarna said last November at a Brandeis University conference. “But anyone who properly studies history will actually see that it is not linear at all, as is the case with any other religion. Jewish life in America is cyclical, not linear.”

By focusing on what works, what has stood the test of time, what is literally good for us, we reinvent, revive and renew the gifts of food, culture and tradition — not such a bad lesson from a simple jar of tea.

No need to reinvent the kombucha wheel. The recipe I followed to make homemade kombucha can be found here.

The kombucha SCOBY I purchased can be found here.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com

Follow Rob Eshman’s food life on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism. Sign up for Jewish Journal’s curated weekly Foodaism newsletter at bit.ly/JJfood.

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