Kombucha in the Urals: A Month of Memories

kombucha_zme science

(ZME Science: Image of Kombucha, Colorado State University)

The first time I tasted kombucha I was throwing up in a trashcan in a mountain town in western Siberia known for its natural anthrax growth and for being that last remaining gulag stronghold. I had what was called “the Russian flu,” at the time and my friend, a Russian native, insisted that this stuff–that tasted like a mixture of warm spit and cherry juice–could “heal my bones.” And because my bones ached like they’d been crushed by the violent and rickety wheels of the Tran Siberian Railroad, from which we’d embarked only hours ago, I drank it down. The homespun vodka he’d laced it with helped me to bypass that unique kombucha flavor–the feeling of something lumpy that had already been digested by someone else–and I just kept drinking until the fizz died down and the bits of fermented brown mushroom disappeared down my throat. If it isn’t lumpy and warm, it isn’t really kombucha. Not the Russian standard, anyway.


What’s weird about this memory (besides the fact that it’s totally disgusting) is that it was sunken deep inside the forgetful part of my brain until another friend, in a mountain town in eastern Pennsylvania, dug it up about 20 years later. I was no longer a 16-year-old American, hiding my wishfully clandestine MIG photos from the tiny inept KGB officer that was assigned to follow our group around in the drippy, humid Siberian air in a trench coat. I was 30ish now. The June heat in Pennsylvania didn’t keep the sun aloft until well past midnight like it just halfway between the Arctic Circle and the Black Sea. It was dark by 10pm flat, I had four children now, a husband, I had owned two homes already, I went to college, I had written my first novel. I’d been a writer for more than a decade, in fact. Something I’d promised my Russian friend I would become as soon as I returned home to the United States. Russia tells so many stories, he told me. Just choose one and dance with it.

I remembered a lot about Russia, but I didn’t remember the taste of kombucha until my farmer friend, the one with dirt always under her fingernails and who thought hair brushes were for sissies, shoved a tinted glass mason jar in my face. Try this. Tell me if it’s authentic.You’re the Russian expert. Am I?

The foam from the greenish mountain fungus floated to the top, spilling over the ridge. The scent of sour feet singed my nostrils. Once again, I was sickened, but something inside me was also curious. It was like slowly recognizing an old relative at the family reunion. Something about this encounter made me clutch the jar in both hands and bring it to my lips. This is familiar! I said, cocking my head to the right. I know this!

And that instance, there she was. Russia. She was standing in front of me, smirking, laughing. You’re still a wimp. I drank it down. I threw  up. I was home.

This is generally how I run into her again. Not the friend. We’re actually not even friends anymore. Politics took care of that. But Russia–we’re connected. Friendship has nothing to do with it. It’s all about family reunions. It’s about where my ancestors came from. Where my ancestors fled from, if you want to know the truth. It’s about why I get recognized by Slavs a mile away. Not because I smell like authentic kombucha (I’d have even less friends), but because like the mushroom, Russia sprouts in my life and makes connections at the weirdest times. Family reunions.

So, since I’ve spectacularly failed at my own monthly blogging challenge, friends, I wonder if I might be able to deflect from my failure by demanding a challenge from you: Write about a sensory memory that draws you back somewhere far, somewhere you’d thought you’d left behind long ago. What smell, touch, taste, smell, sight draws you back? Let’s make what’s left of January the Month of Memories.

Write and share, and drink your pansy American kombucha. But that pretty little fizz ain’t remotely authentic enough to change anything. Sorry to break it to you, tough hippies.

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