What Sauerkraut Taught Me About Musical Expression
By Cynthia Goosby
June 11, 2016
For those who don’t know, I love cooking. I’ve been vegetarian for roughly seven years, and these days I lean more to the vegan side (Goat cheese, I wish I knew how to quit you.). I enjoy cooking for a number of reasons. I like sharing the food I make, it’s cathartic, and it’s the only way I’ve managed to survive while remaining, admittedly, a ridiculously picky eater. But my favorite part is the experimenting! I jump at the chance to try new recipes, and if you perused my Amazon “Buy It Again” page, you’d find everything from food-grade siphons to chaat masala. This semester, though, I came across a book that turned my culinary world on its ear and opened me up to a whole new realm of experimental possibilities. Brace yourself; the title is pretty exciting.
The Art of Fermentation.
I’ve always wanted to make my own sourdough bread, and the chapter on beer-brewing sounded intriguing, so I added it to my online shopping cart full of reeds and decided to give it a try. I improvise meals occasionally, but I mostly stick to recipes, so when I opened my new encyclopedia-sized tome on microbially transformed foods, I was initially horrified to find that there were NONE–no neatly laid out lists of measured ingredients, no step-by-step instructions, just tons of fascinating cultural background on ferments from around the world and guidelines for producing them at home. Having become so comfortable with clear directions and exact amounts, it was intimidating to open up to the chapter on mead-making and read that the ratio of honey to water could be anywhere from 2:1 to 1:17, and depending on your tastes, you can enjoy it after a few weeks or after several years. For most ferments, there were suggested proportions, but the exact ingredients, equipment, time, temperature, and amounts were all very open-ended. Where were the rules?!
It took time to trust myself without the boundaries of recipes, but I’ve since made tons of foods described in the book. I’ve grown SCOBYs for kombucha, kept a sourdough starter and a ginger bug alive for a solid few months, racked several bottles of mead, and made pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, and even aged vegan cashew cheese. And apart from the last one, which still lurks in the back of our fridge, they’ve all been delicious! No two batches are the same, almost nothing is measured, and I let everything take the time it needs, tasting at different points in the process and just letting the flavors evolve until it seems ready.
What I learned is that sometimes, when you let go of trying to control every detail, good things can flow of their own accord. And this was also a very timely lesson for my clarinet playing. I was sometimes getting so bogged down with executing every note, every rhythm, every marking on a page that I would lose sight of what I actually wanted to say through my performance. It became an exercise instead of a statement. Over the past year, with the help of my incredible teacher, Kevin Schempf, I’ve been focusing on relinquishing my iron grip on different facets of my playing and just going with the flow–the muscling and micro-managing in my embouchure, the literal gripping of my fingers on the instrument, and my perfection-or-bust mindset.
Playing from memory and doing a lot of improvisation has been super helpful, and I even got to a place where I felt comfortable incorporating both into our recent show, Showtotype, but learning to go with the flow in other areas of my life, like cooking, has helped me truly ingrain the lesson. Because taking risks and allowing the process to guide me has paid off so deliciously in the kitchen, I feel more comfortable allowing myself to do the same with my music. And at the end of the day, a soggy pickle and a wrong note are worth about the same.