I remember my mother standing over a boiling cauldron of black walnut juice, hands and bare feet stained dark brown. She was making dye. Not because she needed it, but because she wanted to know how dye was made. She wanted to do it herself.

Library books stood in leaning stacks on the kitchen table ranging in subjects from herbal concoctions used in China to crochet stitches only people over 95 know.

I watched my mother learn. It seems to me she preferred to learn more than to teach. Although she may never have thought about teaching through observation or known much about Leonardo da Vinci, my mother definitely taught me to love learning.

The saying goes “teach by example.” What better example for the student than another enthusiastic student?

When I get a free moment my first course of action is to work on one of my own “projects” around here. There is no TV to plop down in front of and the Internet is intermittent at best. My choice of entertainment is usually food preservation experiments.

“Mom, what are you doing now?” Five faces crowd around me to look at the various jars on the table.

“Well,” I said, “Socrates speaks of meat being preserved in wine. I've been trying to think of a way to preserve meat without destroying the enzymes in it and without using electricity. So far I've come up with two ideas and I'm trying out one of them.”

On the table stood several mason jars. Two jars had a home-brewed wine which was still sulfite free, ensuring the yeasts that had fermented the brew were still alive. I had learned by fermenting vegetables in active milk cultures that the best way to combat hostile bacteria was with friendly bacteria! The current experiment was to see if the alcohol and live yeast of the wine would preserve a chunk of raw meat outside of refrigeration and for how long.

“What's the other method?” David asked. I tried to remember my last statement and then answered.

“Oh, smoking it. Do you know, there is an area in France where the tradition is to smoke a lamb when a baby girl is born and then to eat it when she gets married—around eighteen years later?”

“Wow!” said JudyLucy. “Where do they keep the meat all that time?”

“I don't know, but it isn't refrigerated. My guess is that it is in a cool, dry cellar environment.”

“Are you going to try it that way too?” Sarah enquired.

“Yes,” I said, “if and when we can build a cold smoker. Maybe when we butcher Bosser.” Bosser is our calf and still has another six months or so before he's put on enough weight to butcher.

“I can't imagine submerging that much meat in wine, so we'll probably smoke most of it. Maybe we'll pressure-can some too. I don't know,” I told them.

“Why are you putting it in two jars?” JudyLucy asked me. I was lowering a chunk of raw beef roast into the second jar now. It floated, submerged in a very dry, white grape wine.

“Well,” I said, “I figure I'll keep one in the fermentation fridge at about 45–50 degrees, and I'll leave one out on the shelf at room temperature, which will vary between about 65 and 85 degrees. The first one will be a lot like a root cellar condition—hopefully we'll have a root cellar someday—and the second will be like the harshest conditions. Between the two I'll get a good idea of how well meat preserves in wine, and for how long.”

I was writing the date and the description on mail labels and sticking them to each jar. The kids watched quietly for a minute. I opened the fermentation fridge and put in one of the jars. David leaned over to look inside.

“Is the kombucha ready yet?”

“Yes. Do you want one?”

“Sure. We'll share. Does anyone want to share one with me?” Everyone wanted a swig of kombucha, a fermented black tea.

My last experiment had been to see if I could ferment kombucha to be dry, but not vinegary. The fridge was full of an excellent dry-but-smooth mint kombucha that my husband began referring to as “Mintesse.” He told me quite seriously that it gave him a “bright, open” feeling that he though was psychotropic. This struck me as funny, but I had to admit there was something about the mint kombucha that was different from the ginger, berry zinger, and jasmine flavors that I'd been making.

My theory for getting kombucha to ferment dry and smooth was that I needed to slow the yeast and bacteria down, rather like aging a wine (yet another experiment), giving all the components of the brew time to break down and blend. I fermented it at room temperature for 5–7 days, and then while it was still rather sweet I put it in the fermentation fridge and left it for a month or more.

Success! Sometimes it worked better than others and I wished I had kept notes that first time so I'd know exactly what I'd done. But that was before I'd started writing everything down for JudyLucy.

The kids watch me do every experiment, and ask questions. I try to do a lot of my thinking out loud, so they can hear the questions I ask myself and follow my trail to the answers.

Two years later the meat in the jars was still good. I cooked it today, just so I could tell you the end of the story. The meat was tender but retained a good texture. It smelled and tasted just like wine. I ate a piece, but was not thrilled with the strong wine flavor. My husband was less offended by the flavor, and between him and the kids, the rest of the meat quickly disappeared. My next experiment will be to leave a chunk of meat in wine for only three months and see if it will taste more like meat and less like wine.

I haven't become a student in order to teach my children. I've become a student because there is so much I don't know and because I love learning.

Mintesse Kombucha Recipe

Make 1 gallon of black and peppermint tea. I use 3/4 cup of black tea and 1/4 cup of loose-leaf peppermint.

Add one cup of sugar to the gallon and stir.

Fill with pure water to where the jar begins to curve, about 3 inches from the top.

Wait until tea is room temperature and add your SCOBY. (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast)

Cover with coffee filter and rubber band to secure, or string.

Place in warm, dark location for 7 days.

Move jar to cool, dry location, like a fridge set at 45 degrees for 14–21 days.

Taste test occasionally to find your preference in dryness.

Remove from fridge when your brew is perfect for you.

Take out mother SCOBY and new baby SCOBY.

Strain kombucha through thin cloth.

Store in fridge or pour into glass bottles and cap.

The two SCOBYs can be used to make two new batches of kombucha or one can be shared with a friend. Try other flavors, like ginger (add a handful of chopped ginger root to black tea) or berry zinger.

You can order a SCOBY from several places online.

Orange Mead Recipe

6 small but juicy oranges with low pith content, sliced like wedges. Sometimes I use 8 or 10 clementine tangerines, chopped, instead.

2 large limes, sliced thinly

2.5 cups of raisins, rinsed in boiling water to remove sulfites.

6 cloves, 6 cinnamon sticks, 12 cardamom pods.

1 gallon of heated/melted raw honey in 2 gallons of water.

or 10 pounds of white sugar (not as good, test me).

1 package (2 Tablespoons) of bread yeast (Fleischmann's)

Put all ingredients except yeast into a very clean 5-gallon glass carboy until the brew has cooled to room temperature. Top off within 2 inches of the bottle neck with pure water. Then add the yeast. Stir with the siphon stick/tube. Attach the airlock. Keep carboy undisturbed, out of direct light at 60–70 degrees for about 3 months.

When the orange slices fall to the bottom of the carboy, your brew is ready. Siphon into clean carboy and let settle a couple days. (At this point it is recommended that you add sulfites to kill any active yeast culture. I ignore this step.) Siphon into bottles and cork. Let age for 6 months to two years. Great for settling the stomach, and delicious with chocolate desserts.

Based on a recipe found on winepress.us, originally titled Joe's Ancient Orange Spice Mead.