I like to use analogies. I always have. I use them in my teaching, in my writing, and in my parenting.
I even use them with Christina when I try to convey to her some crazy idea that just popped into my head in order to help her visualize what in god’s name I am talking about. It is how my brain operates and how I make sense of new ideas in ways that are relatable. You can tell when I am about to use an analogy because I always start with the phrase, “Ya know, it’s sorta like….” And that’s exactly how I began the conversation the other night at the dinner table when I announced to my family the light bulb moment I had just experienced.
“Ya know, it’s sorta like when you ferment dairy…” I blurted out with a mouthful of food.
“What is Dad?” one of my kids asked.
“The coronavirus and what is happening right now,” I replied.
Immediately everyone’s eyes rolled. It could have been because of the apparent absurdity of the statement or because they were all conditioned to know some sort of insane analogy-based lecture was about to ensue. Either way, I was unswayed and determined to carry on with my analogy. In unprecedented moments like the one in which we all find ourselves analogies can be powerful and help us make sense of, and relate to, the uncertainty. I think it is a good analogy and want to share it with you all too.
You might be rolling your eyes just like my kids did, but read on. It is worth it.
We are passionate about cheese and fermented dairy in general in this house. It’s a strong statement, but it’s true.
Like with other traditional fermented foods, the fermenting dairy not only produces incredible flavors and odors and textures in food, but also chemically and physically transforms basic ingredients into their safest and most nourishing forms possible for our human bodies. By fermenting dairy into kefirs, yogurts, clabber, cheeses and a whole host of other foods we are replicating what naturally occurs in the stomachs of infant mammals (including humans). Our family absolutely loves these foods so there is always some sort of dairy fermenting somewhere in this house.
What is interesting about fermenting dairy, and the basis for this analogy, is the following…
Our sense of smell, taste or even sight are not fine-tuned enough to identify pathogens in our milk. I am not talking about expired or rancid milk. I am referring to fresh milk that contains pathogens such as listeria, coliforms, E. coli, and salmonella, undetectable to use when we go about our typical daily routine, grab a gallon of milk from the refrigerator, pour a glass of milk, and drink it. In fact, we don’t notice their presence until hours later when we become sick. These underlying issues are essentially invisible to us and prevent us from doing anything about them until it is too late.
BUT, the process of fermentation can resolve the issue in one of two ways. Fermenting dairy relies upon lactic acid bacteria, bifidobacteria and sometimes even fungi such as yeast to chemically and physically transform the milk into hundreds of different traditional fermented foods. During this process, these beneficial bacteria and yeast can often reduce or eliminate pathogens through competitive exclusion and by the creation of an acidic environment hostile to the pathogens. In my mind, I equate these beneficial bacteria and yeasts to my own personal army equipped with trillions of soldiers fighting a battle to keep me and my family safe.
The other way this can go is equally as powerful and, at the end of the day, safe. Sometimes during the fermentation process it is the pathogens who win the battle. You might wonder how this can result in anything that has to do with safety. It is because when the pathogens win the war it is due to the fact that they have become stronger, reproduced more quickly, and grown in number to the point where they have outcompeted the beneficial bacteria and yeast. This often results in tell-tale signs that are now so apparent they can be recognized using our sense of taste, smell or sight. They manifest as off smells and flavors, bubbles and “trails” on the sides of my jar of kefir, or bloated curds that float in the whey.
The fermentation process has either eradicated the pathogens or made evident underlying problems that were otherwise invisible. And, now that I know they are there I can do something about them. In this case of bad dairy, toss the food.
I see the COVID-19 pandemic creating the same results as fermenting dairy in the same two ways. The heroes of our community – the doctors and nurses fighting to keep people alive, essential workers keeping our grocery store shelves stocked and our communities safe, and the countless other people putting themselves in harms way each and every day are just like the beneficial microorganisms in fermented dairy. They are all warriors on the front line working tirelessly to do everything in their power to keep us all strong enough to successfully defeat this disease.
The alternative scenario is also true.
Just as the pathogens can grow in strength and number during fermentation to magnify the underlying, otherwise invisible or overlooked problems in the milk the same is true of what the Coronavirus is doing in our society today.
Weaknesses in our healthcare system, problems with our educational system, unequal distribution of power, differential access to resources, underlying health issues and flaws in our food production and distribution system are all rearing their ugly heads and forcing us to take notice.
Recently, Dylan Scott reported on how the coronavirus is exposing weaknesses in our country’s health care system. From our lack of preparedness for a pandemic, to inefficiencies and inequalities in our health system, the current situation is baring the realities of our health care system for us all to see.
As school districts, administrators, and teachers around the country are working overtime to meet their students’ needs remotely, flaws in the educational system and the inequalities that exist amongst their students are becoming more and more apparent. The Washington Post article, ‘It shouldn’t take a pandemic’: Coronavirus exposes Internet inequality among U.S. students as schools close their doors reports on the drastic inequality between students concerning digital access to information and illustrates, “how a public health crisis has brought to light a technological one.” In fact, ensuring all students have access to the curriculum no matter their learning differences is proving so difficult that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is considering waiving special education laws. Schools are also faced with the cold hard reality that many of their students just do not have food at home and rely heavily upon the national school lunch program, the second biggest anti-hunger initiative in the country, to meet their nutritional needs. Despite the closure of schools and with them, their cafeterias, school districts across the country are working hard to ensure that their students are getting the food they so desperately need.
The pandemic is also raising awareness of the shortfalls in our food system. From food production and distribution on the manufacturer and supply end to panic buying on the consumer end we are becoming more and more conscious that the way we produce, distribute, share, and consume food requires a complete overhaul. In The New York Times article, Will the Coronavirus Threaten Our Food? The supply chain has plenty of vulnerabilities reporter Shub Debgupta discusses how coronavirus and our response to it affects the nation’s food supply chains and how as it spreads it will impact our ability to keep our grocery store shelves stocked.
Underlying health issues that we as a society have learned to accept, normalize, and live with are now magnified and are drawing worthy attention. Mexican Deputy Hugo Lopez-Gatell said on Saturday that decades of poor eating habits in the country have created an epidemic of obesity, diabetes and other related health complications that make its people more vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.
The current situation is forcing us to realize that we need to take responsibility over our own food system.
We need to think deeply about where our food comes from and make the most of whatever resources to which we have access. More and more people are starting to cook again – and I love that. Instagram is flooded with pics of home-cooked meals and it seems chefs around the world are offering online cooking classes. Local farmers and food producers are becoming more and more important and consumers are developing new relationships with them. Community based organizations are devising new ways to come together and nourish those in need. I am optimistic that as this situation manifests the government will continue to relax its draconian, revenue and control driven restrictions on how we can provide food to one another in our own communities. I look forward to watching what new powerful neighborhood and community oriented solutions to the broken food systems emerge to fill the needs created by the pandemic. With any luck they will set new precedents and continue long after the pandemic passes.
The efforts to address the impact of the pandemic by many politicians, community leaders, health care workers, food producers, local businesses, and law enforcement are nothing short of Herculean. However, we need to ensure that the strategies we adopt are not merely knee jerk reactions and simply bandaids for the current pandemic, but instead initiate some of the real change we need in this world. Many of the issues we are facing today are not new, just magnified. This coronavirus is providing an opportunity for us to see our society from a unique perspective and identify problems that were otherwise invisible or inconsequential to many of us.
The big question is, what do we do now that we know?
It is interesting to note that very few traditional uses of milk include simply drinking fresh milk.
Rather, almost every traditional or indigenous group I have ever studied or spent time with ferment their milk before they consume it. Now I know why.