Issue 03: Forgetting is a gift
Serendipity, time, and apple cider vinegar
A few weeks ago we were cleaning out the basement to make room for a seedling-sprouting station when Christian picked up a mason jar filled with something clear and amber. An inch-thick cap of white froth covered the top of the liquid, and sediment at the bottom sent up tendrils of matter each time the jar moved.
What's this? he asked.
It took me a few seconds. Jar. Fermentation cap. Basement. Oh, cider vinegar! I brought the jar upstairs to taste, making a note to discard the white cap before Christian could see I wanted to feed him moldy apple juice.
Last September, we spent the morning pressing cider in an orchard south of town. We had joined the Home Orchard Education Center's fruit CSA in the spring, splitting the weekly pickups with good friends instead of racing to eat 5-10 pounds of fruit every week. On this Saturday, the orchard invited CSA members to press cider, so a dozen of us gathered to hunt underneath the trees for windfall apples and pears, which ranged in size from mandarins to giant pomelos. Crews of volunteers cut out the wormholes and rotted bits, washed the fruit in giant, ever-so-slightly soapy tubs, and fed it through a grinder and then a hand-cranked press.
Each volunteer brought home a gallon of sweet, fragrant cider—each jug tasting subtly different, thanks to the mix of apples and pears. Christian and I fermented one gallon with ale yeast to make hard cider. I'd break into the fridge to pour small glasses of fresh cider from the other jug, until it started fermenting on my own, giving me the cider gut rot I remembered from childhood (pasteurize cider? in the 1970s?). I poured what was left into a mason jar, sprinkled some of the remaining ale yeast on top, and screwed on a fermentation lid. After a couple of weeks—I think? I don't quite remember—I added a few spoonfuls of the brown chunky stuff that floats in a jar of Bragg's raw apple cider, hoping that it would transform the alcohol into acetic acid.
And then I forgot it.
Forgetting isn't exactly hard. Each time we leave the house, I spend 5 minutes hunting for my mask. I leave on trips knowing that one thing hasn't made its way into the suitcase, so that when it comes up missing, I can be relieved it wasn't my passport. Sometimes I justify my forgetting—to myself, though the argument has never swayed Christian—by arguing that my aptitude for clearing out the old makes more room for the new. As my brain likes to remind me several times a day, unspooling some memory of something I said in 1996 just to make my skin crawl, forgetting is as much a blessing as memory.
Now that I cook most of our meals, I have come to rely on forgetting. I pull ice-crusted containers out of the freezer after I can no longer remember what the contents taste like. Dinner becomes takeout from someone else's kitchen, a gift from a past life. Not bad, Past Jonathan, I sometimes pat myself on the back.
For two weeks after we returned from cider pressing, I shopped for $200 cider presses online and scoped out trees surrounded by windfall on our daily walks. Then I realized we'd need a fruit grinder as well as a press, upping the financial commitment. The fantasies of neighborhood cider went dormant.
Last week, my TikTok feed offered up a video of the astrophysicist Katie Mack talking about dark matter. Most of the universe is made up of dark matter, she says, and because it is matter it exerts gravity. But dark matter doesn't do electromagnetism. It doesn't interact with light, so we can't see it, and it doesn't interact with the atoms in our bodies, so we can't touch it. "There's probably a heck of a lot of dark matter passing through you right now," she adds.
The thought made me queasy for a few seconds, and then as I sat with it, a feeling of porousness grew, as if some part of me could feel the dark matter flowing through and around my own matter, altering each other's trajectories even though we couldn't sense the other's presence. Perhaps, I thought, dark matter was simply matter the conscious universe forgot.
So much of what we have forgotten flows through us. Every second we're alive, we forget most of the sensory information we're taking in, allowing our brains to create a narrative that sustains us. And yet all that forgotten life exerts a gravitational pull, too. Sometimes it even butts into our conscious lives. Some shitty comment I made in 1996 stabs me, urging me not to mess up in that way again. The sludge lurking in a forgotten jar of juice patiently, quietly transforms cider into the vinegar I trusted—hoped—it would become.
The white froth cap, when I lifted it off, turned out to be a solid puck of dolphin-smooth SCOBY instead of mold. The vinegar underneath tasted brighter and more floral than Bragg's, its sourness diffuse but clean and sharp. I decanted it into a stoppered bottle, reserving a quarter-cup to mix with minced shallots, whole-grain mustard, and a blend of toasted-walnut oil and olive oil for salad. Good job, Past Jonathan, I said to myself when I tasted it, though the credit wasn't mine to claim.
Lovely, I sometimes find projects of craft I have started and forgot about them for lack of time or material and sometimes I finish them. The memory of how it started and what sparked the idea is a fond one that sometimes leads to other projects in the future. I belive time goes in a spiral way to connect past, present and future, and brings us interesting surprises in life.
Jonathan, Thank you for this lovely newsletter. You brought back memories of cider making on a friend's farm in Maine, images of our own freezer filled with frosty tubs of mysterious, past but still tasty, meals, and an article I read last week in the NYT about the importance of forgetting. Also a yearning for some of that salad dressing you describe at the end. I hope we get to see you in person soon. --Liza