Aside from kitchen projects as a kid that involved baking soda and vinegar, my science studies were woefully average. I remember taking part in a few dissections, pressing Texas native wildflowers into my own book and even making a pickle glow. Imagine that! But nothing could have prepared me for a lesson I learned late last year, an experience I have now come to call the Creature From The Black Lagoonish-Pantry Cabinet.
If you came over to my house you’d find more bottles of vinegars and oils than you could ever possibly need. Samples, remnants from photo shoots, and gorgeous vinegars made in small batches I’ve bought from all over all fight for space on two shelves, but in an effort to make space I decided to use up as much vinegar as I could. Reductions, sauces, dressings, drizzled on berries, even in martinis, if I could find a way to use it I tried.
Until that one bottle.
After cooking a casual dinner of a few steaks with a vinegar reduction and roasted fingerlings, I began to clean the kitchen and grabbed the almost empty bottle to toss out.
And then I saw it.
Something moved from within. Something slithered around as I shook the bottle, and after I moved the opening closer to my eyes I saw it. I was face to face with the blob.
The blob I ate.
Slimy, fleshy, and segmented with large, bloody lobes like a piece of organ meat, I felt suddenly clammy and afraid. Very afraid. I swore that there would be a small alien tearing its way out of my stomach in about 8 to 12 hours, only after it had taken over my thoughts and found my human body was no longer needed. After gestation it would rip itself out of me during my weekly advertising meeting, shaking and flailing its way across the room, spraying blood everywhere until it latched itself onto the face of one of my buyers. After that it would roll off, scurry across the floor and out the door and proceed to terrorize Los Angeles.
I instantly served my guests more wine. I figured it would kill the invader living inside all of us. I kept glancing at the clock, waiting to die, but nothing.
I politely excused myself and went into my office. I updated my will online and googled “Death From Alien Blobs Inside Vinegar Bottles” but found nothing. I didn’t know what to do or who to call as it was a late Sunday evening, and then it hit me.
No, not the blob. Zingerman’s.
Zingerman’s, located in Ann Arbor, is one of my favorite delis in the world. I would use any excuse possible to make it there when I lived in Chicago, and if you’ve been there you know why. They know food. They know condiments and specialty cheeses, and if they couldn’t help me then I was surely a goner.
I dug up the email address of an old contact and immediately fired off the email.
Subj: My Impending Death, please respond ASAP”
I sent my email and cried myself to sleep. I left notes for my parents, picked out my favorite suit for the mortuary along with directions (light foundation and a kiss of gloss, please) and figured I had a pretty good run on this planet. I felt sorry for the crime scene investigators though, we’ve all seen what happens when aliens pop out of bellies.
To my surprise I woke up at 6am– intact and feelin’ mighty fine. So far so good. I ran to the computer to see if Zingerman’s could save me.
Ah! I can imagine your surprise. It is rather gruesome if you don’t know what it is. But no, you won’t die and you won’t walk around like Donald Sutherland. What you found is called Mother of Vinegar, and you should actually consider yourself lucky to have it. It’s a harmless slime composed of yeast and acetic acid bacteria. It’s the starter for vinegar, much like starter for sourdough bread. Don’t toss her out. She’s good. You’ll be just fine.”
Well holy mother of vinegar, my blob is a good thing?
I clenched my chest, the sensation of relief passed over me as if I had been holding my breath for 24 hours. I was alive and I was going to be ok! At that point my brain ran through the process of making vinegar, and while I knew it took bacteria to transform the sugars in alcohol or juice into vinegar, I thought it was some happy little white powder that arrived on the wings of small flying pixies–not some gelatinous monster that caused me to freak out.
My mother of vinegar went back into a glass jar along with a small bit of high quality leftover wine from dinner (don’t ask me how that happened) and back into the cupboard. I actually forgot about her for the past 7 months until yesterday when I went to find some preserved lemons. There she was, as blobular as ever, quietly sitting resting on the bottom of the jar. I opened it up, but this time I was looking forward to seeing her again, remembering the kind words from Zingerman’s. There she was, doing what she does best, turning my wine into sweet, aromatic vinegar. A quick taste told me everything was on track, and in a few months I’ll use her hard work in a few recipes and perhaps give her a new job with a whole new bottle of red wine. And next May not only will I be sending a Mother’s Day card to my mom in Texas, but I’ll be sure to slip a small note inside my cupboards to let my other Mother know how truly appreciated she is.
Even if she scared the shit out of me.