This is our first guest post from Forgetting, a frequent commenter here at Wheat and Tares.
Microbes are the most often overlooked aspect of the Word of Wisdom. Not only are microbes there in the spirit of the principle, but they are mentioned in the text both plainly and also somewhat obscurely. Fermentation is the product of microbial action in the form of yeast and bacterial communities. Ferments, or products of fermentation, are mentioned a total of five or six times in the Word of Wisdom, depending how you count things. The first and the last mentioned ferments are the most obvious, and are both recommended by the Lord: wine for our sacrament and mild barley and grain drinks, or as we commonly call it, beer. The other ferments, save one, we would say, have been placed on our ’thou shall not’ list. Setting wine aside for a bit, I would like to offer some thoughts about beer and the other ferments found in D&C 89.
Beer, in all of its forms and varieties, is one of the oldest and most common ferments found world wide. Not only was it used in ritual and ceremony historically, it has long been a staple of the human diet. The yeasts and particulate material found in healthy beer, meaning unfiltered or partially filtered beers that have not been pasteurized, are important to digestive health and have historically been an important source of daily nutritional intake. Fortunately, given the counsel of modern leaders, and the common understanding that the Word of Wisdom forbids all alcohol, these yeasts can be found in other sources. The particulate matter found in beer and wine however, is rich in nutrients and other elements which are harder, and ultimately less resource and cost effective, to obtain from other sources. It is unfortunate that we are not mature enough to maintain non-addictive, and healthy consumer attitudes towards some of the richer things in life, like beer. Our leaders’ counsel might be timely, but it hasn’t always been this way for us as a church community, and maybe someday we will be at the point again when some of these other recommendations of the Word of Wisdom can be possible. A good dose of hops, found in higher concentrations in ale, with its herbal properties that help calm and bring serenity, would do a lot of our brothers (and maybe sisters) good. I mean that in both a lighthearted and serious way. Hops really are an excellent treatment for depression, anxiety, dementia, and other trying burdens. Issues we face in increasing numbers in the Church community. It doesn’t have to be obtained from beer, hops as an herbal supplement is always an option, although some studies indicate that it is more readily absorbed into the body when found in beers and ciders.
Strong drink, the one alcohol in the text that the Lord directly forbids the drinking of, which makes excellent cleaner by the way, is distilled. All of its life and sustenance is removed. In this way it is and is not a ferment. It’s interesting, we have started doing a similar thing to our beers; pasteurization of beer is recent in historical terms. Sometimes the most obvious, intoxication, might not be the only reason the Lord, through the modern leaders, cautions us. Many beers (beer, stouts, ales, etc., the whole family) in production are really unhealthy: GMO grains, high fructose corn syrup and sugar alcohol added, yeast filtered, no nutrition. Beer was a large part of the nutritional intake for a lot of human history, sometimes it was vital. Maybe it isn’t only what we do with it, but what we have done to it. When it is produced and consumed this way there is no value in its consumption other than for our selfish pleasures.
Tobacco isn’t just a dried herb, but the curing process includes fermentation. It most likely has its ancient origins in the Andean region of South America, from where its cultivation and ritual use spread north and to the Pacific Islands and Australia. Like its cousin, the potato, (also likely originating from the Andes), it is a member of the nightshade family, Solanaceae. Tobaccos are from the genus Nicotiana. From pre-contact times to the 1700s tobacco served primarily religious, ritual, and medicinal ends. Tobacco is not just smoked, though this is the most common method of ingestion, some tribes ferment tobacco juice, or mix ‘green’ tobacco juice with other fermented beverages. It is also rolled into wads and sucked or masticated slowly. A traditional, and respectful, gift or token offered to a tribal elder, shaman, or medicine person (most North American tribes prefer this term), would be a bundle or little bag of tobacco.
The most common form of tobacco use world wide today is cigarettes. The modern production methods for cigarette tobacco often short cut the fermentation process and then add chemicals to not only reproduce a ‘fermented’ quality, but also to give the cigarette smoking experience (extra nicotine and addictive chemicals for a ‘better high’).
Most teas come from the Camellia Sinensis plant. Fermentation can begin as early as the withering process (the only fermentation white tea experiences), and is often stopped by pan frying or steaming. The general rule is the darker the tea, the more fermentation the leaves have undergone. Green teas are very lightly fermented, while the slightly darker teas like Oolong and Ti-Kuan Yin are more heavily fermented. Black teas are fully fermented. Tea is used ritually and religiously through-out Asia, in a variety of settings, and with just as many purposes. Most westerners have heard of Japanese tea ceremonies or the Chinese Gong-Fu. Tea, like tobacco in the Americas, plays an important role in tribal life. Bricks, or blocks of compressed tea, travel well for nomadic cultures like those still found in Siberia and Mongolia, and in a similar way to tobacco in the west, a gift of a brick or small box of tea would be traditional, sometimes expected, when meeting elders or shamans.
The last ferment is harder to find, is allowed, and is consumed daily by nearly everyone. In relation to grain, the ‘staff of life’ is mentioned. This points our minds to bread, a baked ferment. This needs no explanation.
Outside of the ones mentioned in the Word of Wisdom, other forms of ferments also play important cultural and ritual roles. Here are a few other examples: Chicha, comes in two forms. It can be a modern version of the ancient Incan corn beer, or it is also a very different fermented beverage for tribes of the Amazon region of South America. For these tribes it is a fermented beverage made from manioc/cassava/yuca root, which is first chewed down to a pulp by the tribal women. Japanese Sake, which is used in Shinto purification rites and weddings, is a rice wine produced by a process more similar to brewing beer. Kimchee or kimchi (to please all crowds) is such an important part of Korean life that the first most wanted kitchen appliance is a kimchee refrigerator. There is of course Poi, which is also a ferment; that’s why Tutu likes it sour. Poi is made by pounding the root of the sacred Kalo (Taro) plant to a paste that is left to sit for a few days. Poi is not only used in ritual feasts or Luaus. It also has a sacred role in the most important ritual of all, the family meal.
In a special class of their own are three last ferments worth mentioning. Each is not only a product of fermentation used ritually, but each began as products of animal labor, and then were fermented. To Christians, these products can also contain additional symbolic values, as they are ferments produced from milk and honey. Mead, fermented honey and water, was often an important part of ritual observance in northern Europe. As Christianity replaced many of the old religions in this region, the ritual use of mead was slowly lost except for a few scattered hold-outs where it is still used in ritual today. Mead, in ritual, is often served in or tied to the symbol of the horn, something we saints might find interesting, given Christianity and Judaism’s symbolic use of the horn. In Siberia, Mongolia, and Central Asia there is Kumis or Airag, a fermented mares milk. In some Dharmic religions, and in particular Hinduism, yogurt sweetened with honey, or lassi, is also used in religious rituals. Lassi’s can also be found on the menu of your favorite Indian restaurant.
It all adds up to an interesting pattern, and in my mind increases the richness and beauty of the Word of Wisdom. Each of the ferments I have mentioned also are an integral part of sacred ritual in various cultures throughout the world, even ours. We use two ferments ritually in our church, three if you count the luau’s at the Polynesian Cultural Center; and I do, it is ritual, paid for or not. Like the allowed, but not allowed beer, for those products we have been warned against, it might not just be the effects of use without constraint that can be a concern, it also might not be what we are doing to ruin the purity of these items. Maybe there is something sacred about them, symbolically or literally; they are life and alive. Each of the ferments, from beer to yogurt and everything in between are the products and gifts of living organisms. We partake of the fruit of their labors; just like milk, just like honey. That is beautiful to me. I hope someday the counsel will be different, and we saints will be able, or is it willing, to partake of more of the ferments mentioned in the Word of Wisdom.
Now, let us talk about the last ferment and living community, wine, and then tie it all together. Maybe this will deepen our appreciation of the Sacrament, the Word of Wisdom, and the Temple.
Community, we are the Body of Christ. When we partake of the sacrament we are participating in a communal ritual. We no longer use wine, but we can still hold the imagery in our minds. As I mentioned earlier, the ordinance of the Sacrament contains not only one, but two ferments. Both the bread, in it’s leavening agent, and the wine are the products of fermentation. The yeast in the bread is killed during the baking process, creating a very interesting symbol itself.
The wine though, it is different. Wine of our own make, as the Word of Wisdom recommends, and specifically new wine as D&C 27 indicates we should use, will always have living yeast in some amount. It is still a living organism and community. The first fermentations are performed in large casks and then after this stage it is bottled. Modern wines, when they are bottled with aging in mind, are often treated before this stage so that the majority of the yeast growth is permanently retarded. Any further fermentation after being bottled could spoil the wine or break the bottle, thus corks (or not putting new wine into old skins). Generally though by this point, it is not a concern, the main stages of fermentation would be over and a majority of the yeast would already be inactive or dormant as the sugars have been consumed. As the wine ages it becomes more rich and complex (a bit like Elder Bednar’s spiritual traction), but the yeast becomes more inactive and eventually dies. The more aged the wine, the less living yeast it contains. This is a very simple explanation, the whole process is complex and thoroughly fascinating though, and worth exploring. New wine is different from aged wine, and despite all of the definitions we like to use, one thing would remain consistent — new wine is always a living community.
Today, throughout the world, new wine is still produced under different names and in various degrees of fermentations. Some varieties are even sold cold in plastic bottles that are very similar to soda bottles with very low alcohol content. However, from the moment the grapes are crushed and the sugars released to make contact with all of the yeast living on the skin of the grape, fermentation begins, so even fresh crushed grape juice would technically (barely) be included in as new wine. It’s not only the alcohol in the wine that we should point to as the thing that sets it apart. We should also appreciate the life that is producing the fermentation. Fermentation can be seen as a symbol of the Spirit, sanctification, and preservation; the product is always greater than the component elements.
These yeasts, or cultures, are a community. You might have heard it said that when we partake of the bread it is the Body of Christ partaking of the body of Christ; mirrored back to us so to say. This image is more correct than most know. In the symbols of the bread and wine we can probe deeper and see the leaven and fermenting organisms as a community or body. When we partake of the bread, or the wine, we are having our community mirrored back to us in those very symbols. Each of the sacramental prayers are different in some very important ways. The differences in these prayers are also symbolically represented in these communities of yeast. In the bread, the yeast is dead, not only representing the death of Christ, but also corresponding to the nature of the first sacramental prayer. As we compare the two prayers, there is a beautiful promise given to us as we participate in both. The sacrament is a mercy and grace. The bread can point our minds to the law. Likewise the wine, or as we say of ours — living water (just as the wine is alive), to mercy and Spirit. We are taught that the law should be dead to us, and in the bread the yeast is dead. We are taught to live in the Spirit, and that is the final promise given to us, “Despite all you will do, you are weak and will still have faults. I know you can’t live up to all of these commandments. Remember me, my Spirit will be with you still.” It is a promise of life, just as the wine is alive.
Let us now add one last layer of images, this time from the temple. As we progress through the endowment we are given tokens and taught signs in relation to our covenants. One additional meaning can be added to these signs. I will let you see if you can perceive this, maybe you will. Progressing through the signs: a broken or incomplete cup or vessel, a broken or incomplete cup or vessel, something else (I will set your mind a riddle), and then ultimately a complete cup or vessel. There are then gestures indicating an invitation for that vessel to be filled. Again, just one way to see this. At the prayer circle we also participate in this imagery. An additional way to see the circle is as a community cup or vessel, and as a community we invite it to be filled, or maybe we are being invited to be filled. An individual and communal cup, reflecting back to us the image of our Sacrament: the individual and communal cup, a promise and invitation of the Spirit. Just like the Sacrament.