The SCOBY Schism

Several of us here at the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition recently had the pleasure of reviewing submissions for our annual Christine Wilson Award. Winners have been selected and will be recognized at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association. It is common to say all the submissions were great, but, in fact, they were and we want to call attention to that fact by publishing abstracts of all submissions. We are starting with a paper that reflects on the growing enthusiasm for fermentation in the U.S. and, in this case, the intersection of biology and culture encountered in the world of kombucha brewing. Erika Kelly, who is an undergraduate, wrote a paper that demonstrated a grasp of the relevant literature one might expect from a graduate student and that raised great questions about the home fermentation movement. Her paper’s abstract is below.

 The SCOBY Schism: Rethinking Self and Space with Home-Brewed Kombucha

Erika L. Kelly
The University of Chicago

Over the past ten years fermentation, specifically the making of kombucha, has experienced an upsurge in the U.S., especially among health enthusiasts and food activists. Portrayed as a lifestyle by its practitioners, kombucha-making is supported both as a means of returning to culinary and ecological roots and as a product of modern nutritional science knowledge.

Kombucha Culture Up Close. Photo by Erika Kelly.

Online social media platforms surrounding the practice reveal that kombucha is highly variable due to the biological liveliness of the beverage. Practitioners use these social media sites to collaborate, sharing and receiving experiential knowledge that guides their practice. In my paper, I explore why the upsurge of kombucha-making in contemporary U.S. homes persists, as told through these platforms, as well as how this food practice functions differently than other methods of food production and eating in the U.S. (Katz 2006; Latour 1988; Mintz 1996). I trace the discourse of fermentation communities on various Internet blogs and social forums, as well as in printed texts. I also incorporate images and narrative, reflecting the multifaceted sites in which this practice appears. Through these means, I analyze the upsurge of kombucha-making as a lifestyle, as depicted by practitioners, and how this lifestyle rethinks the self and home in the context of contemporary U.S. food industry (Kaika 2004; Rabinow 1992). Ultimately, I argue that by welcoming bacteria and yeast into their bodies and homes, practitioners emphasize the sociopolitical potential of microorganisms (Paxon 2008; Power 2009; Tsing 2012). Home fermentation and its bacterial basis incite new trans-corporeal, interactive modes of living that call for deeper consideration of the natural world, the past, and the future (Abrahamsson and Bertoni 2014; Alaimo 2010; Tuana 1996).


Abrahamsson, Sebastian, and Filippo Bertoni

2014    Compost Politics: Experimenting with Togetherness in Vermicomposting. Environmental Humanities 4: 125–148.

Alaimo, Stacey

2010    Bodily Natures. In Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Bodily Self Pp. 1–25. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Kaika, Maria

2004    Interrogating the Geographies of the Familiar: Domesticating Nature and Constructing the Autonomy of the Modern Home. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 28(2): 265–86.

Katz, Sandor Ellix

2006    The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved:  Inside America’s Underground Food Movements. White River Junction: Chelsea Publishing.

Latour, Bruno

1988    The Pasteurization of France. Translated by Alan Sheridan and John Law.  Harvard University Press.

Mintz, Sidney W.

1996    Eating American. In Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom Pp. 106–124. Boston: Beacon Press.

Paxon, Heather

2008    Post-Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States. Cultural Anthropology 23(1): 15–47.

Power, Emma R.

2009    Domestic Temporalities: Nature Times in the House-as-Home. Geoforum 40: 1024–1032.

Rabinow, Paul

1992    Artificiality and Enlightenment: From Sociobiology to Biosociality. In Zone 6: Incorporations. Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter, eds. Pp. 234–252. Canada: Bradbury Tamblyn and Boorne Ltd., distributed by MIT Press.

Tsing, Anna

2012    Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species. Environmental Humanities 1: 141–154.

Tuana, Nancy

1996    Fleshing Gender, Sexing the Body: Refiguring the Sex/Gender Distinction. The Southern Journal of Philosophy XXXV, Supplement: 53–71.


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