8. ALYSSA MAYUMI - February 8, 2018
It’s a freezing Thursday morning, and I’m stamping my feet, my hands buried in my armpits, as I wait outside Alyssa’s apartment building. My breath puffs up in front of my face, the sky is bright blue with a few clouds streaking its surface, as the early sun coats everything in a bleached yellow light.
I’ve meet Alyssa a couple times, usually running into her at Saison or Rosewood, sharing drinks or perusing racks of clothes with friends we have in common. For a while I’ve admired her effusive personality, her boldness, her timeless-looking, yet somehow effortlessly modern, style. We’ve talked before about documenting the process of making ferments — pickles and sauerkraut — which has become an important part of her life, and only now has it finally worked out with both of our schedules. She’s also a writer, and has recently started a blog which works to tackle issues of communication and racial division.
Alyssa’s apartment is nestled in the heart of Shockoe Bottom, set up at the foot of Church Hill, a large converted factory-turned-lofts. It’s modern-looking inside — stark white walls, cement floors, rustic metal light fixtures — and she welcomes me in, leading me into an elevator that take us up to the apartment she shares with her partner, Nathan.
It is sparsely, but beautifully, decorated. Everything in the room looks repurposed or handmade, brought back from times past. Two framed hand-tinted photos of Nathan’s great-grandparents sit on the roughly hewn wooden coffee table, a shade-less glass oil lamp occupies a side table, an empty Café Bustelo can houses wood blanks that Nathan brought home to be made into chopsticks. “I’m not the main decorator,” Alyssa tells me. She explains that her and Nathan moved into this apartment in August, but a few of Nathan’s boxes of decor still sit in the hallway and she says, smiling, “Every time he’s gone I grab something else out of a box and put it out.” She tells me that Nathan is a wood worker, and points to the coffee table and nightstand that he made for them, before offering me tea and a plate of chocolate chip cookies.
I sit down at the tall kitchen counter while she busies herself with cleaning and prepping the kitchen area. Two large windows send light streaming into the kitchen. They’re fogged up with the heat of the room against the iciness of the air outside, but if they weren’t, you’d be able to see the entire Richmond skyline — the main street train station, the MVC building set against the blue sky. Alyssa sets some water to boil, and begins to gather the things she needs for the sauerkraut. She talks as she moves about the space, explaining how she grew up in Fairfax — “typical suburbs” — and moved to Richmond when she started school at VCU. “I stayed because I really liked it here,” she tells me. “I never felt like I could be my true self in Fairfax. People would always tell me I was ‘so weird and so artsy,’ so it’s nice to feel a little more normal and a little less like I stand out here.”
Alyssa explains that she graduated from VCU last summer, after majoring in English. “I was gonna do creative advertising, but I hated it,” she says, shaking her head. “My favorite thing in life is translating — not words from one language to another, but ideas and thoughts,” she tells me. Alyssa pulls red cabbage from the fridge and grabs a large mason jar from a cabinet behind her. “I think that communication is the most special thing about being human,” she says, as she assembles her ingredients in front of her on the counter. Her long, dark brown hair settles around her face, reaching almost to her waist. She gently swings it over her shoulders as she bends over the cutting board, cutting the vibrant purple head of cabbage in half.
I asked her when she started the process of pickling and she tells me that she began experimenting with it about 4 years ago. “Humans have been eating ferments for so long,” she says. “And we have all these health issues now, we’re lacking a lot of probiotics in our diets.” She heads over to the large white metal cabinet behind her and picks out a few different spices from the shelves. “I love to say that I like the ‘authentic way’ of making ferments myself, but it really just stems from it being the cheap way,” she says, smiling. All you truly need to make sauerkraut, she explains, is salt, a jar, and a head of cabbage. There are lots of different things you can add to it, but those three things are the basis of the operation. “I like to add caraway — the seeds give it that really tasty flavor,” she tells me.
Alyssa grabs a grater and a bowl and begins to drag one half of the head of cabbage along the grater, small shredded bits of it dropping into the glass bowl. “Shredding is really the way to go,” she says, explaining how scientific the process is. She tells me how she read an entire book on making sauerkraut before she started on her first batch. “I really messed up that first one,” she tells me, laughing. “It smelled really funky. I mean, sauerkraut is supposed to stink a little, but I knew it was not right.” Luckily, she explains, it’s one of those things that’s really easy to correct and there are a whole bunch of ways to salvage it. She tells me that it takes a while to ferment, about a few weeks. It has to be in the perfect environment in order to ferment without molding — not too hot, not too cold — and in a place that doesn’t get a ton of direct sunlight. “A cellar would be ideal,” Alyssa says. She explains that you would originally make sauerkraut in the summer or fall in order to have stores of it throughout the winter when food was scarcer. “Nowadays you can kind of make it whenever,” she tells me, shrugging her shoulders.
She continues with the grating process, and I take a few photos of her, floating around the kitchen while she works. I ask her more about why she decided to learn how to make ferments herself and she tells me about her and her partner’s dream to live off the grid, in a rural area, to be self-sufficient, self-sustaining. “We like doing things the old way, the hard way,” she tells me. “It’s something we both wanted before we ever lived together.”
She tells me that she began the acquisition of different skills almost as a sort of hobby in and of itself — a way to prepare for a life outside of modern comforts. She’s currently teaching herself how to sew, how to carve, and how to play the harmonica — “That’s the hardest one,” she tells me, laughing as she explains how difficult it is to make your mouth do the right thing. “I used to get down on myself at first for learning new things later on in life, but then I realized how important it is to keep learning and growing,” she says. “I feel like I have so much power at my fingertips when I can do stuff like this.” She explains how learning skills has become so addictive. After growing up surrounded by tangible wealth, gaining these skills has become “a sort of wealth in itself” for her, arming her with knowledge, preparing her for self-sufficiency.
Most of the cabbage is shredded now, the glass bowl filled about halfway with a mess of purple and white, staining the cutting board and Alyssa’s hands a bright purple. She gathers the scraps that aren’t worth shredding and adds them to a scrap container in her freezer for a future batch of homemade vegetable broth. She begins to sprinkle salt and caraway into the mixture in the bowl — “Once you put the salt in, it really starts to smell like sauerkraut,” she says. Alyssa tells me that she grew up in her grandparents’ house — “It was a Japanese house, so it always smelled a little funny,” she tells me, smiling as she describes the constant presence of cured fish, jars of pickled vegetables and plums, fermented soybeans. “Those tastes and smells aren’t just good to me, they’re really comforting,” Alyssa says.
She tells me the story of her family — how her great-grandmother met and married an air force officer from the US who was stationed in Japan after World War II. They moved to the city together after their daughter was born, working and sending money back to their family in the countryside. When Alyssa’s great-grandparents decided to move to the States, Alyssa’s grandmother had to beg them to take her too, and she moved to California at the age of 13, learning English from the television shows she watched. “She was attractive and young, it seemed like she had a lot of fun growing up there, even though I know it also had to be really difficult.”
Alyssa tells me that her grandmother also married an air force officer — Alyssa’s grandfather, a farmer from Vermont who “charmed” her. They got married, had 3 girls, and lived all over the world — California, Japan, Hawaii, Virginia — but decided to retire when their first granddaughter was born. “My mom had me when she was in high school,” Alyssa tells me, explaining how her biological father never played a large role in her life. “Our personalities are very similar — we’re both more social, more relaxed — which is strange since I didn’t grow up with him,” she says, explaining how her mother is a lot more “type A, more organized, and never wants her time to go to waste.”
“She always wants me to ‘make it snappy,’and ‘get to the point,’” Alyssa says, smiling and snapping her fingers, imitating her mother and laughing, swinging her hair behind her shoulders as she begins to knead the cabbage. “Now you gotta give it a little massage,” she says. She looks down at her work, at the purple-stained surfaces and smiles, telling me that the reason she likes to use purple cabbage is simply because it’s so pretty.
“My grandfather was the main male figure in my life,” Alyssa explains. “He’s very family-oriented and down-to-earth.” She tells me that his work with the military was very covert and secretive. He worked with Intelligence on a lot of secret projects, some of which have been made public in more recent years. “My grandpa has all these amazing stories — but he’s secretly a big mush,” she says. She tells me that her desire to live on a farm has made her grandfather really proud — a return to the ways of living that he left behind so long ago — “he calls me his little frontier woman, and it just makes me so happy,” Alyssa says.
The sauerkraut is beginning to weep as she mixes it and squeezes it, vibrant purple juice seeping from between her fingers and back into the bowl. While she works, I ask her about her blog, Finding My Way Black, which she recently started in January. “Everything is so divided and polarized, especially now,” she tells me. “I hate division, and it seems like communication and understanding are the best ways for us to heal and come together, which is what I want to get at with the blog.” She brings up an idea that some people stand behind, which argues that white people should not be allowed to enter into the conversation at all, which Alyssa says is entirely “counterproductive.” “I’m not insensitive, I don’t look down on people who want that, but you can’t just cut them out of your life if they don’t understand,” Alyssa says. “With two generations of a multi-racial family, do you want me to cut out my family? My friends? My lovers? Where does it end?” She shakes her head and says, “It’s so much more important to come together.”
She grabs the large mason jar and sets it next to the bowl on the cutting board, beginning to place handfuls of the weepy purple cabbage into the jar, one clump at a time, pouring the leftover juice in on top. “The cabbage needs to be completely submerged in the juice or else it’ll mold,” she says, and turns behind her to grab a few clear, glass paperweights which she carefully places in the jar, weighing down the cabbage until none of it is peeking above the waterline. As she begins to wrap up the process, we return to the subject of the rural farm. “I think it’s nice,” she says. “It’s a very simple dream, and it doesn’t ask a lot of other people.” I ask her where she envisions her and Nathan living. “We’ve talked about Shenandoah, or going out west, to Santa Barbara,” she says. “There’s something really attractive to me about West Virginia, and something really healing about the west coast.” Alyssa loosely screws the lid on the mason jar and places it on one of the kitchen shelves behind her, setting the dirtied knife and bowl in the sink, and beginning to wipe down the purple-stained surfaces.
I take a few photos of her in the center of the lit-up space, and she poses with her newly made jar of sauerkraut, with the wooden spoon she recently carved. She laughs often and easily, her curls swinging around her, haloing her stark white button-up. She tells me that she wants to try and smile in more of her pictures, and beams into the camera, laughing a little. She looks comfortable in her skin, with herself, with me. We say goodbye and I pack up my things and she gives me a hug, and I head back out into the cold, happy for the warmth.
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