This past August, sometime in the middle of the hot month, my vinegar mother died. That was the gelatinous lump of good bacteria that had formed in the bottom of my vinegar jar and produced excellent vinegar from red wine odds and ends for 18 years. The wonderful vinegar mother had been created, after several failed attempts, at a house my husband and I rented, along with a ton of other people, in Riverhead, Long Island. We were a sometimes high-strung, volatile group, so I often looked for escapist projects, and making vinegar, along with constructing spun-caramel domes, and growing wild Calabrian mint, was one of them.
I first tried making vinegar by simply pouring wine into a mason jar and leaving it on the porch, lightly covering the top of the jar with a slashed-up cloth so it got plenty of air. If there was active yeast in the wine, the enzymes in the atmosphere would help form a mother. My grandfather used to do this, so I knew it could work. Mine didn’t. The wine just soured, and no Jell-O lump developed. A lively red wine vinegar mother looks like a slab of raw calf’s liver, so that’s what I was waiting to see. Over-pasteurization or crappy Long Island air could have been the problem.
Coincidentally, around the time I first began my vinegar making project, I happened to purchase a copy of Giuliano Bugialli’s Classic Techniques of Italian Cooking, a book of traditional, proper, mostly Tuscan recipes, which also includes photos that look like they could have been shot in Renaissance Florence. It shows you how to reconstruct a cooked, boned pheasant, feathers included. Fascinating, but unless I’m hired as a food stylist for a movie on the life of the Medicis, I’m not sure I’ll ever bother. One thing in the book that was extremely interesting to me at the time was Bugialli’s advice for making homemade vinegar. Adding the crumbled insides of a slice of good Italian bread to the wine will introduce yeast that can help form the mother. That’s what Mr. Bugialli said, and wouldn’t you know, it worked like a dream. I was so excited that I couldn’t stop talking about it, producing much above-it-all eye rolling from most of my housemates. But I was making the best red wine vinegar I had ever tasted. When the summer was over I took my precious vinegar jar back to the city with me, no regrets.
Being my first and only vinegar mother, it was special to me. And when this August, after so many years of faithful service, I first noticed a buildup of brown, crystallized crud around the lid of my vinegar jar, I became worried. But the vinegar still tasted good, so I didn’t sweat it. Then a few weeks later, to my horror, I saw that the mother had completely broken up and disintegrated, leaving what was now a jar of dark, murky, almost opaque liquid that smelled like nail polish remover. I was heartbroken. I came to the conclusion that my stifling hot August kitchen had been just too much for the grand lady, so she had expired way before her time. I should have prevented it, but since she had made it through 17 city summers unruffled, I hadn’t put much thought into this past year’s intermittently broiling weather and my excessive use of grill pans and other sweltering cooking techniques. I puttered around the Internet looking for remedies, trying a few suggestions such as adding broken spaghetti or sugar to the jar, but the thing was too far gone. I could have just started fresh right away, attempting a new vinegar mother with new bread and new wine, but this was the original, a highly sentimental thing for me. I struggled to bring her back to life, but nothing worked, so I finally threw the murky mess down the drain and decided I needed a period of mourning before starting up again.
In November I happened to be making dinner at my mother’s apartment (not my vinegar mother’s, my biological mother’s). While dressing a salad with a little bottle of vinegar she still had from my last batch, before tragedy had hit, I noticed that her bottle had formed a vinegar mother of its own, a mother spawned from my original vinegar mother, probably because some alcohol or excess sugar had been left in the batch. There it was, a dark red gelatinous disk at the bottom of her decanter. Well, needless to say, I was ecstatic. “Can I have this?,” I asked my biological mother. “Be my guest,” she said, not really understanding what I was asking her for. So I poured what remained of her vinegar into another container, hurried home with my mother clone, and immediately began setting up a new jar, hoping it would take and knowing that if it did, my original vinegar mother would live on.
I topped it with half bottles of Nero d’Avola and Côtes du Rhône wine and let it sit near the window, a place that was pleasantly cool but not drafty. After about two and a half weeks I began getting whiffs of a good vinegar smell when I entered the kitchen, but a closeup sniff told me it wasn’t quite there yet. After another week I smelled it again, and it seemed perfect. And the taste was beautiful, exactly as it had been. Hallelujah. My vinegar mother was resurrected. I’ll never neglect her again.