Storytelling is a cornerstone of the humanities. Stories transmit knowledge and explain the world and our place in it; they mirror and reinforce culture. Stories communicate lessons and they entertain.
Stories make us human.
My favorite stories don’t come from literature or theater. The ones I like to tell and hear are ones shared around the holiday table, at the bar, around the campfire, or visiting with a neighbor across the fence. There are many categories of these types of conversational stories: the ghost story, the “how I met your mother/father” story, the coming out story, the “it’s a small world” story.
But one of my favorite genres of stories, a version of which I’ve heard often enough that it deserves its own sub-genre, is the “once I tried making homemade wine” story.
These stories go something like this: someone (often underage) intentionally ferments something (grape juice, cherries, even dandelions) to make alcohol (usually contraband). Often the vinification takes place in the back of a closet or under a bed. These stories typically involve an explosion or hallucinatory drunkenness.
Here is my contribution to the subgenre. When I was in college, I tried to make rhubarb wine. I don’t remember where I got the rhubarb, but I filled an Igloo cooler nearly to the top with chopped stems. I added a few pounds of sugar and a handful of brewer’s yeast tablets (which I learned later are just vitamins). I added boiling water, locked the lid with the cooler’s handle, and waited.
I imagine I’ve told this story about once a year for twenty-five years, usually when the topics of rhubarb or bootlegging come up. For a quarter of a century, my story concludes with the Igloo cooler exploding under the pressure of the vegetal hooch. The climax usually elicits laughter and back slapping.
But it’s not true.
My concoction didn’t blow up. It just turned into a frothy, tart Robitussin-like syrup too gross to consume. It didn’t detonate, I dumped it in the bushes.
I don’t know why I chose to embellish the story. And I don’t know why I failed to include the most interesting detail—the recipe.
The recipe I used was a poem.
Ted Kooser, the 13th U.S. Poet Laureate penned my recipe in the form of a poem called “How to Make Rhubarb Wine.” The poem offers little in terms of measurements except “you need ten pounds [of rhubarb]; a grocery bag packed full will do it.” I had to ad-lib the rest but followed closely the instructions of harvesting the stalks barefoot and “fuzzy with beer.” I’m sure I followed the advice to take a nap.
There are a few lessons here. First, it’s okay not to end a story with an eruption. Second, it’s okay to start a story with a poem, preferably a wine-soaked poem. And finally, it’s okay to change a story—after all, we change as people.
Poems don’t make good recipes, but they can ferment a good story.