A Public Defense Of The Enthusiastic Beginner

It has come to my attention that some of the best voices on the internet – writers I admire and read and am dedicated to – would rather chew their own arms off than see another damned blog post about homemade yogurt.

Okay, I get it. It’s yogurt. Homemade yogurt is so done. Jams and pickles are passe. Even the charcuterie stuff is starting to make us twitchy. Some of us really have been doing the homemade yogurt and the homemade jam stuff for so long that it’s not exactly radical anymore. We’re not making a statement with our self-soured milk. It’s just our normal. We’re on to the bigger and more important issues like normalizing expectations and throwing light into the dark places and saving the world one stay-at-home mom at a time.

Within this context, another DIY yogurt blog has all the appeal of a Martha Stewart spread on how to host a rustic Thanksgiving in your custom built horse stables.

But consider: when we are beginners, we are all as small children who first run and, having learned, say, “Look what I can do, mommy! Look how fast I can go!”

What child has not felt in their beginner’s enthusiasm that their next leap might carry them off the ground altogether and into the realm of flight? And what adult, having long mastered running and having been nagged, “look at me!” a million times, hasn’t shaken their head in exasperation and brushed that beginner enthusiasm aside?

Both responses are normal, both understandable. But children learn they cannot fly and that others have run before them soon enough, and so I think killing the dream for flight too early serves no real purpose.

So today I write to defend the beginner. When an individual first scratches at the birthright of agrarian culture and begins to reclaim those individual skills that have made civilization possible, can we not allow her that “look at me!” moment? Can we pause before denigrating the beginner’s enthusiasm and allow that we all started somewhere, often far from where we are now? Can we perhaps shift our irritation to a sort of motherly pride that another kitchen is attempting its first fermentation? (“Awe, isn’t that cute? Maybe one day she’ll grow up to be a radical yogurt maker.”)

See, it’s not just yogurt, not really. The person who makes their first batch of homemade yogurt or jam, or ferments their first crock of pickles is overcoming the inertia of the normal, for doing these things ourselves is no longer normal in our society and our culture.

The beginner is pushing back on the expectation that every single fucking thing should be sold in a cute plastic single-serve container and be bought in a store that sells apples in May and blueberries in January and consistent milk all year long. They are resisting, and they are doing so at the very beginning, when resisting is uncomfortable and still takes effort.

The beginner is beginning. This is the point. They have before them a host of possibilities, an opportunity to make or remake themselves on a new journey. They stand on the trailhead of the possible, as children do. They may opt to turn right around, get back in their car and drive to the nearest Walmart for a bag of Cheetos. But then they may begin with yogurt, or pickles, or jam and move on to social critique.

Allow the beginner their enthusiasm for their yogurt or their jam, however tedious it may seem to the long eye of a thousand batches on. We cannot know where their trail will lead. After all that arm flapping and that “look at me, Ma, I can run!” business, can you be sure that, just for a moment, they might not fly?


  1. says

    Great post. I'm an "old pro" at some of the things I do, but I'm just a beginner at many others. I like the idea that I can cruise the blogosphere to find encouragement or write a blog post of my own in order to give encouragement. We all need it sometimes.

  2. says

    Although there are a few things that I feel like more of an old hand at, there are a lot of things where I'm still a beginner as well, and it is too exciting not to read about something, figure it out, and then share it sometimes. It's good to be excited, though, and I think it's vastly better than complaining or whining about what we do. So, thanks for writing in defense of those of us who are still figuring it out and vastly excited about what we're doing.

  3. Dreaming of Jeanie says

    THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS POST!!!!!! I've been trying this whole "make stuff yourself and garden" thing (the non-fancy way of saying self-sustainable) for a year now and I'm STILL a beginner. There is just so much to learn and do, and so very little time and money. I've been feeling a little put off lately by some blogs/people who seem to look down their noses at those of us who don't have livestock and can't make our own cheese (yet). It's very disheartening. And yes, I'm still very excited about my homemade crockpot yogurt.

  4. says

    There is always something new you can learn from a beginner even if you're an old pro. And if someone posts about yogurt making and has questions I'm always more than happy to answer them. I've never been sick of reading about people starting down this journey, but I guess the fact that some people do get annoyed doesn't surprise me.

  5. says

    even old hands can try it differently at times…making them a beginner again, I say as I transform my extra large balcony into a garden this year-my west facing superhot balcony in the summer.
    I toast your blog defending the beginners of the world!! life is to be explored, and I think it's better shared. also alters the social construct so more people will play with homemade yogurt-we still get a kick out of it at our house :)

  6. says

    My husband and I are somewhere in the middle of the path – we've been doing a lot of this stuff for long enough that we can hardly remember not doing it, but we're also continually trying new things. We've been keeping a little blog of our own for about 4 years or so, but even we just posted about our first batch of yogurt, last week in fact. Even though we mostly keep our blog as a personal journal, sometimes I feel like there's no point in writing when I know that so many are so far ahead of us. But then I think about how many people I actually know, in real life, who bake their own bread on a regular basis, or make yogurt, or butcher their own venison, or can produce from their gardens, and the answer is well, almost none. So I keep talking about our efforts to become producers rather than consumers, to make less of an impact on the environment, and to live with the seasons in hopes of inspiring at least some of my reluctant friends and family to try it out. We do forget that it can be really hard to overcome the momentum that keeps us walking the same old path – and it is a big deal when someone stops and decides to go another direction! It's also easy to get caught up in the movement and forget that it's not a competition – isn't the goal of any movement, and the reason we all want to share it, so that as many people as possible will jump in? How can we expect society to change in the fundamental ways we hope for without as many people taking part as possible?

  7. says

    In Thomas Jefferson's letter to Charles Wilson Peale who had just retired from the city to a farm, he commented that "No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden." Wow. I've never read it or heard it said better.

    He finished his letter with the now famous "But though an old man, I am but a young gardener." I hope we never get too sophisticated, too full of ourselves, too selfish that we cannot relive the thrill of that first tomato, the passion of that first loaf of homemade bread (without using a damn bread machine!) or the satisfaction of saying to someone, "Look what I've done."

    I hope we can all stay "young gardeners."

    I salute your support of the beginner. Here's to flying….

  8. says

    So very well said, Erica! Frankly, what is the point of blogging at all if not to be part of something bigger? I began blogging to gain a sense of community, and to share my experiences as I learn new skills – if we can't revel in the little joys that come with learning, I'd say we've lost our lust for living. Kudos to the beginner… I'm still one, too!

  9. says

    Thanks for the vote of confidence! (Having just made a blog post about yogurt.) Now, it wasn't my first time making it, and I was running the numbers on cost at the request of one of my commenters, (and discovering/offering a tweak in the process) but I can see how one of the old hands might have scoffed. Nonetheless, most of my readers are people who might not otherwise do things until I suggest that it's just not that hard. (At least, that's what they tell me.)

    Even though I've been doing this (baking bread, washing stuff, going non-toxic, gardening, etc. etc.) for nigh-on 15 years, sometimes the world actually DOES need another post on yogurt. b/c maybe lots of us have seen it all, but there's millions of people out there who haven't. And a beginner may be just who they need for encouragement. :)

  10. says

    All of us have something we have not done (yet) so, in one way or another, we are all beginners at something. The more we read, the more we learn about possibilities and the more we're willing to try.

    I may have canned dozens of kinds of jellies, jams, marmalades; fermented lots of different kinds of kimchi; learned to make my own vinegar and liqueurs; cooked in my solar ovens; but I haven't made yogurt yet.

    My one attempt was a bust and I just haven't gotten around to trying it again. When I do, if I succeed, I WILL be posting about it. At least it will have a slight twist since it will be soy yogurt. :)

  11. Lisa says

    I had dinner with 'Very Important Sommeliers'. I like wine, I'm a bit of a geek, I like to learn about stuff I geek out about. Here was the perfect opportunity, right? Me, "Very Important Sommeliers", Italian food, and lots of bottles of wine being pulled out from bags and oversized purses. This is going to be uh-mazing, right?

    So the first wine gets poured, and I swirl and sniff, sip and swish. And I think, Huh, that's nice- berries, spice, maybe a little raisin and it's all smooth and velvety, but not like huge and Napa more like elegant and French. I'd buy a bottle of this.

    I go in for another sip and VIS #1 says, It's materized. VIS #3 says, You're right. The others agree. My glass is literally pulled out of my hand as I'm putting it to my mouth. (I had to pull out my phone to Wikipedia 'materized').

    Next glass comes. I find it quite nice, but am told by VIS #5 that it's 'over'. He politely shakes his head when I go in for a fourth sip, gently presses the stem down until the glass is back on the table. Next glass, again, nice. VIS #4 sighs deeply and shakes his head, No, this one is dead. Next bottles, in order: Corked, on the verge of corked, not a good example of the vine, too young to appreciate, and (my favorite), F*cked.

    All those VIS- they’re drinking all this nice, totally acceptable, often delightful wine, and all they find are the flaws, race to point it out, then wallow in the disappointment. They are not having fun. In fact are sucking the fun out of the room.

    This is exactly the kind of attitude that people that are beginning a love affair with anything- wine, food, jogging, stamp collecting- hate. It’s why people like us (food industry, foodie bubble, whatever the label) get branded as pretentious snobs. Anyone that is serious about educating the next wave of enthusiasts needs to keep it in mind. Yeah, sometimes we get tired of yogurt, but someone else isn’t. Don’t suck the fun adventure of learning out of the room.

  12. Be Grim says

    Ha ha..as I was reading through your essay, I kept waiting to get to the part about how to make that yogurt! I laugh because I'm a decades-seasoned kitchen DIY-er, but I have yet to make my own yogurt. I've recently been wanting to make some goat's milk yogurt, as the yummy stuff in the store is priced like gold.
    I actually enjoy reading posts about things I already know how to do; sometimes I'll learn a new trick or twist to try out.

  13. says

    For everyone who (like me) had to look it up after reading Lisa's comment:

    Heat is another destructive force exerted on wine, usually as a result of bad storage. When one says a wine is "maderized," it has been literally baked (this often happens in the holds of cargo ships as they cross the oceans in summertime). It actually tastes like Madeira and is reminiscent of almonds and candied fruits — admirable qualities in dessert wines but unacceptable in dry wines. You may also notice, in the unopened bottle, that the cork is pushed partly out of the neck (due to expansion within).
    (from http://nymag.com/restaurants/articles/wine/essentials/badwine.htm)

  14. says

    @Lisa – I think you might have run in to a bad case of Self Inflation Through Condemnation, a condition that sadly seems all to common in wine circles. You need to hang out with more brewers, we are a much more cheerful lot.

  15. says

    Woot! Thanks for a great post – pointing out that we can take ourselves a little too seriously (whatever our passion) is refreshing to read. Love your blog :-)

  16. says

    As a cranky voice of the internet let me clarify.

    A- We love beginners we just know that nothing in this life is new and an occasional bout of humility does no one harm. Be happy, be proud. Just don't think you invented something.

    B- We love seeing others in the movement use the word "fuck" so eloquently and freely in a sentence. That might be the truest sign that a fun ass ferment (as in revolution) is underfoot.

  17. says

    thanks for defending the beginner. we've all been there. love the parent child metaphor. so apropos. even the most seasoned amongst us is a beginner with something.

  18. says

    Grrr… can I just say that I have no love for blogger? I just typed (a probably way too wordy) comment that totally got lost. *sigh*

    Anyway. I love that you used yogurt as your example, Erica. I've been learning to make yogurt for the first time, and while, like others have already said, I may be further along the path on somethings, there are many things I'm still a beginner at. An expert might have laughed hearing me tell my mom on the phone in amazement that yogurt is made from… yogurt!??! lol.

    To Harriet's point about humility, I know for me, in the beginning, I knew NO one who was even thinking about these things when we started. My early blog posts were mostly "Look at me! Look what I figured out how to do all by myself!!" Because that's what I was doing. I didn't know about others doing this. The books I found were unhelpful and I didn't know many (any?) other bloggers doing what we were doing. I learned through trial and error and felt a huge amount of pride in my accomplishments. My blog was a safe place to express my excitement and pride without feeling like a sideshow freak, since pretty much all our real life friends and family either thought we were crazy or told us so.

    I felt like a pioneer – like Laura Ingalls with my chickens in my yard. And for the first three years, I'm pretty sure my only blog readers were my voyeuristic friends and family being amazed that we'd even attempt such old fashioned things. If you've never encountered others doing what you are doing, you truly feel like you are inventing (or reinventing) something. :)

    It was two years of writing before I knew other homesteader types existed. I honestly thought we were the only crazies out there. It wasn't until this year, with the Urban Homesteading trademark stuff that I began getting readers that were also homesteaders. (And their support and knowledge! yay!).

    I've been humbled to learn what others are doing, how far down the path some people are (much further than us), and some who are doing far more than we've even thought of yet! I'm so thankful that there are more resources now (or that I know about them). If it weren't for all this, I wouldn't have your book, Harriet, on my wish list, or be hoping to win one of the DVD's from the ApronStringz blog! I have so much to learn still!

    Beginners attempting anything have a right to be proud. This is not a mainstream movement yet. Most people still have their heads happily in the sand as they buy their individually prepackaged yogurt cups, not knowing it's something you can actually make. They thought I was crazy for buying the big tub of "plain" and adding my own fruit to a bowl at home. :)

  19. Lori says

    I'm a beginner at all of this–gardening, fermenting, etc! I'm even starting my own blog. I don't know where it's going, but it sure is fun to write!!!

  20. says

    awesome post.
    i like how you compliment me (assuming my yogurt rant counted among the "great voices on the internet") and then smack my hand. oh baby it hurts so good.
    and it's so true, so beautifully true.
    sadly, even worse than you get into with your post, i think it's partly because us not-beginners-but-still-not-masters are self-conscious about our in-betweenness. ragging on new comers helps us feel superior.
    humans can really seriously suck.
    on the other hand, we do some cool shit. like turn milk into yogurt!

  21. says

    The other thing to consider is that you don’t know where your reader has been. I found this blog based on a gardening post. I hadn’t previously come across ANY “make your own yogurt” until I ran into the one here.

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