Three years ago on this date, a Saturday, Donna, my mom, I, the kids, our dear friend Stu, and the dog spent the morning standing vigil as my father succumbed to the lung cancer. Mom had gone to the farmer’s market and gotten corn and she and I stood at the kitchen island plowing through a dozen and a half ears, butter dripping off our chins. My dad, Rip, hadn’t been conscious since very early in the morning, 3 am, Donna and I on the bedside, holding his hand. Realizing the end was truly near, he wanted our assurance that I had indeed returned his library books. I had.  ”We love you, Dad, we’re going to be fine, don’t worry, everything’s going to be OK.” By eleven a.m., he breathed sporadically. I hoped he could hear ears of corn being eaten. He liked it when people were eating, because it meant people were happy. He fed a lot of people throughout his life. The corn was really good, but we weren’t really happy, and we were about to get really, really sad.

Exactly a week later, family and a group of his closest friends gathered in his back yard and spread his ashes in his garden, among Dahlias (his were famous for their size; by September they’d be as big, appropriately, as dinner plates) and tomatoes (a compulsive record keeper, he kept a tally of tomatoes picked all summer, cherry tomatoes included).

On this third anniversary of his death I want to remember the part that food played in that day. First, Michael Symon and his wife, the wonderful Liz, catered the event. It’s a dizzying day, with the service, family from out of town, I couldn’t think straight. Though I remember one of my nearest and dearest shaking his head afterward saying, “Don’t take this the wrong way, Michael, but that was the most entertaining memorial service I’ve ever been to.”  This made me proud. We’d told good stories about my dad. He would have been proud too. He died thinking he was unremarkable.

So we came together around Michael’s amazing food and Liz’s, well, happiness (the real secret behind Symon’s restaurants in my opinion)—she ran the bar and the general good cheer, and Michael watched over the food, and it was really happy in that saddest of ways happiness can be.  There was solace in this, and I was grateful beyond words, not just for the food and drink, but for Michael and Liz’s presence. Donna and I were nearing the end of working on Michael’s book, so we’d been spending a lot of time together during my dad’s illness. (When, the next day, straightening up the kitchen I’d grown up in, I asked Michael for the bill and he said, “We got this one.” I was pretty wrecked generally, so when I realized what he was saying, I all but melted in a blubbering puddle. It’s the only time I’ve heard Michael laugh nervously. I just felt that it was an extraordinary gift. How lucky I was.)

The second gift came from one of Michael’s former cooks, Jonathon Sawyer, whom I’ve gotten to know well thanks to his extraordinary Cleveland restaurant, The Greenhouse Tavern. We knew each other then, but not well. Symon showed up that day with a huge basket, filled with fruits and vegetables and bottles of oils and vinegars. Michael told me it was from Jonathon.  Jonathon had passed around the basket to some chefs to throw something in for consolation. It was incredibly touching, the gift of food, from a chef I didn’t know well and other anonymous chefs.

Jonathon had included a bottle of beer vinegar. It made me smile when I tasted it. Tasted like beer. Was definitely vinegar. So herewith, remembering my dad who was never happier than when he was feeding friends and pouring them wine, and thanking my chef friends, is Saywer’s beer vinegar.

Jonathon Sawyer Beer Vinegar

“I started making beer vinegar back when I was at Cento,” Sawyer says. “We cleared our beer lines regularly and so were flushing about two gallons of really good European-style beers a week. I didn’t want to waste it. I first combined the beer with some Bragg’s cider vinegar, which looked like it had enough stuff at the bottom to get the vinegar going. But I thought that the result took on too many characteristics of the cider vinegar, so now I just let it ferment on its own. You could add a mother if you want to, but I haven’t needed it.”

If I were doing it, I’d want to add some mother. I had a vinegar go bad on me once, developed a thick mat of mold on top, and this was depressing.   You can buy a vinegar kit through leeners.com (excellent source for all fermenting needs), or look for some vinegar with viscous sediment at the bottom, or go it alone as Jonathon does now routinely. Either way, choose a good beer and make sure that the alcohol can breathe.  You need a big jar with a big open lid to let the air flow, covered it with light cloth to let air in and keep fruit flies out.  Best to keep it in the dark and I’ve found that cool is good, though Jonathan keeps his everyday vinegars at home right near the heat of the stove.  Bacteria thrive at 100˚ to 110˚F. Jonathon says you could probably make vinegar using Bud Lite, but that it wouldn’t be worth the effort. Use a good beer with lots of complexity, especially wheaty and malty beers. Bacteria, simple themselves, thrive on complexity.

Use your delicious beer vinegar on any fried foods, in braises, in acidic mayonnaises (as for a fried fish sandwich).

Beer Vinegar

  • 1/2 gallon good, wheaty or malty beer
  • vinegar mother (optional)
    1. Put your beer in your container.  Give it a good whisk to aerate it and release some of the gas. Let it sit out and open for six hours or so.
    2. Add the mother if you’re using one. Or do as Jonathon does and let the natural bacteria and flora of your kitchen or basement settle in for a good time.
    3. Cover the opening with a handkerchief, cheesecloth, anything that will let air in and keep bugs and debris out.  Date the jar. Give it a taste in three months and see how you did.

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© 2011 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2011 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved.

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54 Wonderful responses to “Beer Vinegar/Food As Solace”

  • Debbie

    I’ve followed you for a couple of years now, but never commented. What could I possibly add to someone with such wisdom, intelligence, wry wit and (my favorite) sarcasm. Well, I can’t add anything, but I can thank you for sharing the wonderful memories of your father and his passing. Having lost my Mom this year, I struggle with how to acknowledge it in an appropriate way. You certainly found the perfect way. Celebrate your wonderful friends – just as you do. Thanks again for this warm and timely message.

  • diane

    Wow. Did my daily check-in on your site. Got more than I bargained for- in a very good way. Thanks, Michael, for sharing this beautiful and very touching story.

  • stefan

    great story. my father in law recently passed and i was charged with feeding the guests after the funeral. i was up until 4:00 am the day before/of making 100 lbs. of halushka by myself. to say it was cathartic is an understatement. for those that get it, cooking is a therapy, a safe zone, a meditation amidst madness. it’s byproduct is nourishment and healing. thanks for sharing.

  • rockandroller

    How poignant and beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing with us.

  • Diane

    Wonderful story, and thank you for sharing something about your family and food, and the wonderful and generous gestures of friends. And now those warm spots in my heart for you as well as Michael Symon have grown a bit bigger.

  • Juan

    Thanks for the entertainment and inspiration your writing regularly provides.

  • Karin

    “No man can tell whether he is rich or poor by turning to his ledger. It is the heart that makes a man rich…” From what you have shared with us about your dad, this is true. How nice that his son keeps adding to the account.

  • Pat

    Michael, this truly brought tears to my eyes. I recently had to attend the funeral of a family friend, and have been thinking a lot of my own dad’s death almost 2 years ago. I knew your dad had passed not long ago, but didn’t know the month. I feel your sadness. My dad also loved feeding everyone good food and making people happy. I hope you are able to do the same today with your family.

  • Jennifer

    You’re always so inspiring. I aspire to be as eloquent about life and food.

  • luanda

    Thank you for this post. Thinking about the funeral I have to attend up in TO this weekend. Your dad and Janci’ts are cut from the same cloth. Will try this beer vinegar for sure. Great Lakes Lake Erie Monster. That one is pretty complex, eh?

  • holly Joel Puckette

    Though I had read your books the first thing I read on your site was when your father died. Mine died when I was seventeen and my beloved father-in-law five years ago. Warm family, caring friends, and the kindness of strangers coming together through ritual in food and creating community… In all my life there’s been nothing as important or meaningful.

  • Kim

    This made me smile and cry. My mother-in-law succumbed to lung cancer in February 2005. I have been missing her a lot lately. Thank you for this.

  • Cali

    I started reading this blog just before you lost your father, I think, either that or just before the one year anniversary. Either way, the writings about your Dad have been some of the most deeply touching pieces I’ve ever read anywhere. Thank you for writing about him. I know there are times when it can’t be easy. You write about your family in a way that makes it completely transparent how much you love all of them.

    For a woman who really suffered through her parents’ divorce as a child and then her own, eventually, it is good to see that some men actually DO love their families. Somehow I managed to raise a son, mostly without a father, who is kind and loving. I like to think that he will say kind things about me after I’m gone.

  • Pat

    This story brought tears to my eyes. It’s almost the 2 year anniversary of my dad’s death as well. I knew your father had passed away not long ago but didn’t know it was this time of year. I feel your sadness, but I hope you were able to share some good food and memories with your own family this evening.

  • amy lee

    Very powerful words coupled wit Donna’s beautiful photos remind me of the solace of exquisite food writing. Thank you Michael for showing us the art of amalgamating memoir with cuisine on a daily basis.

  • Michael Franco

    As much as it pains us to, it is always good to remember those we have lost.

    I think of you, Michael, and your family every year on this day. And I always wish you peace.

  • EB

    It’s amazing how food ties us to the people we love. I understand why you wished he could hear you crunching into that corn.

  • Ben

    My father participates in a college-wide grill-off at the university he works at; this year we’re collaborating (for the first time) on sausages based on a recipe from Charcuterie, so you’re also contributing to our bonding through food. Thank you.

    I had one question about the beer vinegar as well — we’re thinking about making some with part of a new batch of homebrew. Do we need to carbonate the beer, or can we go directly from fermentation to vinegar making?

  • Alexis

    Mr. Ruhlman, I rarely comment on sites and stories, but I felt the need to share this.

    My husband and I were married on August 9th, 2008. We decided to celebrate our wedding anniversary this week in… Cleveland. I’ve read all of your books and check your website quite a bit, and living in nearby Buffalo made it a perfect way to enjoy a quick holiday. I was steered to eat in certain places, in large part, because of your writing. My husband I were like 2 little kids at Lola and The Greenhouse Tavern, grinning, and laughing at each other and the incredible fun we were having with the food and each other. I am sorry for your loss, but please be consoled that your father’s legacy of loving life and eating, has passed through you and affected many others. I thank you both for this!

  • Nancy Carter

    Michael,
    As a fellow Clevelander living in Houston, Texas I visit your site daily as I get such longing for home. But your post about your dad brought
    tears and joy to my heart. It was awesome and very heartfelt. your comments about eating corn on the cob brought back so many memories for me about my own dad, whom I lost last year. Every summer we couldn’t wait for the corn to get big enough to eat and we would then have corn races to see who could eat more corn. It was my 4 brother and mom and dad. It was a special time for all of us. Thank you so much for sharing your incredible story.

  • Wilma de Soto

    As one who lost a sister to Hodgkin’s Disease nearly ten years ago, I have struggled trying to pen a fitting tribute to her memory. It’s hard to believe three years have passed by since you lost your dad. I hope you don’t mind if I use this wonderful tribute to your father as a means of remembering my sister since I don’t have the gift of writing you have. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Abra

    Wow, has it already been three years? I remember when your Dad died, your post then was poignant enough to stick with me to this day. Peace be with you.

  • allen

    I’m going to make some of this beer vinegar and will be raising a toast to your dad and you when I have a glass of my 2 year old egg nogg this xmas.

    I’ve made wine vinegar from something I heard on Spendid Table and like to use raspberry flavored wine, I wonder if the mother from this would work in the beer vinegar? .
    I honestly didn’t know who Michael Symon was. I’d seen him on a few brief shots on tv , just some other bald guy ( we can call each other that – if your an elite member of the folicley challenged club – unless his is a self imposed cultivated look) but the more I learn about him the more I like him.
    Your not only making us better chefs, your making us better humans with more compassion and thought. Yep, rubs off on us.

  • ruhlman

    I continue to read these comments and am increasingly and profoundly touched by them. Many thanks to all of you who have taken the time to comment.

  • Kristine

    We all have a story to share about the loss of a loved one, but you share it so well.

  • Frances Quinn

    Mr. Ruhlman, thank you for sharing your family with us. Your Dad has left a good man on this earth and I am sure he is smiling down on you every minute.

  • Mattm

    I’ll add my thanks as well for sharing this intimate time with your readers. I’ve always thought talking about and sharing in some way the sad events that dot our lives as healthy.

    Last time, fairly recently, I was truly upset (we lost out on a great house, long story) I thought about “The Godfather”s line, “Put down the gun, take the canolli”. OK, not that I’d ever take the option to turn to violence to solve problems or express emotion, I did, however spend a bit more then usual at the grocery store . . . the warm, creamy arborio rice never tasted so good nor had the cooking of it ever been so theraputic.

  • YOD

    “He died thinking he was unremarkable.”
    I’m crying.

    I’m SO glad you blog. You are an incredible storyteller and writer. Thank you.

  • Kathryn

    tomorrow marks 2 years since my mother’s passing and our final days sound very similar to those spent with your father – we all gathered at my parents’ country home, each taking turns sitting with mum while she faded in and out of a coma (cancer, of course) – the whole time the house was full of people rotating in and out for drinks, lunch, dinner, whatever – she just wanted to hear the house full of people, eating, drinking, having fun

    thank you for sharing your story

  • Troy Banks

    Thanks for the story Ruhlman, I liked the part where your father had to be sure his library books had been returned. Its a touching and heartfelt story, thanks for sharing.

    Now for the beer vinegar, if you don’t add the mother. What kind of shelf life after finished are you looking at?

    Thanks again.

  • stephanie

    About a month after your Dad died, I was dx with lung cancer (that has metastasized.) I hope my sweetie understands me well enough to be able to put into words just enough to convey what’s important about me – and that there is a community that cares enough to gather with him three years later and bring comfort to him. And I hope we don’t need to find out for many years.

    For the record, we’ve harvested three tomatoes this year, so far.

  • Elke

    I know the perfect person to make beer vinegar and will send her this site right now.

    I also can’t believe it’s been three years since your father passed since I vividly remember reading about it at the time. We had spent that summer (14 weeks) in the NICU with our newborn and were only a few days away from finally bringing her home and everything was making me weepy.

    Our daughter continues to be a lively firecracker, just as she was in the hospital. It’s true that personality starts right at birth. Her little brother was born full-term this past June and we are enjoying a bounty of fresh tomatoes this summer. I can’t say I’ve ever counted our harvest, too many to count. Your father sounds endearing and you’ve captured him well on paper. Best wishes -

  • sandy and David

    Dear Michael,

    This is wonderful to read and to think about Rip. We both loved it.

    The new book sounds perfect. I am going to send one to Carter. She will love it as will Maddy. I don’t know how you keep making cooking such an alluring pastime. It saves me!

  • Cale

    Great read. Funny, I’m a homebrewer. I had some kegs that had been partially full for 6 months sitting in the basement. When I clean them out I noticed it smelled of vinegar. I just tossed a gallon a beer vinegar! No idea!

  • Cynthia

    Michael, thanks for sharing something so personal. So touching. So intimate. So moving. I think your dad would have loved this post.

  • Kanani

    What a wonderful post. I remember when your father died. I wrote to tell you that he was so lucky to have a son who he could pass his writing talent onto, and no doubt took great pride in this. Thanks for sharing these photos …they’re simply inspiring. Grief can make us do wonderful and creative things, and I’m glad to see such thought went into his memorial, and also deciding share it with us now. We’re doing something this week in Cambridge MA for a journo friend of mine who died. Whole Foods and Busa Farms is donating all the food. I have no idea what our hosts will cook. The locals are cooking the food. Yes, I think fine food and company is central to any memorial. Check out our website and you’ll see what we’re doing for Tim Hetherington.

  • Garden Fresh Personal Chefs

    I’m always impressed by your passionate writing and touched by your emphasis on family.

    On a purely technical note, could you make beer vinegar in a plastic container? I get empty pickle buckets (they almost look like something you’d keep roofing tar in) from a local diner for brining turkeys and corning beef. Could I use one for this?

  • Michele Bowman

    Very moving. I lost my mother 12 years ago (9/4/99) to lung cancer and we had a memorial service a year later that focused on her hobby of photography. She seemed to be the unofficial photographer in any group, family, work, friends. It brought back great memories. Your wonderful homage to your father reminded me of our vigil at the hospital and our final words, hoping she heard them. Your story brought tears to my eyes.

  • Jen

    Great post, Michael. My husband (also a Michael) two weeks ago had the 3-year mark of his father’s passing at 48. There’s no better way to honor the dead than with life and happiness. Mike’s developed a nose for good beers and has been playing guitar with more vigor in that same vein. Thanks for sharing.

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