No one knows where kefir came from or how it was created. The first people supposed to have had it were the people of the North Caucasus who went through great lengths to keep it a secret. The only way to have kefir was to have it passed on to you, generally still the case today. Kefir was a responsibility they did not take lightly and carefully protected what they believed to be a sacred gift.
As things go, eventually someone caught on to the secret and their interest in it manifested itself as sacredness-devouring greed. Some fellas from Russia hatched a plan that took some Shakespearean twists but eventually landed them kefir grains of their own that soon became exploited as no longer something sacred but rather as a product. Soon enough the rest of the world had all the easy access to this other culture's sacred "gift" and kefir had been fully orphaned from its original meaning, of which we will likely never know.
This story ran through my head recently after I chased down an overthrown harvested potato in the field only to find instead twisted white fingers with puffs of dark spores protruding from the corn I was fostering. Corn smut, which a quick internet search would reveal is nothing more than a "parasitic disease that attacks corn, reducing yield and causing economic losses." Reflect back for a moment on the aforementioned meaning-devouring greed.
To the Aztecs of Mexico, and the Hopi and Zuni of the American Southwest, corn smut is huitlacoche and is a culinary specialty. Nowadays huitlacoche seems to be corralled into a few staple dishes like tacos and quesadillas, but people's relationship with this fungus is far beyond even those traditions.
As we know, grains are the cradle of civilization, but in the case of corn there was an essential step that needed to take place before this could happen. Corn has a hemicellulose hull that acts like a glue that binds up niacin and renders it unassimilatable. Subsisting on primarily corn as it is leads to niacin deficiencies that will eventually cause Pellagra (where a person's skin will peel, experience hair loss, and dementia). It takes a process known as nixtamalization, where corn kernels are soaked in an alkaline brine until the hemicellulose is dissolved thus readily freeing the niacin for absorption that allowed corn to carry us away on its tassels through history's civilized agricultural summer breezes. (Learn how to nixtamalize here, or at the link earlier in the email.)
Prior to this process however many anthropologists believed corn by itself was more of a snack. It is also believed by some that corn was useful for the much-more ancient consumption of corn infected with Ustilago maydis, or, huitlacoche! Science tells us that the fungus is higher in protein than corn and contains the essential amino acid lysine, which corn does not. Imagine people hunting through fields for this fungus before agriculture and consider what type of meaningful relationship they must have had with this ancient and nutritious, ocassional visitor with unknown origins.
The similarity between these stories, for me, comes in relating to the bewildering moment of receiving this treasure "out-of-nowhere," like in the case of my meeting huitlacoche, and being able to repay it with the appropriate awe such a moment deserves. (Both kefir and huitlacoche have received an ancient nickname from their original keepers that falls along the gift-from-God vein.) Learning more about the long journeys these "magical" characters of nature have taken exposes a period de-meaning them that can be peeled back further for a glimpse of what may have been a much more grand relationship at its core. Before they were a "product" or a "disease", perhaps they were a "gift" and a "responsibility." And considering all of this begs the question- where does it go from here?