My cousin Annie from Maine arrives with a house present: A caramel-colored jelly pancake sealed in a plastic bag -- a quivering blob sloshing around in some cidery juice. It will give me new life, she tells me. It's called Kombucha (pronounced "calm BOO sha") tea, and the "starter" blob, which is a combination of healthy bacteria and yeast, is affectionately called a mushroom.
"Do you have black tea, and sugar?" asks Annie. And so we make a brew by putting the blob in a mixing bowl and pouring the sweetened tea over it. I look for a dish towel to cover the bowl. Annie finds a dark quiet spot in the kitchen and tells me to let it brew for a week. Then I'm to funnel the liquid into a bottle. The blob meanwhile will have a baby blob, Annie explains, which I'm to use to brew up the next batch.
I half wonder if this slippery pregnant blob will turn into the Creature of the Black Lagoon. The thing is revolting and I dare not touch it. But as we perform the brewing ritual together, I bask in the warmth and love of kinship -- that deep connectedness of our lives since childhood. We laugh and catch up. I realize that Annie and her mother are giving me a precious gift: their personal elixir for a healthy, joyous life. "I drink it first thing in the morning and at night," adds her 80-something mother.
According to lore, the Chinese developed a health drink called the Divine Tea more than 2,000 years ago. The magic potion spread along the trade routes to Russia and Europe. It hit California in 1993 when writer Betsy Pryor received a mushroom from her meditation teacher. Pryor has since become the country's leading supplier and promoter of the blob.
"People say the tea has helped them with migraine, digestion, skin problems, chemotherapy symptoms, AIDS symptoms, illnesses, insomnia, regularity, T-cell count, multiple sclerosis remission and other effects," write Pryor and coauthor Sanford Holst in "Kombucha Phenomenon -- The Health Drink Sweeping America: The Tea Mushroom Handbook," published by Sierra Sunrise Books last summer.
And fish can fly, I can't help thinking. The concept of a "something" that boosts the immune system is appealing -- whether it's a new biologic drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration, or the latest trendy supplement sold in health food stores.
But is the magic "something" safe -- and what does it really do? My cousin and her family seem to be thriving on daily doses of Kombucha tea. But are unsuspecting hazards lurking in this feel-good brew?
"There haven't been any cases of a clear link between consumption of the tea -- if properly prepared -- and health problems," says FDA press spokesman Brad Stone. At the same time, there's no "data to show that it is safe and effective for treating any diseases."
The official statement comes close to damning the Divine Tea with faint praise. Certainly it underscores concerns in the medical community that people may not always brew the tea under sterile conditions or might not seek treatment for an illness in the belief that the tea was treatment enough.
The Kombucha controversy exploded earlier this year when two women in a small Iowa town suddenly became very ill after drinking their homemade brew. According to Iowa health officials, Lila Mae Williamson, 59, fell unconscious and was rushed to the hospital where she died on April 3. Pat Stevenson, 49, experienced shortness of breath and was rushed to the emergency room, where she had to be resuscitated several times but survived. Both had abnormally high levels of acid in their blood. Doctors wondered whether that could have been caused by the acidic, vinegary, fermented nature of the tea.
Yet in-depth investigations by the state health department and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) could not find any evidence that would lay the blame on Kombucha tea.
What health officials did find was the tea's growing popularity. A random survey of the Iowa community found that in a population of about 10,000, several hundred people had tried Kombucha tea. Roughly 80 percent were committed drinkers.
Nonetheless health officials are not giving mushroom tea a green light as a medicinal remedy. "We are still suspicious of it," says Kevin Teale, spokesman for the Iowa Department of Health. The CDC, he continues, is about to issue a report on the tea and recommend that doctors routinely ask people who come into the emergency room or go to the doctor for unexplained complaints, if they are Kombucha drinkers.
One of the biggest concerns is home-brewing. If sterile procedures are not properly followed, there's always the potential for contamination.
In my kitchen, one thing led to another and I forgot about my blob for a couple of weeks. By this time, my mushroom looked indeed like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. It was a multi-generational blob in the process of creating a slithery Kombucha grandchild wrapped with ominous-looking tentacles. After consultation with Annie over the telephone and much laughter, the contents of the mixing bowl went out in the trash.
I have some regrets. Annie gave me a sampling of her tea. It tasted like unsweetened sparkling cider. Nice and tingly. According to the Pryor and Holst handbook, Kombucha tea (made properly) has enzymes and acids and various vitamins. It's also slightly alcoholic -- about the same content as nonalcoholic beer. "Perhaps it's the alcoholic content that makes you feel better," suggests Teale.
But I have another theory of why Kombucha tea makes you feel good. It's the connectedness of friendship -- the ritual of passing along something of yourself to someone you love. I may not drink my own brew of Kombucha tea, but I've renewed my connection with Annie and her mother.