She gathers the locally made food and drink, dons her brightly painted garden clogs and, dog at her side, joins her guests in the backyard. “Hey, ladies,” she calls in greeting, as Scooter scampers toward the group, happy to be outdoors. The ladies, somewhat dampened by the weather, are clustered together toward the back of the garden. At the sound of her voice, they turn and hurry in her direction. Their feet make scratching noises on the debris-strewn ground. They speak all at once as their hostess nears and, as she opens the door of their chicken coop and tosses in the healthy feed, their clucks fill the air. She then scampers up the metal ladder to the top of the shed to nourish her honeybees with the beverage of sugar water she carries. The birds and bees fed, another day in the heart of the Whiteaker has begun for Sherri Brown.
Brown, 37, speaks with a lighthearted tone. Her wavy dark hair cascades past her shoulders when it is not pulled back loosely in a bun, and bluntly cut, raspberry-colored fingernails contrast against her olive-hued skin. Brown’s intermittent New York accent betrays her Long Island roots even though she has not lived there for more than 14 years. Brown is a self-professed hippie who spent four years crisscrossing the country in a VW bus, tripping on acid and listening to the Grateful Dead. She can read the stock charts, has a head for math and a bachelor’s degree in environmental science. She declares she is not overly concerned with how she looks in public; however, her son, Woody, attests the opposite is true.
“I grew pot in it for several years,” she says talking about the shed, a splotch of brightly painted purple and yellow that provides a welcome relief against the deeper-hued greens that pervade the haphazard area she calls a backyard. Her revelation seems secondary when confronted with the vast amount of growing things trailing across the ground and up the sides of the peacock-hued house and shed.
She grows spicy, nutty arugula; juicy, purple grapes and nettles that sprawl carelessly along the ground. Yanking and pulling the stalks in preparation for that night’s dinner, nettle spanikopita, Brown describes the electrical tingles that nettle exudes when touched and how it creates a throbbing sensation across the back of her hands.
“The Romans used to flog their penises with nettles before orgies,” says Brown as she continues attacking then nettles with single-minded fervor. The odd fact is particularly appropriate for a woman who has “always had a love for the sensual quality of food.” Brown’s flair for all things gastronomical is evident in her carelessly cluttered kitchen.
The sink is piled high with unwashed dishes, yet their presence serves only to give the kitchen a well-used air. Woody, Brown’s 17-year-old son, describes the mother-son conflict surrounding the stacks of dirty plates and bowls. “She’s pretty hypocritical,” he says. “She leaves all her dishes in the sink and then goes crazy when I leave one dish in the sink.”
Unidentifiable mysteries lie scattered about on the countertops, stark-white tubers, which were they smaller in girth and a bit longer, would easily pass for bleached human bones. Large glass jars filled with cloudy, urine-colored liquid press back against the wall; and, creamy globs of goo float passively inside the hazy fluid. Brown explains the jars are filled with fermenting kombucha and vinegar. The globs of goo? “It is the living creature that is on top of the kombucha,” Brown says. “It replicates, and when I bottle the kombucha, I keep one of the creatures and give the other one away.” The creature is slimy to the touch and looks like a jellyfish without tentacles or, as Brown says, a placenta.
“My gift is creating food,” says Brown as she tastes her nettle spanakopita, swirling it around in her mouth, swishing the morsel back and forth, ensuring it tastes just right. In every meal, Brown includes something she made or created. Her chevre cheese only takes 10 minutes to throw together. She buys the culture and butter muslin from fermentation stores and finds the goat cheese at the downtown Saturday Market. She grinds dried yellow-foot mushrooms and rolls the chevre until thickly covered.
Throughout the years, Brown has earned her money in real estate investing and various other self-made businesses. Recently, she started a business for organizing people’s homes and offices. When she receives a call from a woman needing help with her closet, Brown’s description of her collaborative approach to the process convinces the caller to set an appointment and Brown hangs up with a smile on her face.
Woody thinks his mom is pretty cool, for the most part. “She definitely has her negative side,” Woody says. “She’s a little OCD about cleanliness.” Brown hides behind Woody’s back, listening attentively, while Woody speaks with brutal honesty about her less attractive character traits. The sound of his voice becomes louder as he talks about not folding the blanket on the living room couch perfectly enough for her and how she would “freak out” about it.
Brown meanders her way easily through the day, from one task to the next, seldom in a hurry. She feels a little guilty after hearing her son talk about how unreasonable she can be at times. So, rather than making him take the bus, she speeds back from errands early to drive him to his friend’s house to make up for it.
“The older I get, the more I realize the less I know,” Brown says. “This being said, I try to lead a simple life. The best way I can humble myself, and serve humankind, is to make soup. And, give it away.”