Two Muscovy ducks take a stretch out back, beyond the kitchen door of the Sparks family's house in Woodland Heights. There are six chickens, and a few off-site cows, naturally, for access to raw milk.
The cord of a heating pad snakes from the oven, where a sheet pan slowly dehydrates pecans. A bowl of mash, the color of golden mustard, sits on a counter — soaked and dehydrated seeds from winter squash, mixed with lard and eggs — what's left of the batter Elli Sparks used to make pancakes for her daughter, Sophia, earlier this morning. A refrigerator is stuffed with fermented salmon, homemade red sauerkraut and fermented cauliflower. Don't forget the organ meats.
"Come and hang out!" Sparks calls out to a visitor, Rob Staropoli, who's just slipped in the front door. "In fact, I have a deer liver for you."
"Oh, another one!" he says.
They are part of a community of Richmonders that gathers for support groups, potlucks and classes. Its members consider the cookbook "Nourishing Traditions" a standard and share a love of what Sparks considers "properly prepared, nutrient-dense food." It's less mumbo-jumbo and more back to the basics.
"People are fully convinced that the primitive food wisdom is wrong," Sparks says. "If I can make it in my kitchen from scratch it's good for me." Which is why modern science — and mass farming, and sugar, and canola oil — is out. She wants people to eat the way humans were eating before humans mucked it all up with margarine and diet soda and Taco Bell.
Which brings us to the true powerhouse of this kitchen. Some might say it's the 5-foot-tall woman in the orange-and-yellow-striped apron who was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis five years ago, overhauled her diet, dumped her medication and says today she is symptom-free, making a closed fist that she couldn't make before.
But Sparks would genuflect to the mighty micro-organism. "I'm a small farmer, and I'm growing all my beneficial bacteria right here," she says, making her raw milk yogurt, the cornerstone of the classes she teaches, and perhaps of her diet. She's after the probiotics, which live among the hundreds of kinds of bacteria in your gut. "I'm telling you, they are bullies," she says. They clean you out and build you up.
She heats milk on the stove to 110 degrees, pours it into a warmed jar and adds a couple of tablespoons of yogurt starter, in this case from store-bought yogurt. She shakes it up then lets it sit at a "cozy temperature" for 24 hours. Milk plus live, active cultures equals yogurt. "When you rebuild your digestive health," she says, "your body can deal with most issues."
It's about as back to basics as it gets. — Jason Roop
Elli Sparks maintains a blog at whatscookingrichmond.blogspot.com, which also has information on the classes she teaches.