I was in bed when the shot rang out. I switched on the bedside lamp and tiptoed out to investigate. The culprit sat on the kitchen counter between the olive oil and the paper towel holder, just barely alive and gasping for air. My mother.

Or my “mother,” the slimy, bacteria-laden substance that turns wine into vinegar. I got mine when I was in Rome visiting a family that knew another family that had had the same mother for more than four generations. A cross between sourdough starter and the living, breathing terror of a horror film, mother is both a thing of gelatinous, gastronomic beauty and really repulsive.

My first run at making vinegar, as mentioned, proved disastrous. Basically, alcohol and oxygen combine to form acetic acid and water. Lesson one: If you don’t give your mother room to breathe, she will get very, very angry.

We waited, we tasted, we waited some more. Success! And we were hooked, trying different kinds of wine and cider.

So, if when life hands you lemons you should make lemonade, does it then follow that when life hands you crappy wine you should make vinegar? Yes and no. It’s no surprise that better wine yields better vinegar. However, making vinegar from crapola wine convinces the person who gave you said wine that it’s been consumed, and the result goes down much easier than the wine from whence it sprung.

To grow your own mother, buy a bottle of wine, pour some into a jar, cover with cheesecloth to keep critters out and let oxygen in, and wait. Keep it in a dark place, between 60º and 90ºF. Once you’ve gotten the acidity level or taste that you want (this usually takes about two months), strain your vinegar and bottle it; it’s ready to use. Add more wine to your mother—the remaining unpasteurized “living” vinegar will work, too—and start all over again. My mother aged quite well, and the vinegars she spawned got mellower and thicker with passing time.

For more do’s and don’ts on dealing with your mother, check this out.

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