• Chad

Interview with Homyna Curiel of Tundra Tonics

On to our next interview with Homyna of Tundra Tonics! I love anything vinegar so I was pretty excited for this. Add in the health benefits and the bit of heat from some of the spicier ingredients and you got me. Here we go!

Just start off by doing an introduction and telling me a bit about Tundra Tonics.

HOMYNA CURIEL: Tundra Tonic is something called “fire cider”, which is a traditional folk recipe. It's apple cider vinegar, but you add a bunch of different pungent, intense ingredients. It's kind of like if you were making an alcohol extract (aka a tincture) of something. It's a pretty intensive process because each batch goes five weeks until it's done. It's something that I started making just for my own personal use after a friend, a sled dog mushing friend, showed me a picture in a magazine one cold winter night. We weren't really having a conversation about health or anything like that, and she just tossed the magazine at me and showed me this thing called “fire cider” and the picture was so beautiful! You could see all the garlic and the lemon and the peppers and stuff floating in the jar. I had no idea that you could make vinegar tinctures! It just instantly made so much sense to me. So I started making it for myself and sharing it with my friends, and the reactions I got from everyone were so big that it just really got the gears turning that this might be an opportunity for me to do something on my own and, also, do something that is honest and something that I'm actually interested in, as opposed to just mindlessly following someone else's orders -- no offense to the tourism industry, but that sort of job can easily leave a lot of people feeling pretty empty and disappointed and maybe even disillusioned with what conducting business is all about. So, for me, this was a way where I can go to sleep and feel good about myself every night and what I'm doing. And then, it's also a way for me to protect myself because I'm a transgender person. It’s hard for LGBT people in Alaska. It's not impossible by any means but life is already hard enough without your employer treating you like less than a human being. I don't want to oversell the fear factor, but it is quite difficult to gain regular employment in some cases. It is something that really happens and has happened to me. So, for me, Tundra Tonics is a way to also protect myself by just doing something with my own two hands. And it's pretty incredible. I mean, I left my job with less than $100, and I moved to Fairbanks, and I started at the farmer's market and it all started there. Now here we are and because of my hard work, it's going to be in stores across the state this year! Very cool. That's awesome. I'm sure sometimes it must feel kind of crazy how quickly stuff moves, how quickly things happen. To start with maybe, "Oh, I'm just doing it for my friends." Then to be at a point far beyond that. HOMYNA: It does feel crazy. It really puts things into perspective. I mean, no one can tell you when you've done enough and when you're doing good and when you're ready to do the next thing and what the real pace of growth is. You hear all these things, but you just have to do it and just go step by step, and then all that hard work that you put in finally bears fruit down the road. So, yeah, it does seem unreal. That's great. That's just the way things go right. It's the baby steps and then you get momentum. I imagine it's probably a lot of word of mouth too. HOMYNA: Yeah. The first year was a total experiment. Word of mouth is definitely one of the pillars that makes it possible. People feel good about doing business with a real visible human being that can be held accountable to important standards and just available in other ways that make the interaction more than an empty, anonymous transaction that benefits some wealthy fat-cat that really doesn’t care about their customers.

Oh, for sure. I'm aware of the general health benefits of apple cider vinegar. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the base for all of them is apple cider vinegar and then from there, you add the various ingredients to create your different tonics, correct?

HOMYNA: Yeah, that's totally correct. So, apple cider vinegar is the base and then my recipe is onion, garlic, ginger, turmeric, jalapeno, habanero, cayenne, peppercorn, horseradish, lemon, rosemary, basil, sage, thyme. I get a lot of those things from local farms here in town. I really like working with other businesses. And then, you basically just chop it all up really fine and you put it in the bucket with the vinegar and then it goes five weeks. You also shake it from time to time as well. The benefits of using something like this are just the same benefits of the foods that I use, which often outpace people's current understanding of what food is. Food is information. It really, really matters. Everyone knows they love garlic. It makes them feel good. But what they don't know is that it activates a protein complex called Nrf2 that regulates hundreds of other genes that are responsible for our own natural way of detoxing, and it’s things like that. Garlic, among other veggies, can raise levels of an endogenous master-regulatory antioxidant called glutathione transferase. Some people actually have deficiencies of certain enzymes, amino acids, etc, and things like that that are correlated very robustly with certain health conditions and a lot of this stuff is just in the food. You don't even have to go for the craziest thing that's happening this year that you just learned about from Dr. Oz, you can find some of the most medicinal foods that you will ever find right at Fred Meyer or the co-op if you can afford it. It's more about having the knowledge, right? Knowing, "Okay. This is the issue that I have. What food can I eat that can help combat that?" HOMYNA: Yeah. It can get complicated pretty quickly but luckily enough, a lot of what people are looking for in healthy food and a healthy product is to help with their blood sugar or blood pressure, which is much easier to approach these days with dietary optimization. It seemed way more mysterious over the last couple of decades. No one at all, ostensibly anyway, knew how those things were happening but now we have really good ideas. And so, even if it was just for those two things alone, for people to understand that they can reach for food to help them with that, I think that's a great start overall to sort of getting everybody up to date about just how much food actually does influence and regulate the state of our bodies. Oh, absolutely. And like you said, those seem to be the most common and the biggest issues, so having a good way to naturally combat that is pretty huge. It sounds like you're pretty interested in the biochemistry side of things when you were going into detail there. Has that always been the case?

HOMYNA: It has always been a passion of mine, from a few different angles anyways. Personally, I am an autistic spectrum person. I’m also an asthmatic C-section baby with lifelong irritable bowel issues (not anymore though!). And for the longest time in my life, I thought that it was just a mysterious thing. I thought it was just the way I was meant to be or part of my personal qualities or something like that. Something that was wrong with me through and through. Come to find out, we actually do know a lot about these things. They have names, these chemicals. And there are processes and there are things that we can do to mediate the impact that some of those conditions have on our life. That, also, is something that can take a lot of guilt off of people's shoulders. Instead of walking around thinking that all these things are all their fault, they can start looking for entry points into learning proper maintenance for themselves. You can do some pretty radical things to the state of your own body by just becoming literate in those things. I used to study mycology. So that means mushrooms, fungi, and all that stuff. And that was where some of my first nutritional passions came from. As a creative person, I was always looking for things that boosted my mental performance, so I fell in love with things like lion's mane mushroom, and chaga, and a whole bunch of other things. Slowly over the years, it dawned on me that there was so much more I could be doing for myself besides getting myself mentally amped up all the time for writing, or music, or whatever it was that was going on. There were just so many things I didn't even know were possible. Yeah. It's got to be a pretty eye-opening experience at that point.

HOMYNA: Yeah, absolutely. You get that foundation down, and then, all of a sudden, you have all these thriving wonderful structures that are able to grow on top of that foundation, or if you want to imagine it like a garden or whatever else. I mean, it takes some cultivation, and there is a learning curve that's pretty steep upfront. It's pretty intimidating for just about everybody to sit there and try to be like, "Oh, yeah, I know all about these triterpenoids out of this fungus, and their different strengths, and different extracts, and what they do, and all these things." It seems like it's the crazy kind of knowledge that only some people can learn, but, I think, it's so much easier than people think once you get over the intimidation factor. Sure, yeah. Get out of your own way, essentially. As far as your recipes -- from what I understand, you've got more than one right now. How did you come up with the different ones? How do they differentiate from each other? HOMYNA: For the most part, they started out as just things that I like and use in my own life. For example, when it comes to food, I'm probably the one making the soups because I'm better at complicated things that have tons of ingredients. I know it's not how everybody thinks about soup or whatever, but that's the way that I understand it anyway. I've been in love with hibiscus, for instance, since forever. I think it's wonderful in every way possible. I just have those two things in my life. I have the fire cider over here, and I have my hibiscus over there, and it just made perfect sense, and I just went for it. And the four different recipes go like this. They all have the same things in each of them. So there's the original, which has what I mentioned earlier. Then, there is Dragon's Blood, which also has hibiscus, lemongrass, and also something called Blue Butterfly Tea, which is a really beautiful flower that people make tea out of in the East. There's no caffeine, it’s more like a crazy, unbelievably, vivid blue chamomile-esque kind of thing. I think people are going to see that come around into popularity, eventually, I think because it is so unbelievably beautiful and affordable, and pretty awesome for you. So I think we'll all see a lot more of that one. That recipe, of course, is my best seller. It's the name, the color. People go crazy for it. And that was actually my

second recipe that ever came around. Then there's Sour Patch Spruce, which has rhubarb

and spruce tips. Of course, those are both local ingredients, and the spruce tips are gathered every year here in town as well. So, that one is, probably, the third most popular recipe. It just depends on the day I suppose. But I mean, they're all just about as popular. And then, the fourth recipe is called Pickled Tundra. So, that one has dill and pickling spice. It's got that pickle juice feel going on. A lot of people ask if I made them for different reasons like, is this my relaxation tonic? Is this my mental one? And everybody's been trained by the marketing to expect the product to have some sort of theme. But, unfortunately, when we pass along nutritional info inside of tidy-packaged themes, I think that just puts us further away from the literacy that we need to make more intelligent decisions about what we're eating. That said, I know there can be good things about that at the same time, streamlined categories I mean. My reason for using rhubarb, as an example, might surprise people. I don't think a lot of people know that rhubarb is being researched, like this year and last year for, basically, a barrage of pretty intense effects. Being a really prolific kidney food for one, and even being used in another study to give it to goats instead of an antibiotic to see how it affects the balance and counts of their gut bacteria, which is pretty awesome. It's pretty intense. By giving the goats rhubarb, they found that the beneficial bacteria had higher counts, in better diversity, and better ratios. And bad bacteria, all those things went down. And that's just by giving goats rhubarb. I've learned so much! You tend to just eat based on what you crave. I think that's a pretty fair-enough way to do things, but I'm constantly surprised by all the things that are happening in the world of science and nutrition right now. There's a quiet revolution going on. If you could just start with one field called nutrigenomics, which is actively contesting the old idea that your DNA matters more than what you do, but what you do affects your genetic expression so -- it’s so much more complicated than blind genetic fate. That is not to say that irreversible congenital conditions can just be garlic and onioned’ away. But the way your DNA is expressed based on what you eat and what you do might be more important so that's a pretty big game changer. There's a lot of crazy stuff going on right now in those fields of research.

Yeah, it sounds like it's opening doors to new knowledge that sounds like if we could harness it, we could take that knowledge in a pretty positive direction. When it comes to things like that, do you have a process for keeping your finger on the pulse? What's your process like for keeping up to date on new information? HOMYNA: There are multiple things. It doesn't work the same way every time necessarily. We've heard this a million times, and we all know it's true even if people say it's not, but we have this wonderful thing called the internet. People are sharing good information out there on it if you know how to gather the information anyways. So I've always been a fairly educated person. There are so many different databases out there that are more or less open to anyone that wants to take a look. You just have to do all the work and do all these searches. For people interested, garlic and Nrf2, I would send them to check out the Linus Pauling Institute (out of Oregon) because they specialize in that subject. There's that aspect, and then there's also just getting on YouTube and there are all these actual doctors. Doctor Jason Fung is someone that I would name, for example. He used to be a kidney specialist for years and years until he started to discover that type 2 diabetes is actually pretty easily reversible by correcting people that have a general metabolic disorder, with food and with food-practices like time-restricted eating routines, which is also a concept that people are now implementing in different chemo clinics, and even breast cancer clinics, and stuff like that. So, I mean, just the time of the day that you eat, alone, without even talking about changing what you eat, is a whole other gigantic aspect of how people are taking control of their health and their conditions. That's something that's really inspired me. And I don't know if it's totally rightfully so, but everyone is somewhat distrustful of just about everything that they hear these days. I mean, there's a couple of good reasons for that, but I think what a lot of people are misunderstanding is that there's a lot of legit doctors who put in decades of work, and passion, and are, now, changing how they themselves are practicing based on all this stuff. A lot of the YouTube doctors, I'm not going to say every single one cause there are tons of people who are like -- they give you this great speech with all these really big concepts and then, at the very end, they're like, "That's why you need my vitamins, instead of these other vitamins," even if they're identical. So you have a lot of shills. You have a lot of people just trying to grab the momentum. But in there too, you have these critically literate people who are very knowledgeable. And, of course, there's still debate. Even the brightest minds still debate the nature of chronic inflammation and the pros and cons of inhibiting it. You just have to keep up on the research over the years and try to stay careful but there's definitely plenty of good info out there. It’s like literally anything else.

Yeah, for sure. Well, it's like you said, people in general, they tend to be a little bit more distrustful and a lot of that probably comes from, like you said, the shills and et cetera that it makes it harder to parse through and find the correct information that you really need. It's good to see that you can still find quality information out there. You try to still do your due diligence, find the right people and the right information. I'm sure in a lot of situations, it's good to still take things with a grain of salt and then maybe test certain things out for yourself. At the end of the day, when results speak the most, and something's helping you, and it's backed up by what someone is saying, then I think that makes a pretty big difference too. HOMYNA: Absolutely. A lot of these things are pretty easy to try out with very minimal risk. Things like fasting, and changing up your diet, and adding more raw foods. I mean, the risks are just about 9 times out of 10, almost nonexistent compared to just like eating a Twinkie. *laughs* Right. For sure. So, as far as when you're not making your tonics and everything, what do you do for fun, for hobbies and things like that? HOMYNA: I'm somewhat of a writer. Once upon a time, some poetry that I had done was in an art project that the New York Times did this big piece about. It's called The International Game of Telephone, but my serious projects were not actually poetry related. I'm a musician. I'm a singer and a harmonica player. I've played with various groups over the years. I don't do as much of that stuff currently. If I'm going to be doing anything, I'm probably going to have a book in my hands. Also, I get up almost every day of the week and run. I also try to get involved with the LGBT community here in Fairbanks. So, tonight, I'm going to join everybody down at the city council meeting for the equality testimonies happening there because we're trying to get it put into writing that LGBTQ people have protection from discrimination here in Fairbanks just like, you know, everyone else already has. And if we're not working on that, we're drafting letters to send to medical professionals here in town, basically, trying to do some basic LGBT training for them because, like it or not, everyone is going to see more LGBT people in the world. And that means here in Fairbanks too. And it presents certain issues sometimes, especially with names, and legal documents, and services like medical practice and stuff like that. It's surprising how complicated something can become with things like that when you’re interacting with businesses and organizations, or even the state. I try to stay active in that world as well, but it can be soul-crushing at times. That makes sense. Having the personal experience, and being able to lend support to others who are going through the same thing or similar things. HOMYNA: Absolutely. I'm a semi-public figure. I mean, it's not exactly known to anybody and it would be pretty tough to tell, but I'm pretty sure that I'm the first transgender business owner in the state. And even just seeing me out and about everywhere doing my thing is a total game changer for a lot of people, so I try to just let the way that I do business and interact with people sort of stand for itself, and I think that's a good thing on its own. Just to get a little bit of exposure and let everybody see we are more normal than everybody thinks. For sure. Taking it one step at a time. As far as the Bear Box, what was it about us that made you want to be a part of it or that got you excited and made you want to be a part of it?

HOMYNA: I think Alaskans are realizing right now that we don't have to go to the west coast of the lower 48 to find cool, interesting, fresh, new things. I hate to use an example like skateboarding or something like that, but that actually counts towards what I'm talking about, whether it's yoga or these new performative athletic things like aerial silk dancers. There's a whole entire barrage of new things, even here in Fairbanks. Everyone used to joke about the Thai food, but there's a whole bunch of other things that are joining that roster now and everyone realizes we can do our own cool things right here in Alaska. So I like to work with new businesses. I'm very attracted to startups and motivated people who create things of themselves. And I like people that celebrate Alaskans, and the talent, and the products that are made by actual Alaskans here in the state, so I'm all about collaborating. I think the more people work together, they'll find truly how strong a group of people can be, which is exponentially stronger than isolated people who just keep to themselves thinking that the people on TV are magically supposedly working on making everyone’s lives better (I mean no offense to the people who prefer to be solitary, or to anyone who likes TV). I think now is a great time for Alaskans to rediscover the can-do frontier-mentality of making things happen from inside a community.

Oh, definitely. That's been our big push behind everything has been that community aspect, and connecting with each other, and helping each other in any way we can, spreading the word. That was kind of the big mission of the Bear Box was not just getting the cool products out there, but also helping to spread the word about people, and helping with getting the stories out there and putting faces to the products as well. That was a big motivation. We didn't want it to just be about what you get in the box, but also the people behind the box. It's been a lot of fun. HOMYNA: Yeah. I think it's beautiful. Your group is really putting a lot of energy into what you’re doing! I love any chance to celebrate ordinary people doing good things. I agree. So, last question. Do you have any final thoughts, any wisdom to share, or maybe any places that we could find you these upcoming couple of months, where people can find you and get your tonics?

HOMYNA: So, right now, starting in January, our tonics are going to be in stores! So, that'll be the Co-op Market here in Fairbanks to start and we’ll see how much we can handle after that but we are definitely looking to stock multiple stores. It's also going to be available for online purchase through our Instagram, and Facebook, and the website, so that's huge. And it's also going to spread to other stores. We do the same events every year. That'd be cumbersome to go down that whole list. But other than that, if I had any wisdom to share, it's that there's so much more opportunity for people to be successful in the way that they want to be. I wish I could put it into perfect words to make people feel like they could fly or something, but I think people think that they need someone to give them permission, but they don't. If they want something, if they have a real vision for something, they could start doing it today, step by step. I think people would be surprised at how much we could do for our sleepy Alaskan economy over the next five years if we started doing our own thing. Yeah, for sure. I completely agree. You got to get one foot going in front of the other. There's always a little bit of risk, but that's anything. HOMYNA: Yeah, anything and everything. Anything worth doing anyway. HOMYNA: Totally.

Well, thank you much, Homyna. I appreciate you taking the time, and looking forward to when we get that Fairbanks box out, and everyone gets to try your tonics. It's going to be fun. HOMYNA: Yeah, thank you so much for everything that you guys are doing, I'm really happy to be a part of it. A big, big thanks to Homyna for taking the time out of her day for this interview. We're really stoked that she wanted to be a part of our Fairbanks Bear Box. If you want to connect and/or order, please reach out on her Facebook or Instagram.