(First published in the February 21, 2019 issue of City Pages)
A two-year journey around the world inspired this Wausau couple to create a website/blog about fermented foods, healthy eating and mindfulness
Matt and Alana Elderbrook, in their southeast side Wausau home, founded The Wild Gut after a two-year journey around the world
It might seem ironic that Matt and Alana Elderbrook got the idea for their health-focused website in a country where wi-fi was pretty scarce.
But the lifestyle in Guatemala—the last country on a nearly two-year journey around the world that included Asia, Africa and Europe—led directly to what the couple feels are important pillars of health: healthy food, mindfulness and movement. That’s now the foundation of The Wild Gut, their website and blog dedicated to health and wellness, with an emphasis on fermented food.
Matt, 36, and Alana, 35, met in college at UW-La Crosse. Matt grew up in Marshfield and Alana grew up in Wausau. After college they moved to Madison and both worked in marketing for ten years.
They moved to Minneapolis in 2013, and this is when they made a big life decision: They wanted to travel the world while they were still young.
The Elderbrooks had downsized for the move to Minneapolis, and with their decision to travel, sold as much as they could, reducing their possessions down to two bags.
“I was in the minimalist mindset already,” Matt says. “This was a chance to really dig in deep.”
A couple they’d met on a trip to Nicaragua in 2012 helped spark the idea, Alana says. The woman was a lawyer, her husband was a engineer. “They decided to quit their jobs and travel,” Alana says. “These were people with real jobs.”
Matt and Alana gave themselves nine months to get their affairs in order and make arrangements for their departure from work. Their bosses were surprisingly understanding, Matt says. “They were a startup company so I didn’t want to put them in a pinch,” Matt says. He ended up staying on several more months than he anticipated, while the company planned for his replacement. “My boss was an avid world traveler. He was jealous,” Matt jokes.
The first destination as they left on the journey in 2014 was Tokyo Japan. They then traveled through southeast Asia, visiting Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, South Korea, Indonesia and the Philippines. They visited eight countries in Africa, which included overland camping trips from Nairobi to Cape Town. One night they experienced a flock of flies so dense it looked like snow, Alana says.
The couple then made their way to Europe, which included a stint as house sitters. They made friends within the local expat scene in Turkey and found themselves invited to sailboat outings around the Mediterranean and five-hour hikes. They explored Greece, Italy, Germany, Austria, Poland and Germany.
After a return to the states for a summer, they ended up doing another house-sitting stint in Turkey. Then on to Central America, where they lived in a very remote village. It was there, at a yoga retreat, that the Elderbrooks were introduced to fermented foods.
“We had eaten and drank our way around the world,” Matt says. “We were enjoying ourselves, but we were feeling bloated and sluggish. So we decided to spend five weeks in a yogi town.”
It didn’t take long for the couple to feel much better, Matt says. They lived in a cabin on a permaculture farm, surrounded by coffee roasters. “You buy coffee from your neighbors, they’re literally the roasters,” Matt says. They did yoga, took classes in fermentation, and meditated.
The Guatemala experience made them think about both their own lifestyles, and how others could benefit from it. That led to the formation of The Wild Gut, a blog dedicated to fermented foods, mindfulness and fitness.
Although fermentation is the primary focus — the blog has detailed and helpful recipes for making one’s own kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi and other fermented veggies—that’s only part of the overall health picture.
The two-year venture around the world gave the couple a new perspective on health and wellness.
They noted that most populations were more active than in the U.S. People walked more, and walking became a common form of transportation for them as well. Most meals in the places they visited focused more on vegetables and less on meat. Alana had been a vegetarian prior to the trip; Matt learned to eat less of it since their travels.
“Some countries had fantastic vegetarian dishes,” Matt says. “It made me think I don’t have to always have beef or chicken, whether at home or going out to eat.”
Alana also noted how people in many of the poorer areas they visited tended to grow their own food. Even as a vegetarian, the experience inspired Alana to eat a wider variety of vegetables, she says.
The blog is a culmination of the couple’s path to wellness that started with a push to get in shape for their 2010 wedding, Alana says. “We took a good, long look at ourselves,” Alana says. “We realized college had done some damage.”
The yoga retreat, eating healthy and organic foods as well as fermented foods, and meditation helped them achieve their best wellness. The goal of the blog, which Alana worked on exclusively for nearly two years after returning to Wausau, is to provide information for the three platforms: food, movement, and mindfulness. The blog has not only provided a source of revenue (without disclosing exact figures, Matt says he would describe it as a solid supplemental revenue source) but has led to workshops and new friendships. One woman on social media recently told the couple a sourdough bread recipe the couple had posted was the first that had ever worked for her, Matt says.
“The plan was, we know the content is something we’re passionate about,” Matt says.
They still have day jobs: Matt works in sales and Alana in digital marketing. But they hope to continue spreading the word about what they’ve learned about health and wellness.
Matt and Alana’s tips for healthy living
• Bring your own lunches to work: Not only is it generally healthier, but this habit will save money as well.
• Make time for weekly meal prep and planning: It makes a big difference: “If I don’t meal prep for the week, I fail,” Alana says. That means not only work lunches, but also prepping vegetables ahead of time — like washing and cutting onions, carrots, greens and cauliflower— so that healthy evening meals are easier and faster to prepare during the week when you have less time.
• Put out workout clothes the night before: Both Matt and Alana agree it’s much easier exercise in the morning if you make it was easy as possible for yourself. Also, setting an alarm clock in a location that forces you to get out of bed to turn it off can help too.
• Find a workout you enjoy: Let’s face it, sticking to exercise is a lot easier if it’s something you actually enjoy, Alana says.
• Think of wellness as more than appearance: We all like to look good, but the true benefit of improving health and wellness is how you feel.
• Absolutely restrict yourself in terms of food: Yes, they eat healthy most of the time, but they still make time to go out for dinner, or have beer and pizza on occasion.
• Think you can’t eat healthy on the road. Because he now works in sales, Matt travels a lot, but no matter where he is, he will try to find a Whole Foods or a place like Wausau’s Downtown Grocery for healthy eating.
• Think you need a gym membership: Alana loves group workout classes, but there are plenty of apps or online fitness programs that can help you stay in shape too.
• Believe you’re the only person in an exercise class for the first time: There’s always someone else who’s a newbie, too. Don’t worry about looking funny because everyone else is too focused on sweating their face off to pay much attention to you.
• Be hesitant to try a new kind of food: Maybe it’s a vegetable you haven’t had before, or a fermented food. Just give it a try with an open mind. For a first fermented food, Matt recommends kombucha — find one in a flavor you like and try that first. It will taste much like a soft drink, but a much healthier one.
Alana and Matt Elderbrook post a lot of recipes on their website, TheWildGut.com. One of their “basics” is a recipe for homemade Superfood Sauerkraut that adds carrots, ginger and turmeric to the cabbage. Find the detailed instructions on their website. Here’s the gist:
1 large head of cabbage
1–1.5 lbs. carrots
1 Tbsp. ground turmeric
1” chunk of ginger, grated
Remove outer leaves and core of the cabbage and set aside. Shred the remaining cabbage and carrots. Place cabbage in a large bowl and sprinkle with about 2 to 3 Tbsp. of sea salt (1 Tbsp. to 1.75 lbs. cabbage). Massage until the cabbage begins to sweat and you see some liquid.
Add the carrots and turmeric and mix to combine.
Pack it into a large glass jar(s), pressing down to get rid of any air pockets and throwing in the ginger so it’s distributed in the jar. Top it with a weight or the outer cabbage leaves and core so that the shredded vegetables are under the brine.
Cap the jar and allow to ferment at room temperature for several days. Be sure to “burp” the jar at least once a day for the first several days. Ferment for 14–30 days, tasting at 14 days to see what you think. Once you like what you taste, move it to the refrigerator and enjoy.