The Summer of Sourdough
“I feel like a rat in a cage,” Sean had said and I understood though for me the feeling’s more akin to launching myself repeatedly with gusto against the walls of a padded room. Thank God I’ve found my way out, at least for the time being, or we’d be liable to do something drastic. A month ago I was all-in for a three year excursion to China. Our need for growth rivals our need for oxygen.
About the cage Sean had been speaking figuratively of course, yet when the kids and I attempted to share our admittedly efficient kitchen with him the following afternoon - he’d consumed every available surface with his sourdough bread baking operation - the analogy turned literal. “In our next house we’re having a big kitchen,” was his familiar refrain uttered in frustration as we danced around each other opening and closing cabinet and appliance doors both having assumed lead. Seemingly overnight bread baking had become serious business; part art project, part science experiment and as temperamental as a newborn. Nurturing a starter along for weeks to a point where it was ready to produce a golden crusty boule (that’s fancy for round loaf) meant that it had become his baby, along with the other three also waiting to be fed.
To say it all began innocently would be a half truth. No one watches a documentary hoping to come away from the experience unchanged; unscathed, sure. In a top five list of our children’s biggest fears documentaries rank third preceded only by death of a parent and becoming lost (4. podcasts 5.clowns or non-fiction books). Once during a family viewing of That Sugar Film Astrid burst into tears. “I’m scared you’re going to take away my treats,” she sobbed. My mirror. Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants are three main tenets of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food (double whammy documentary and non-fiction book) and with those words our summer of sourdough was conceived.
If grocery store yeast packets are the equivalent of a middle school crush, the sourdough starter is the James Dean of yeast - older, wilder, volatile. Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today. And it truly is alive - a fermenting, gummy, brown concoction in a glass jar that alternately resides on the top shelf of our refrigerator and a prominent position on the kitchen counter. Many a morning have I padded into the kitchen to find the starter has bubbled up overnight popping it’s metal lid and overflowing onto the countertop. Rebel. “In our next house I’m getting a bigger jar,” it seems to lament. When not covered in a fine dusting of flour our gold-flecked Formica counters are crusted with barnacles of hardened dough that catch on my paper towel as I wipe and can only be removed by Brillo pad.
Sometimes (when I should be writing but am instead lingering dangerously near the refrigerator) I amuse myself imagining the dark side of sourdough. It eats, it grows, it lives…it feels? Perhaps inspiration for a future cozy thriller in which the starter becomes jealous of the children who receive more of Sean’s attention and all of mine. The children are fed first, more, and better. One night it eats the children, pouring from our faucets like the pink goo in Ghostbusters. I’m eventually eaten as well but not until I’ve been sufficiently fattened (sourdough + Jif Natural Crunchy Peanut Butter) and Sean comforted. As yet we’re unaware how it responds to music.
I find that there are library people and then there’s everyone else. Sean is the latter. Yet, a delightful outcome of the summer of sourdough was his request that I check out a copy of Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread, hailed in 2010 as “…the most beautiful bread book yet published…” by the New York Times, on his behalf from the Chardon library. Every three days he asked if it had come in. On a sunny, warm afternoon when summer had finally, finally shone its face I walked up to the library to retrieve this very important book. When the librarian pulled it from the holds shelf I was overjoyed. “My husband’s been waiting excitedly for this book to arrive,” I gushed. “He’s going through a bread baking phase.” “You’re lucky,” she replied. “My husband went through a kimchi phase.”
When the first batch of sourdough was baked it didn’t prove (that’s fancy for rise). It was rather dense but fresh, hot and crusty. We devoured it one slice at a time slathered in butter, as if we hadn’t just eaten dinner, as if we hadn’t eaten bread in years, as if, living in a post-apocalyptic world, we’d just discovered that bread could be made simply with few ingredients, patience and determination. Standing in the tiny kitchen, all five of us, the dog circling our legs.
I met Sean in the bathroom this morning as he stepped off the scale. “I’m starting fresh,” I told him. “I’ve gained weight.” “Me too,” he replied, “but I know what I need to get back on track. I need to watch a documentary.”