Since I had my first child nearly three years ago, I maintained that I would have another human, but not an animal. This was confirmed upon the birth of babe number two, where I upheld the notion that I could not possibly be in charge of one more creature’s fecal matter.
But feed another mouth? Sure, why not. Only a delusional person would—in the midst of a partner’s appendectomy, her own bring-you-to-your-knees-ear infection, a family cold, an infant taking up crawling and a toddler on Winter Break terror—think it sure time to take on a sourdough starter.
Turns out I am delusional.
To be fair, like a first-time pregnant woman, I had no idea what I was getting into. I was ignorant of the sourdough’s daily demands, and it turns out, this heirloom starter is as needy as my toddler. On the up side, it does not produce feces, unless of course, you count the 80% of the mass that you discard daily—similarities to my toddler continue to mount.
I didn’t realize when I requested some of a friend’s discard sourdough that I was committing to a daily endeavor, never mind actually making anything with it. The pictures of her artisanal loaves spoke to my forgotten Martha Stewart and my current Ree Drummand. Who would not want bread seemingly plucked from the oven of a boutique bakery? Surely I could manage to wipe butts, noses, appendectomy wounds and find some time to mix flour and water together. I mean, I was a mother, for chrissakes. What wasn’t I already doing? (Mailing out my Christmas cards, for one.)
The Ziploc bag seemed innocuous enough. The directions my friend gave me, while her three cherubs under three whirled around her, seemed like anyone with half a second could manage them.
By the time I arrived home I had just enough time to stash the baggie in the fridge.
It took me two days to retrieve it. Hell, to even remember that I had it. And then, of course, it had to come to room temperature. During which time I mediated several infant/toddler UFC fights, moved six loads of laundry, picked up the egg and kiwi off the kitchen floor (again) and found a half second to pee in partial peace. Which means I forgot about the starter.
Between leaving it in the fridge too long without feeding, and then leaving it on the counter, I was sure I had killed it. What would it look like if dead? How would I know if it could be revived? I found directions online for feeding my new mouth, hoping to find those answers and more questions immediately arose: did I discard half of what I had been given, or just mix the flour right in? I queried my sourdough mentor.
In the meantime I found the recipe she had suggested: Tartine Country Loaf. The famed Chad Robertson recipe that turns out golden globes of perfect-sourdough crust with moist, hole-y, sour innards is a mere six pages long. Online, that translates to 13 steps, each a paragraph long and a lot of scrolling. I stepped out of Mom role for fifteen minutes to attempt to decode the process. My eyes crossed. I dusted off and donned my high school English teaching hat. My brain scrambled. What had I gotten myself into? Even Martha says this bread “requires a commitment.” I had, unwittingly, brought another needy child into my home.
There was a host of new vocabulary I had never heard: crumb, leaven, lame, proofing baskets and, the kicker: grams. I was to construct all this in grams. My mind spun back to Christmases past where my Danish mother-in-law frantically converted tablespoons to deciliters. Even she, who had grown up with the metric system, still struggled to weigh properly in America. It wasn’t just that there were 13 steps in a foreign language and measuring schema, no, it also appeared that it would take approximately two and a half days, or in mom time, nine years to make two loaves of bread.
And yet. I somehow felt obligated to this swimming mass of tan ooze as a mama does to a clustered mass of cells on an ultrasound. I felt as though I owed it to this discarded pile to transform it into something grander, to help it reach its ultimate destiny. I was like the fairy godmother of sourdough. And there was also the host of hands that had tended to this living mass in some way before me. This was the adult version of a chain letter, and could I really sleep at night if I was the one to say Fuck it, and toss that shit in the trash?
No, no I could not.
For several nights I stayed up much past my bedtime researching, planning and trying to wrap my head around what I needed to do. I realized that I was on the brink of stepping into a cult—these Tartine loaf people were serious. And you had to be—this is not your mama’s bread-maker.
Once I began with the leaven, the process took me two-and-a-half days. For each step, I read the directions, watched a video, and reread the directions. Every step felt awkward and clumsy; dough and flour concealed every corner of my counter. Every available bowl was dirtied. I didn’t have any of the fancy bread-making tools: a dough scraper, proofing baskets, lame, or a linen hand towel, and made do with the spatula from my twenties and some thrifted Pyrex. I floured the side that was meant to remain dry and turned the seam the wrong way. I cheated with a short cut and was busy coercing a toddler to shit on a toilet when I ought to have taken the dough from the fridge. I nearly burned myself scoring the loaf.
There is a moment of reckoning with every loaf, I am finding, as you pull the lid off the vessel in which you cook it. The first time I didn’t know what to expect. I was ready for a sad lump in the bottom of the cast iron. But, low and behold: there she rose! A beautiful domed loaf of sourdough, risen to perfection. As the crust crisped, I could already taste the tablespoons of butter I would slather across it. I knew I would hedge my bets and slice into that sucker well before the suggested hour cool-down.
It was hands down the most spectacular loaf of bread I have ever eaten.
The next week I tried again, ready to make the two loaves the recipe called for. I only had to watch the video at a few steps, and I had some inkling of how to flip the dough, how to turn and pile it on itself four times every thirty minutes for the rest of my life. In my haste, I hurried though one proofing and combined the short-cut with the traditional method to fit my schedule. I was certain that would be the death of the loaves and lamented the wasted flour.
When I pulled the lid off the first loaf in the oven, I was astonished: another pale, perfect dome. It crisped to perfection under the 400 degrees and I had to stop myself from eating every last slice before bed that night.
As I plunked the second loaf into the re-heated cast iron, I considered the laborious art I had undertaken. I could see the grip traditional bread making has on people, why it has a cult-ish following. Why a former colleague laughed and said, “Making bread by hand is a way of life” when I told him I had a bread machine. It is a science. A devotion. A time-suck and a labor of love.
This massive list of must-dos, the daily tending, the discarding some and restoring the other, the challenge of sorting out grams and the diligence to weigh your flour every time and the patience between proofings and the demanding a turn every thirty minutes and and and and and all the number of ways in which you can fuck it up and it still…still it rises. Maya Angelou* had it right: there is so much in life to weigh us down, so many rules to follow and places to go wrong and details and people that need attention. And it is so easy for a Type A like myself to lambaste and flagellate oneself: I missed this exercise class, I bought instead of made cookies for the bake sale, I still have yet to get out the god damn Christmas cards, I let the dishes in the sink rot overnight, I spoke too harshly to my kid, ignored my husband, forgot to call my mother, didn’t have time to let the dough fully rise, I failed to feed the starter today…and the list goes on. Still we rise.
If this bread, with all its demands, and under duress, can turn out loaf after loaf of nourishing goodness, well then, there is hope for the other living bodies in my house, and for myself. Turns out there is grace in that sourdough starter. Children and partners and parents and friends will too, withstand a particular amount of fuck ups. Because when you devote that much time to something—a partnership, a child, a lump of flour and water and salt—the love that is poured in will often be enough to withstand a failed proof here, a forgotten to change a diaper there, a missed call here. Bread and humans are not meant to be perfect; every loaf and day of mama-ing and wife-ing is different, calling for a different set of instructions. And we—I—will screw up. Still we will rise. And for the toughest loaves, the most unsavory slices, there is always butter.
*My apologies for taking this totally out of context; there is no dismissal on my part of the grave circumstances under which she first uttered it.
I love reading your writing. Makes me miss the cult of bread making–it’s been awhile.