Me and My Sourdough Starter

How I proudly became part of a 2020 lockdown cliche

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Let’s start in the middle with this narrative, shall we? So a little over a week ago, I drove to my friend Karen’s house to pick up some sourdough starter. She had it ready for me in a little Tupperware, placed on her front stoop following social distancing protocols, secured with plastic wrap and a rubber band. I swear that on the short ride home, I drove slower and more carefully than usual, as though I had a newborn in the back of the car instead of something bubbling and slightly smelly in the passenger seat.

My nervousness could be attributed to twin causes. First of all, this was “sourdough in the time of COVID” — a time when finding yeast in the store is akin to spotting a proverbial unicorn. This meant my newly acquired container of starter could be a gateway to the fermented lands, all without having to cry over spilled yeast. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, sourdough starter and I had made this journey home before. And it had not gone well. It had been alive. And I had killed it. That was the short version. This tale of woe was familiar to me, since I tend to follow the same abbreviated storyline when attempting to grow houseplants. In reality, my first starter had died a slow, painful to watch, somewhat gruesome death two years ago. I had willfully neglected it, leaving it to bloom, over-ripen, and ultimately devolve into something moldy and unrecognizable. I claimed to be an avid cook and baker but had proven myself unworthy. I was ashamed. It was a wonder that Karen, an absolute genius at all things sourdough, had even deigned to give me another chance.

All of this should help explain why I was treating this new batch of starter like a baby or a bomb. That’s really how I felt about it — like it was something fragile and explosive that I had taken responsibility for, and which I was likely to screw up sooner rather than later. I resolved to do it differently this time. I texted Karen a bevy of questions ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous on everything sourdough-related, and by the end of the evening, I felt relieved. I had done my research. I had answers. I was ready and I could do this.

That was eleven days ago. Over the next week and a half, my interest in my sourdough starter began to border on obsessive. I opened the refrigerator door multiple times a day just to check on it. Had it grown recently? I examined the size of the bubbles on the surface — did they indicate a healthy, rich inner life? Did it smell the way it was supposed to? I wondered whether it thought about me at all, or if it just sat there, cold and indifferent, while I worried about its future.

But I couldn’t stop myself. I created a Pinterest board on sourdough. I pored over videos demonstrating the different methods of stretching, pulling, and folding the damn thing. I started following Instagrammers who had the prettiest pictures of boule scoring technique. I even discovered the beautiful yet somewhat tedious world of “bread art” — decorating sourdough focaccia loaves with leaves, herbs, and shaved vegetables until you could no longer tell where your sanity ended and the delicate design began. It was all-consuming.

Suddenly, the most pressing matter during quarantine was not feeding my family, but feeding the starter. Flour was harder to source than eggs, rice, or fresh produce. I would wake up extra early trying to score a 5lb bag of King Arthur flour online. I bartered with a friend to swap some all purpose flour with me in exchange for the whole wheat kind — who needed whole wheat anyway? (It turns out, I did, but I didn’t find that out until much later.) And then, when our neighbor said he was able to buy me a 25lb bag of flour on his Costco run, he seemed surprised by my level of excitement over the news. It struck me then that my starter had completely taken over my life. It was the newest baby in the house, and here I was, fretting over not having enough flour to feed it regularly, like a new parent stressing over needing to stock up on formula or baby food during a global pandemic. Articles would show up on my feed about the growing number of clueless people who were now suddenly dabbling in sourdough. This felt more and more ridiculous, and I was increasingly aware of the fact that I was becoming a cliche. I’d spent the better part of my life leery of jumping onto any kind of bandwagon, yet here I was, willingly making myself a doughy statistic.

Why, then, AM I still here? Shouldn’t I be desperate to crawl my way out of this jar of odd-smelling quicksand? Deep down, though, here’s what I’ve realized. Sourdough is absolutely delicious. It makes crazy-tasty waffles and pancakes, sublime pizza crust, and a smack-somebody-good loaf of bread. But more than anything else, it makes me feel like I’m nurturing something during this time of crisis. Despite all the terrible news and uncertainty around me, as long as I feed it, my starter still rises. Even if I accidentally miscalculate amounts or mess up the schedule a bit, it takes pity on me and takes care of itself. And somehow, after all my bumbling mistakes, it selflessly and deliciously helps me feed my family, over and over and over again. In the age we’re living through right now, this feels like a very, very good thing.

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Often reading, writing, or teaching. Always cooking, baking, and eating. Words in Human Parts, Curious, Modern Parent. Connect on Twitter @purnima_mani

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