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'Sourdough fever's got me'

(post, Sarah Gilbert)

I know I often get caught up in the moment, transported by a good feta cheese or a particularly sexy kind of leafy green. But who knew how thrilling a bowl of bubbling fungus would be?

I have not even baked my first loaf before I've caught the fever. So it can't be a case of substance abuse (unless the yeasty fumes are getting me high). The book I've been turning to for recipes for berry honey wine, brined pickles, and kombucha — Wild Fermentation — is the one that's got me all worked up about sourdough. 

I have a "sponge" working on the counter for recycled grain bread; I'm using those sprouted rye berries and a bunch of whole-wheat flour; and as soon as my replenished starter gets bubbling wildly again, I start a new sponge for oatmeal bread. Already I trust my prodigiously active yeast to work on my favorite recipe, I trust the chemistry I've managed to glean from the text, I trust my bread-baking mojo enough to make it up a bit. Cooked grains. Liquid. Flour. And that sourdough starter.

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="Sourdough waffles."]

My husband and a house guest are in the kitchen, and I excitedly read portions of the book to them, walking them through the process. The starter, super-charged by three unwashed organic Bing cherries from Viridian Farms, got going faster than I expected; it was bubbly in three days, and I strained the fruit out on the fourth, waiting one more day before getting going on my bread only because I had a mindblowingly bad day at work that Thursday. 

The sponge gets to sit until Saturday (8 to 24 hours, such whimsy), when it will be good and bubbly and I'll mix the rest of the flour so the dough comes together. Then, it's kneading  time; I learned how to knead when I was nine and I've been practicing these several months on pasta, cracker dough, and tortillas. 

Kneading is a little like prayer. No, kneading is prayer, and if you've ever read the Bible, you'll know that bread is everywhere. Bread is the staff of life. Bread is the subject of at least a half-dozen miracles, from the well-known loaves and fishes to the lesser-known stories, such as the one where bread was cast upon the waters (well, it's a proverb, but still), or the one where the prophet Elijah honors a widow for taking him in by blessing the jar of oil and the barrel of flour to last two years, enough each day for the prophet, the widow, and her son to eat. 

In a perfect world, I would knead in a quiet kitchen with the breeze lifting tendrils of hair off my neck and the scent of lavender wafting in from my garden. But my 13-month-old is banging pans at my feet and my three-year-old is jostling my elbow, trying to help me, and I'm pretty sure that one of our chickens has got into the neighbor's yard again. I do not know how long I've kneaded, and I haven't communed much with God, Elijah, or the little yeasties. But I wash out my bowl (I'm being reminded by the house guest that I'm using too much water to wash my bowl, and it's reallllly starting to grate on my nerves, his continual advice on being more sustainable), I pour a bit of olive oil in the bottom, and in goes my bread to rise.

There it is. That proverb: "Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again." I take a breath, I put the pans back into the cupboard, I read Truman a book, and forget about the bread until later that afternoon, when I find it, bursting the edges of the bowl, ready to be "proofed" (a fancy bread-baking term that only means "handled for a minute or so with clean hands, shaped into a loaf any old way, and put in a bread pan to rise a bit more"). 

I let it rise a few hours and bake it during dinner. That night, I slather thick wheaty slices with my cultured butter and raw honey, inhaling the sour scent and chewiness.

I have captured this yeast from the air; it is my own culture. I proudly make a sponge for sourdough pancakes, feed my starter, and set it back on the shelf as I ruminate about the word "culture." While the word has come to mean "there is fine art here," or, perhaps, "how our employees/students/members relate to one another," its root is in eensy living things. 

Would the residents of Manhattan scoffing at a rural town for its lack of culture stop to think that, perhaps, exceedingly fine yeasts live there after all? Would the bankers from Goldman Sachs — who rejected me twice, I think I didn't fit into their "culture" — reconsider their decision were I to show my new way with fizzy flour and water? (And, honestly, I look fabulous in pinstripes and French cuffs.)

Here in my 1912 house in southeast Portland, I have culture. I have a butter culture, I have a yogurt culture, I have a blue-cheese culture, and now I have a sourdough culture that takes "local" and spins it around on itself like a whirling dervish of Biblical proportions, this little miracle. 

This is not elitist. No one can tell me that making bread with whole-wheat flour, tap water, and yeast I caught straight out of the air is only for the opera-and-sparkling-wine set. No. Everyone has access to this! Catch your own, they're free!

[%image starter float=right width=200 caption="Starter."] 

I think about the widow and her son. They lived in Sidon, a city outside of Israel, and they were desperately poor. This was their food: bread made from meal (a very coarse ancient version of flour) and oil. Almost certainly, the yeast was already living in the barrel where the meal was kept. Throughout history, bread has often been at the center of the meal — so much so that the very word for "meal" is the same as the word for "flour" — because it was the cheapest nourishment available. For many, bread was all they had. That was their "culture," literally, figuratively, wholly.

I love my culture so. What need have I for box seats at Carnegie Hall, or a white-shoe investment bank, when I have sourdough? 

Online, I look up recipes. Sourdough bread and pancakes are only the beginning; soon I am printing out recipes for sourdough muffins, biscuits, gingerbread, and pie crust. The thing is that sourdough is vastly simple. Nearly every recipe begins in the same way: one cup culture, two cups flour, two cups liquid, set overnight, add salt and a few other things, and cook. For pancakes, a few teaspoons of baking soda, an egg, a little melted butter; for waffles, a few teaspoons of baking soda, two eggs, a lot of melted butter.

At night, I do not need to get out my pearls or my favorite Ralph Lauren strappy sandals or that slinky wool cocktail dress to get my culture on. No. I need a blue-and-white crock that stinks sourly and bubbles oddly, I need a bowl and a wooden spoon and a well-stocked flour bin. Zagat's hasn't yet opined on my pancakes, but I've heard the advance chatter from the cognoscenti, and I'm thinking this culture will earn the highest critical acclaim.

Which in this house involves four boys and a bunch of licked-clean plates. Brava! Bravissima! And thank the Lord, I have found my bread again.

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starter, l