28 March 2020 — The COVID Diaries: Staying Sane in a Time That’s Not

 

Dear Diary,

I’ve always considered myself a cook, as opposed to a baker. One is art; the other, chemistry. As a cook, I can chop and dice and whip and purée and maneuver around my kitchen by feel, turning the heat up or down based on whim and desired result, tasting and tasting and tasting again to get the sweet:salt:fat ratio right. Baking, on the other hand, is a precision sport with rules and measurements. It’s exacting and if, like me, you’d rather push boundaries than stay neatly inside them, it’s also exasperating. 

Mind numbing.

Time sucking.

I didn’t have time to be a baker, Diary.

Until I suddenly did.

Oh, I baked, but my preferred recipes all involved beating the clock and cheating the rules so I could get within waving distance of a great product with the least amount of time and effort possible. Close enough to delicious to fool all but the most discerning palates. After all, there’s a lot that can be forgiven in an easy-peasy cinnamon roll that’s hot from the oven, and if there are no leftovers to heat the next day in order to witness that the bread bit is less buttery and supple on Day 2, well, then, that’s good enough for me. I regret nothing. Did I make my family homemade cinnamon rolls? WHY, YES I DID, AND I’LL BE ACCEPTING MY TROPHY ANY MINUTE, THANK YOU VERY MUCH. Cinnamon rolls in my book are an Above and Beyond gesture. Noble and selfless in the extreme. Even the kind that’s easy and peasy and cheats time. 

Yet, here I am, in self-isolation following the recommendations and mandates of my local and national government, and I have fallen in love.

Head over heels.

With sourdough starter.

My time right now is spent thusly:

25% — Reading News About COVID-19
25% — Trying to Stop Reading News About COVID-19
30% — Playing with Sourdough Starter
20% — Touching My Face

Now, I’ve always been interested in sourdough. I’m a geek at heart — I’m interested in nearly everything. But I’ve also always turned starter offers down. The LAST THING I needed in the WHOLE WORLD was ANOTHER OBJECT to keep alive.

It was a doctrinal position. A personal survival imperative. NO MORE ITEMS in my house that required feeding and cultivating and watering and worrying and precious, precious brain space. 

Humans? Yes, I’ll expend effort to keep them alive. Sometimes minimal effort, but I’m still counting it.

Dogs? To be honest, most days I like them better than the humans. They’re a yes, always and forevermore.

Cats? Fine. My kid loves them, and I love my kid, and fortunately the cats are chatty and mouthy which are my favorite features in cats and toddlers. I like them with a little sass. 

Fish? Hell, no. I can’t snuggle them. They smell horrible. And I’m not responsible enough to clean a tank.

Houseplants? Nope. Strictly no. They’re lovely. They’re popular lately. Very hipster chic. But I just Cannot with an Extra Thing to tend. I can barely tend to myself, ffs. 

So I probably should’ve known the world was about to go topsy turvy when this little one entered my life. 

Meet Enid.

I have kept her alive for 17 days.

SEVENTEEN.

No one is more surprised than me, Diary.

No one. 

And then Samantha joined us for self-isolation.

Samantha the Sourdough Starter.

And she is pure magic, Diary.

She is a witch in the Village Healer sense, full of history and carefully maintained lore. She carries the stories handed down from grandmother to mother to child from time immemorial.

She’s a spell from an ancient spell book, like chicken soup or cheese — things that are more than the sum of their parts, transformative in nature, a revelation if we’re paying attention.

She is bubble, bubble, toil and trouble, except not too much toil and surprisingly little trouble. Maybe bubble, bubble, roil and double, instead, if it’s important to get the incantation right. 

But her best magic is this — she is a reminder of the human spirit and the indomitable will to survive. 

Dozens and hundreds and thousands and millions of people for centuries and then millennia have taken flour and water and mixed them and molded them and tucked them away and fed them and fostered them to make bread.

Bright bread. Dark bread. Sweet and sour bread. Daily bread. Leavened bread, lifted up, risen high, resurrected again and again from two plain things. Flour and water. 

Over and over.

Flour and water.

That’s all.

Flour and water and loving hands and hungry hands and old hands and young.

From a time before we can imagine. 

She spread out from ancient Syria through medieval castles and crossed oceans and whole continents, and she endured. 

She survived war and plague and famine.

She met Moses and Muhammad and Jesus and Elvis. She dined with Roman emperors and sat on paupers’ tables and traversed the Oregon Trail.

She witnessed travesty and tragedy and triumph. And she lives, still, to witness them all again.

And so she’s a thread that binds us and reminds us. 

We are tied to our history. We are a people born of people who ate bread. And broke bread. And needed bread. And gave bread. And made more bread. From just water and flour. And flour and water. Again and again. As meditation. As prayer. As sustenance. 

Bigger than a virus ever was. Or ever will be.

With love,

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ABOUT BETH WOOLSEY I'm a writer. And a mess. And mouthy, brave, and strong. I believe we all belong to each other. I believe in the long way 'round. And I believe, always, in grace in the grime and wonder in the wild of a life lived off course from what was, once, a perfectly good plan.
14 comments
  1. If you’re looking for a good read to go along with your newest hobby, may I recommend Sourdough by Robin Sloan? My book club read it a few months ago and we all really enjoyed it.

    1. My book club read it, too! It was weird. I liked it. 🙂

      1. I agree: it was weird, and I liked it, too!

  2. Oh, this is a good Sunday read, thank you!
    But now I need sourdough starter and I haven’t had any in YEARS. Like, more than 20 years. My youngest child has never lived in a house with sourdough starter. And how does one get it while in state-mandated “stay at home” measures?

    1. It’s super easy to make at home! https://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/sourdough-starter-recipe

      Or check out Friends of Carl if you’d like a much, much older one. http://carlsfriends.net/

  3. Beth do you have the recipe for the starter? I’m ready to dive in 🙂 Thanks!!

    1. Yes! The King Arthur Flour website has great information on how to make a starter, maintain it, and a bunch of lovely recipes for how to use it. https://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/sourdough-starter-recipe

      Also, FUN FACT, you can mail away for a FREE dried starter from Friends of Carl… the story is really amazing and heartwarming, too. http://carlsfriends.net/

  4. Hmm, are those little rosemary focaccias in that picture? Can I steal one off the cooling rack?

    1. They’re mini sourdough pizza crusts I made with the “discard” starter (which I absolutely do not discard). My kids can grab them out of the cupboard, top with sauce and cheese, and VOILA! fast meal!

  5. I’ve been nurturing my own sourdough starter for about 10 years! When she gets too demanding, I just tuck her in the back corner of the fridge where she rests comfortably for long periods of time until I need her again. She’s been particularly busy the last few weeks providing us with yeasty goodness. Favorites here are peasant bread (from 52 Loaves…highly recommended reading) and King Arthur baguettes and English Muffins. Those muffins! I could easily polish off four in a single sitting! Any favorite recipes you can share?

    1. Please send the English Muffins recipe, STAT!

      I’ve been working my way through the “discard” recipes at the King Arthur Flour website. https://www.kingarthurflour.com/search?query=discard So far, HIGHLY recommend the crumpets, pizza dough, and classic waffles. I tried the biscuits and they were a bust… but I think it’s because my oven wasn’t hot enough when I put them in, so the butter melted out of them instead of fluffing them up. Next up to try are popovers and cinnamon swirl bread. But the go-to I’m using for bread is the No Knead Sourdough recipe — https://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/no-knead-sourdough-bread-recipe. Once the starter was robust enough, it became SUPER simple to do.

      1. https://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/sourdough-english-muffins-recipe

        1- definitely cut, do not flatten
        2- absolutely do not cool before eating. That’s madness. Eat every last one before they’ve had a chance to cool.

        In 10 years, I have yet to discard any starter aside from sharing with others.

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