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.
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.
I have kept her alive for 17 days.
No one is more surprised than me, Diary.
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.
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.