When Sourdough Starter Goes Viral
We all witnessed it. As March 2020 limped bruised and broken to a close and April peeked a cautious head around the corner, an insidious wave had washed up upon every shore. There was no avoiding it. Social media simmered with posts and photos about it, with folks courageously documenting their foray into this new, intimidating unknown.
It was inescapable.
Everyone was learning to make sourdough bread.
What I can only think was a knee-jerk survival instinct in answer to a life-threatening worldwide development (MUST MAKE FOOD) manifested as every third person in my web world being deputized into this yeasty posse.
I got my starter!
Here goes nothing!
I wish you all could smell this!
I have to admit I felt the tug to enlist. It made so much sense! While I felt I had about a DefCon 3 amount of toilet paper and Totino’s Frozen Pizza Rolls, it still felt like a bandage. Becoming a bread baker, on the other hand, was true adaptation in the face of a veritable viral apocalypse. I could see it! Me, in an apron made out of rhododendron leaves woven together with dental floss and a touch of flour fetchingly fixed on my cheek, kneading away in my kitchen, providing my family with delicious, hot, fresh bread, while chaos reigned outside as hordes of breadless suckers lamented their shortsightedness. I had learned to make butter by churning nondairy creamer mixed with rainwater, and our family could survive, nay, flourish, like this, until Dr. Fauci was only gracing our screens on Dancing With The Stars.
I could smell that bread, and it smelled like survival.
Fast forward a few weeks to mid-April and I had not only lost my sense of smell and taste but found myself sicker than I’d ever been in my life. You know that list they present to you now when you enter a doctor’s office or business that shows about 10 symptoms, and if you have any, you can’t come in? I had all of them for about a month, and that month was long enough to completely forget about my bread making fantasies, or even consider ransacking the rhodies to start construction of my apron.
Prior to getting sick, the pandemic had felt like a movie that was playing out on TV, texts, and emails, where a sinister, invisible predator was making its way across the globe claiming victims at an increasingly alarming rate. It hadn’t yet affected anyone I had known personally, so it didn’t seem real, despite all the shuttering of schools, restaurants, theaters, and stores. In my mind’s eye, it looked like the Tenth Plague scene from the 1956 movie The Ten Commandments - a sepia toned “night mist” ruthlessly oozed it’s way towards its first born victims, claiming them with ethereal fangs while Charlton Heston watched, arms folded, “I told you so” etched across his face in a knowing glower.
When I got sick, the terror I experienced when first watching that scene in the Ten Commandments as a five year old was suddenly upon me again. The mist had come for me. It no longer felt like a movie. I found myself grappling with my mortality and all at once much more awake to the suffering of others dealing with the virus and loss.
After several ER visits and other medical adventures that I’ll put in my autobiography someday, I wrenched free of The Sick and began my slow recovery.
My senses of taste and smell crept back in stealthy stages, like a group of teenagers sneaking into a movie one at a time and quietly reforming as a unit.
As food became interesting again, so did my interest in the sourdough. But by this point, the energy behind the initial sourdough starter tsunami had waned, and I felt like I missed the bread boat. Where would I even get a starter?
If you are like me and didn’t already know, sourdough starter is a fermented glob of flour and water that is brimming with active yeast and bacteria. It’s a living thing that needs to be fed like the plant in Little Shop of Horrors, but with less singing. And evidently, a starter is usually acquired as a gift rather than purchased, so it evokes a cozy, barn raising type of community vibe that hearkens back to times when we shared things other than memes and STDs.
So where would I get one?
I balked at outright soliciting my digital neighborhood as I didn’t want to appear desperate and was loathe to be complicit in a ‘trend’. I’m not a follower by nature. As soon as crowds start to favor something, I am instantly suspicious of it. This might have been born out of not being a popular kid in high school, so scorning popularity from that point forward became a choice instead of a sentence.
But there is something about a pandemic that suddenly tempted me to follow the group. In a crisis, when enough people start reacting in a certain way, our primitive brains react and think, “If everyone is doing it, it must be a good way to go.” What do they know that I don’t know? Are the supply chains down? Are the bread aisles empty? Are grilled cheese sandwiches going to be in museums someday next to Sony Walkman’s and live theater in the ‘Things We Used to Have’ section?
I wavered. Why did I even want the starter? I’m not much of a baker, I have other interests, and the entire process of bread making sounded like a colossal pain in the ass.
And then it happened. A friend casually revealed that he was a lifelong bread baker and in possession of sourdough starter. And not just any starter, mind you, but a bacterial batch that was birthed over 100 years ago, lovingly curated and sustained by mindful generations of starter sentries, keeping it going like the Olympic flame.
He offered me some. I couldn’t believe my good luck. I didn’t even need to hunt for it! Surely this was the universe speaking to me, whispering in my ear how I was going to re-purpose my nervous pandemic energy and house pacing towards this noble effort of being the next steward of this holy doughy blob plus make some killer toast.
My masked friend showed up with a mason jar of the stuff the following day.
I took it.
As he started his car to leave, I realized I had no idea how to care for this thing. “WHAT DO I DO?!” I shouted over his throaty Jeep engine rumble. “It’s bacteria, not a baby!” he responded. “You’ll figure it out.”
And off he went.
I considered the moist pale goo and held the jar up to my cheek. Warm. I could swear it was humming a bit. Singing. “FEED ME!”, it said. It was the plant in Little Shop of Horrors!
And now I was stuck with it.
I shoved it in the fridge and started some frantic YouTube searching on how to feed sourdough starter. I quickly learned there is less consensus on the mechanics of this than there is on solving health care in this country. Overwhelmed, I walked away, thinking about the choices I had made and how I got here.
What the hell was I doing? I’m not a follower! I don’t care what other people do! Sourdough isn’t even my favorite kind of bread, and does my pre-menopausal middle really need all these carbs right now? My kids are nearly raised, and I went and adopted a brand new life form I had to take care of, IN THE MIDDLE OF A PANDEMIC! Why did I sign up to the be the one who kills the 100-year-old magic goo, like some sort of Oliver Twistian villain?
More importantly, why was I getting so worked up over a jar of bacteria? There are thousands of people dying every day. And then it hit me.
There are thousands of people dying every day.
Years ago, I gave my dear friend’s daughter a live frog and a habitat for her birthday, thinking, in my naivete of the early 2000’s, that this was a brilliant and fun gift. It didn’t take long to become apparent that this gift was extremely thoughtless on my part. That frog managed to live for years, shackling this wonderful family to it, having to feed it live crickets, clean the habitat regularly, heat it, find frog sitters for when they left town…I’m happy to report that we are still friends, but this comes up every now and again as an example of how boneheaded I can be.
I was reckless with life. Took it for granted. Gifted it to others without their consent and forced them to take on responsibility for it. Doomed them to murder crickets whether they wanted to or not.
One of the lasting side effects I have from my bout with the mist is I don’t treat life as lightly anymore, even if it’s in the form of microbial sludge in my fridge. I feel a heightened responsibility towards playing my part as not just another life form, but an active sentinel of life forms around me. In short, I care more.
Truth be told, I haven’t taken very good care of my starter, as I was in analysis paralysis about it and somehow indignant at my new responsibility. But if it isn’t too late and already, gulp, dead (HOW DO YOU EVEN KNOW IF STARTER IS DEAD?!), I will try to be a better steward to it, and to life in general. In the meanwhile, I’ll remain thankful that I don’t have to feed my starter live crickets.