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In my kitchen, Elvira is starting to stretch herself, expand herself, push herself up against the confines of her jar and reach toward the lid settled lightly above her. A few hours ago I took her out of the fridge, added rye flour and water, gave her a gentle stir, and set her on my counter. Now, I peek under her lid to see how she’s getting on. Hey, Elvira, I say. Looks like we’re nearly good to go.
I’ve been making sourdough bread for about a year now. For a while we had a bread machine, but I was never convinced. I’ve always loved working in the kitchen, and while I’m not averse to mechanized help (hello, darling Cuisinart!) the whole point of making bread seemed to me to be the contact of my actual hands with the actual flour and yeast. With a bread machine, you throw it all in the hopper and hey presto! are rewarded with the blissful smell of fresh bread, a smell you have in no way earned. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the revelation that former British Prime Minister David Cameron—you know, the one who forced us all into the hell that is Brexit—loved his Panasonic bread machine. Ugh.
So it was time to go back to basics: and that’s what making sourdough bread is, something utterly basic and yet utterly miraculous. Elvira, in case you haven’t guessed, is my starter. Nothing fancy in a starter: just flour and water, with the wild yeast and lactic acid bacteria found in the air and in the flour and water itself. That’s it. Baker’s yeast, the stuff you buy in a packet, is a shortcut, a quickening agent which enables you to the cut to the chase, get your bread to rise in just a few hours. But the secret to sourdough is time; and when you decide you’re willing to take your time with something, you’re on the way to changing your life.
Maybe that seems like a big statement. But the good things in life are worth slowing down for. To make a loaf of sourdough takes about three days—no, not three solid days, and on each of those days your investment of time may be as little as five or ten minutes. But you’ve got to plan. You’ve got to say to yourself: I’m going to work this into my schedule. You’ve got to commit to stepping away from your computer or your phone to stir water into flour and wait.
And then: more flour, more water, some salt. Your hands now in what has suddenly become a dough, the tangy, beery smell of the starter in your nose, the soft slip of the flour on your palms, through your fingers, under your nails. More waiting. Turning the dough, stretching it, letting it take in the air that will feed it—just as you yourself are kept alive by air, so is your growing loaf. Resting, shaping—before finally, baking, a fast blast in a very hot oven spritzed with water from a gardening spray, the sweet yeasty steam rising into your face before you quickly close the oven door. Waiting, waiting. And finally, there you have it: the stuff of life.
So much of what we do in our lives is so complicated. Don’t you think? It makes me tired just thinking about everything I have to do, sometimes. Here comes the next deadline, barrelling down the pike—just as the bathtub starts to leak, water pouring down the wall in the living room below. Add to the list: call the plumber. Add to the list: worry about the state of the world, about where we’re all going, and what we do to help both the people we know and the people we’ve never met. Too much, sometimes, it’s all too much.
Which is why I’m glad to know that Elvira’s there, waiting for me. Simple. Alive. Which is all I hope to be myself, really.