For the first time that day, I scuttled down the few steps outside of my apartment building. It was already 2:00 p.m., and I took the opportunity to stretch my arms and move my body. A typical April day in quarantined upstate New York, mid-forties and cloudy with sporadic rain showers. I took a seat on a wooden bench on the sidewalk.
With the corner of my eye, I spotted a jar hugging the leg of the bench. “Good, it’s here,” I thought to myself. Discreetly, I slowly twisted my head in a 180-degree motion checking for witnesses. Not a soul. Oh right, the world is ending and all that fun stuff. I grabbed the jar and went back into my apartment complex. My fingers curled around the cylindrical shaft and I felt the weight in my hand. It was about five pounds and filled halfway with a sourdough starter. The dough was thicker than a bowl of oatmeal with a milky coloration and miniature air bubbles spotted the surface.
My friend, Brianna, had been kind enough to bike over and pass it on to me. It felt weird not being able to receive the gift in person and thank her. However, it’s safer to limit contact, and we decided the best way was for her to drop it off. I was excited to receive this starter and looked forward to traversing the world of sourdough. I spent the last three months baking and honing my skills with commercial yeast. There are considerably fewer variables when dealing with traditional yeast, and I was ready to take on the challenge. Little did I know, there was much I needed to learn and care for before any bread was to be baked. And to this day, I have not baked any sourdough. And yes, you are reading an article on sourdough by a person who has yet to bake any. But hold on, there is a little more to it.
What makes sourdough special is the microbial communities living within. Each has its own variety of bacteria growing, competing and fermenting the glucose within the flour. Each culture also has its own mix of bacteria, acidity and temperature which gives each baker’s sourdough its unique taste. I was thankful to Brianna for sharing a portion of her sourdough starter with me. However, it was time for a personal touch. I wanted it to become my own culture. I wanted it to have my flour, my apartment’s air and be taken care of by me. If I am drinking straight from the tap, those microbes are drinking from the tap.
In Japan, it is common practice for apprenticing Sushi chefs to spend the first several years of their training program mastering how to prepare, cook and roll rice before being allowed near the fish. Placing a strong emphasis on the foundation and the most basic skills. In this fashion, I decided to spend the first three weeks caring for my starter dough and resisting the urge to bake.
The next several days I began to nurture my culture. It was quite simple to feed and care for to my surprise. Much easier than a dog or a child and with more benefits. It required five minutes of time from attending to myself to feeding my bacteria. I started by removing two-thirds of the previous day’s dough growth. This process expunged older bacteria and paved the way for younger, more eager to grow bacteria to flourish. I added a cup of unbleached baking flour, warm water and mixed thoroughly with a wooden spoon. The head of the jar was narrow, which required a slight rotating and jabbing motion to mix properly. Adding fresh flour replenished the food source for the bacteria to consume and grow. After a day, the contents of the jar would double in size and I repeated the process. It seamlessly wove into my daily routine, after morning coffee at eight I attended to my microbes.
It was on the sixth day, when I realized how quickly attached I became to my little beasts. I was going for an evening walk around six (a luxury in itself), when I passed a lady walking her dogs. She was stumbling forward by the force of a yellow lab, beagle and terrier all eagerly sniffing and traversing the sidewalk. I thought about the mountains of food that were required to feed the trio when my mind jumped to the flour and the jar sitting in my room. I had forgotten to feed my culture that morning. I remember the feeling of guilt swell as my stroll turned into a jog and then into a run towards my apartment. I busted through the door of my room and snatched the jar from the desk. Without looking I ran over to the sink removing the previous days’ growth and stuffed in new flour. At this point, more flour-covered my kitchen floor and sink than made it into the jar. After stirring in more water, I peered into the jar to check for signs of life, but there was no way of determining if my culture had survived. I simply had to wait. And I waited anxiously. Finally, before bed, I checked again and there were clear signs of growth. The little bastards survived.
There is immense value in taking care of living things. From family to friends to dogs to little microbes living on your kitchen table, their size and benefits do not matter. When we take the lens off ourselves and focus it on the needs of those around us it becomes a therapeutic and freeing action. The challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic will require us all to care for one another and focus our sights forward. It gives me hope to see the innate force in all living things that strive to grow and overcome hardship — especially in bacteria that desire to outlive my feeding schedule). Just a small perk in dealings with the microscopic world.
Danyeh Gutema is a junior in the College of Engineering. He can be reached at [email protected]