Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Staff of Life

     The bread I had for supper was over forty years old and still moist and delicious. The sourdough starter that I used to make it was given to me by my dear friend Lucy, who brought it to Virginia with her in 1978. She doesn’t know how old her starter was because it was given to her by a friend who may have gotten it from another friend and so on. I like to imagine that perhaps there are some pioneer bacteria quietly exhaling CO2 into the jar where they rest in my fridge.
     I had never tried to make bread with sourdough starter before Lucy graced me with a jar and at first I was a little nervous. I didn’t want to be the person who let the legacy expire. But it turns out that sourdough critters are very forgiving. They languish in my fridge for up to a week at a time requiring nothing from me at all. On Friday nights, I take them out, feed them a little flour and water, and let them warm to room temperature until they are waltzing with the wild yeasts that live among them and pumping up their respiration a bit. In return for the favor, they raise my sponge ( a technical bread term for the bowl of warm fermenting batter). The beauty of sourdough is that I can let the sponge rise all night. In the morning I add more flour, some oil, salt, sugar and water and knead it to a spankable softness, that slowly burps and gurgles in my big bowl all day until it is double in size. If I’m not ready to bake bread on Saturday night, I just punch it down and let it rise again until Sunday morning when I make fresh rolls for breakfast.
     When I first moved to the mountains I really didn’t know much about cooking at all. Determined to impress Joe, I made bread one Saturday afternoon right after we met. While the flour floating around in the air was light and fluffy, my bread was not. I worked for years trying out different recipes and never coming close to the moist, light bread that my mother in law turned out consistently week after week. She didn’t have a recipe because she’d been mixing bread in the same blue enamelware bowl since she was five years old. She just knew when it looked right.
     Yeasts are not patient. They rise fast and can overdevelop the gluten in the finished bread product if they aren’t monitored. When I discovered sourdough, I found my missing ingredient. It is slow and patient and very, very forgiving.

Jesus is often referred to as the “bread of life.” I’m sure He must be sourdough.


  1. Do you know this poem by Alla Bozarth Campbell?

    Bakerwoman God

    Bakerwoman God, I am your living bread.
    Strong, brown, bakerwoman God,
    I am your low, soft and being-shaped loaf.
    I am your rising bread,
    well-kneaded by some divine and knotty pair of knuckles,
    by your warm earth-hands.
    I am bread well-kneaded.
    Put me in fire, bakerwoman God,
    put me in your own bright fire.
    I am warm, warm as you.
    From fire, I am white and gold,
    soft and hard, brown and round.
    I am so warm from fire
    Break me, Bakerwoman God.
    I am broken under your caring Word.
    Drop me in your special juice in pieces.
    Drop me in your blood.
    Drunken me in the great red flood
    Self-giving chalice, swallow me.
    My skin shines in the divine wine.
    My face is cup-covered and I drown.
    I fall up in a red pool in a gold world
    where your warm sunskin hand is there to catch and hold me.
    Bakerwoman God, remake me.

  2. What a wonderful post! My husband makes regular french bread without a recipe now, but he wants a sourdough starter so he can branch out. Mmmmmmm, sourdough.

  3. Ginny,
    Oh my, so beautifully written! Terry just sent me the link, thinking I should take a read. You truly describe my long time sourdough friend well and am thankful it's grown into a dear friend of yours.
    Thank you for this gift of words.
    Keep feeding, kneading and baking...and writing, there's still lots to learn from our now mutual friend.

  4. thanks to CLedster for such a beautiful poem. I had never heard it before and treasure its imagery. Lucy, I am taking good care of your bread ( I recognized your anonymous post).. Susan encourage that husband of yours. He won't regret it.