everybody rise

A few months ago, I read an article about a 122-year-old sourdough starter. It lives in Wyoming with a woman who likes to make pancakes. How charming, I thought, and made toast. 

After that, it seemed I couldn't escape sourdough. While researching an upcoming trip to San Francisco, I found a bakery that claims to have a starter dating back to the Gold Rush. Last month I sat down for dinner in Bergen, Norway, with my husband, and feasted on warm, crusty bread from a mother dough named Lucy, which fermented for five years before the restaurant even opened. And then I learned that at Faviken—the farm and restaurant in northern Sweden that's been a constant subject of conversation in our household—the daily loaves are kneaded and shaped on a wooden plank that’s built up enough wild yeast in its knots to raise them.

If any of this sounds magical to you, then you’ll understand why, a couple of weeks ago, I mixed flour and water in a glass bowl, set it on my kitchen table, and waited patiently for the bubbles and beery fragrance indicating the growth of yummy, useful bacteria. Of course, sourdough isn’t magic, it’s science: a lactobacillus culture forms as the water breaks down the flour’s starch into sugar to feed the yeast. At least, that’s how I think it works; I failed every science class I ever took. Which is why I like to consider it a mystery, and my involvement in the process—clumsy, eager, experimental—a sort of spiritual discipline.

Sourdough looks deceptively simple: all you need is a healthy starter, a little flour, a little water, and a little salt. But depending on the recipe, making the bread can be an all-day or an all-week affair. Traditional pain au levain—the sourdough that’s been made for centuries in France—requires days of proofing, then hours of kneading and resting. Handle the dough too roughly, and you’ll deflate it, undoing hours of work. Leave it unattended for too long, and it’ll overproof. Follow the recipe to the letter, and you might still end up with bread that’s flat, dense, and leathery—a far cry from the crusty-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside bread you dreamed you’d pull out of your oven. Sourdough takes practice, patience, and persistence. None of which I’m particularly good at.

But I love bread. And when you love something, you work hard at it. Right? It’s the same kind of love that gets me in front of a blank page on a daily basis, even though yesterday’s writing fell flat and there’s no logical reason why today’s should turn out any better. If I keep at it, I’ll finish my book. And if I keep trying to make sourdough, at some point it’ll turn into actual bread.

Don’t worry—I'll end the metaphor here, before it gets too... overdone. (Ha!) But I’m going to bake, and I’m going to write. I’m going to make sourdough once a week, every week, until I can make a loaf I’m happy with. I’m going to show up to the page every day to write, until I finish my book. And I’m going to talk about—and thus avoid!—both baking and writing here, where you’re welcome to follow along, if you wish.