A Sourdough Loaf of Lies and a Journey Towards Food Independence

Apr 13, 2023 | Blog, Essays

            My grocery store made a bold claim.  Printed on the sticker of several loaves in the bakery were the words “Tastes just like San Francisco Sourdough Bread”.

            For a few years, I lived in the Bay Area.  I went into San Francisco many times and each of those times, I ate my body weight in sour dough.  I couldn’t help it.  It was delicious.  And not only was it delicious but it was useful as well.  Restaurants used it as bowls in which to serve their chili – one of my favorite foods.  Practically every restaurant in the touristy part of San Francisco served chili in sourdough bread bowls.  I was in heaven!  As the type of person who always orders the same thing at restaurants that I frequent because I don’t like to chance trying a new entre that I might not like, I had found an entire city of eating establishments that all had the same meal on their menus.  There was zero chance of me not liking a meal in San Francisco.

            Ipso facto, in those three years, I ate a lot of sourdough bread.  I’m not going to claim to be an expert on sourdough bread.  As admitted, I mostly ate at tourist restaurants, so I’m sure my pallet was pretty unrefined.  However, I can say with some assurance – I do have an idea of what basic sourdough bread tastes like.  And, I’m sorry to say, the loaf from my grocery store did not taste like “San Francisco sourdough”.  In fact, it hardly even passed as a loaf of fresh-baked bread.  It was very dry and… not good.  I suspect they messed up a batch of their artisan loaves and didn’t want to just throw them out so someone came up with the idea of slapping the “San Francisco Sourdough” labels on them.  We’re in the middle of the country.  Who’s going to know what bread in Northern California tastes like?

            I knew and I felt betrayed.  Even worse than the bakery at my grocery store selling a lie was that they’d put me in the mood for sourdough bread.  Before I saw the loaf of deceit, I had accepted that there was no hope of me having San Francisco Sourdough bread.  It was something that I liked and that, here and there, I thought of.  But my thoughts mostly consisted of, ‘Sourdough would be nice, but it’s not an option right now in that I am half a country away.’   With that, I pushed it out of my mind and that was the end of it.  I have to have the same internal conversation over In-N-Out, Jamba Juice, Larry’s Giant Subs, Florida oranges and fresh-picked Maine blueberries.  What my grocery store did was take me out of the realm of acceptance and push me into the realm of hope – but under false pretenses.  They made me believe I could taste sourdough again, and then didn’t deliver.

            This was piling on to a growing list of problems I was having with grocery stores from shortages to sky high prices on staple items like eggs and milk to depressed-looking produce.  Deep within, I was starting to get the feeling that the grocery store was no longer the stalwart, dependable American icon that it had once been.  The sourdough bread fiasco was just another example of the growing conception that it would probably be a good idea to start taking more of a leading role in where our food was coming from and not delegating it to grocery stores.  

            It was living under this dark sourdough shadow and watching a video on how to store homegrown potatoes without a root cellar when a small light shone in the darkness.  The next video in the queue to play was on sourdough starters.  Some people might say that this was indicative of Big Tech listening in on my near endless tirades on the faux sourdough to my husband and thus, recommending a video they knew I would watch.  I like to think it was the Wild Yeast Maker in heaven nudging his little creature to take that first step towards food independence and try something that had once been her dream but that had been cast aside.

            Like many women who had grown up with the comfort of manufactured food all their lives, I had thought of trying my hand at being one of those women with the mason jar of bubbly goo on their counters.  I had flirted with compiling a sourdough starter.  At the time, the instructions I found were kind of complicated and confusing and I had a lot going on, so I gave up the idea before I even started and put it off for “someday”.  However, in recent years, with the 3-inch Memento Mori staring up at me from my arm, I was trying hard not to put stuff off until “someday” in that I could die at any moment and “someday” may not get here.  Thankfully, the Wild Yeast Maker in heaven was pretty good about sending the impetus for me to finally do things, oftentimes in the form of online videos.

            The video on sourdough starters was so simple.  Could it really be that easy?  I suspected it could.  Peasants of yore were catching yeast long before the invent of specialty flours, starter warmers and complicated instructions.  This was not the first time, nor – I’m sure – would it be the last that the ways and wisdom of those far less “advanced” than us would prove to be the better way.

            I mixed together some flour and dechlorinated water, rubber-banded a paper towel over the top of the jar, placed it at the back of my counter and made myself leave it alone for 24 hours – which was not easy in that I am both obsessive and compulsive.

            The next day, I tentatively removed the paper towel and took a peek inside.  At the bottom of the mason jar was my flour/water concoction as I’d left it the day before only today… it had bubbles!  I had caught wild yeast!  It was on the same level of exciting as finding our first egg when we initially got chickens.

            Now I just had to keep the wild yeast alive.  This was where having a bunch of kids was finally going to pay off. They had given me the training to feed things daily. Each day I discarded half of the starter (according to online sources: to keep it a manageable size and to keep the microbial balances where they needed to be) and fed it with a little flour and water.  My bread book said it would be mature enough to make bread if it consistently doubled in size with each feeding for about a week

            Each feeding brought excitement mixed with fear.  I was so giddy about the possibility of actually pulling this feat off that I could practically taste the spongy sour bread that would be made from this starter.  However, I thought of the bag of disappointment that I’d brought home from the grocery store.  They were professionals and couldn’t do it, what made me think my bread would be better?  What if sourdough bread needed salty air and rabid progressive politics to make it taste like San Francisco sourdough?

            The day of reckoning came.  Not only was my sourdough starter bubbly and had a sweetly sour smell, I also told it a toilet joke and it didn’t laugh, so I knew it was mature.

            The ingredients were mixed.  The dough was kneaded.  It had its first rise.  It was divided, shaped into two circles and put into proofing baskets for the second rise.  Finally, I dropped it into the Dutch oven and popped it into the American oven.

            I was on pins and needles for 35 minutes.  Well, really, longer because the instructions said I had to wait for it to cool off before cutting into it.  When it had cooled enough, I sawed at it with the bread knife like a kid at Christmas. (Anyway, a kid at Christmas opening their presents with a bread knife).  The outside was crispy, the inside fluffy.  It looked right and had the correct texture.  It smelled proper.  In fact, the house smelled like Fisherman’s Wharf minus the fish-y smell.  My hopes were Golden Gate Bridge high as I took a bite… it tasted perfect!  Exactly as I’d remembered.  I’d now gone from the realm of acceptance into the realm of hope under forthright pretenses.  I no longer had to accept that I could not have San Francisco Sourdough bread; I could have it whenever I wanted in my very own kitchen.  All thanks to a crappy loaf of bread and a little nudge from the Wild Yeast Maker in heaven.

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