Sourdough: A Love Story

As a kid, weekend breakfasts were cooked by my dad. Mom was more of a juice and toast person, allowing us to fend for ourselves on those slow mornings. But not Dad. His breakfasts always included some kind of meat (venison steak, if we had it), eggs, and sourdough pancakes.

The quart jar of sourdough starter had a permanent place in our fridge, and we all knew to not toss it out no matter how nasty it looked. It was Dad’s. I would watch, as he refreshed the starter the night before, dumping the slurry into a bowl, mixing in some flour and water, giving it all a good stir, and covering it with one of Mom’s dish towels. The next morning the mixture would have easily doubled in size, and bubbles would pop and dance across the surface. He would refill the jar, leaving enough of the starter behind for the pancake batter, and stick the jar back into the fridge until the next time.

I never questioned this process until I was older, and I finally knew enough about cooking to ask him where the starter came from and how it worked. Turns out he had made it some fifteen years ago.

He explained to me that sourdough starter is a wild living yeast, and like all living things it needs a few simple essentials to thrive: a bit of water, some flour, warmth, and a little love and attention. He went on to say that there had been times when he had ignored his starter and would find it cold and separated, lost in the back of the fridge.  

But the starter was forgiving. If he spent some time nurturing it with what it needed, within a few days the starter would be thriving, vital, and alive again.  

He never used the starter for much more that pancakes. Everyone who loved him or called him a friend had eaten those pancakes at my folks’ table. When he passed away ten years ago, my sister and I passed out jars of his starter to those who came to celebrate his life, along with his pancake recipe.  

He gave me my jar of starter when I got married. I admit, it didn’t get a lot of use until I had children and pancakes became part of our breakfast rotation. My boys would tell me mine were not as good as Grandpa’s, and they weren’t, no matter how many lessons he had given me. It was the love and the joy he got from preparing a meal for those he loved that made the difference.  

A few years back I decided I would try my hand at sourdough bread. Try as I might, I could not produce a loaf that was decent without adding a bit of commercial dried yeast to the dough. Then one of the local artisan bakers in Seattle offered a sourdough bread baking class and I eagerly signed up. It was a day full of bread lingo: hydration, pre-ferment, leaven, bench rest, and stretch and fold. Everyone left with a beautiful sourdough loaf and directions for making our own starter.

But before I could leave, I had to tell the instructor about my dad’s fifty-year-old starter. His response surprised me: “Throw it out, start over, there’s nothing of your dad left in that starter today.” He went on to explain that I would never get the hydration right to produce a good loaf. He suggested I keep my dad’s starter for pancakes, but for bread I should make my own.  

For the next few years, Dad’s starter sat in the back of our fridge neglected. It separated and lost all its bounce. I would use it a few times a year when my boys were home, but for the most part I lost interest.  

But then, this past fall, while browsing the cookbook section of my favorite bookstore, I stumbled upon a beautiful sourdough cookbook. I stood in the aisle, turning the pages and thought of Dad’s starter, dormant in our fridge, cold and neglected. Suddenly, determination set in. With book in hand, I headed home, eager and excited.  

Using my father’s starter, five pounds of unbleached flour, a bit of water, and my mother’s old dishtowel, I went to work. Each night, I would use a bit of the starter from the day before (discarding the rest). I would feed it with love and persistence, and within a week I was pretty sure I had a starter that was close to being 100% hydrated*.  

It danced, it bubbled, it puffed up proud and beautiful, and it smelled amazing.

It also produced a beautiful loaf. My husband slathered butter on his first slice as I danced around our kitchen.  

The baking instructor was right; there is nothing left of my dad’s starter in that jar today. But there sure is something left of my dad in the process. Late at night, I can feel him in the kitchen with me as I feed the starter to sit out overnight, covered with Mom’s worn dishtowel. He is back, early the next morning, right beside me, reminding me to hold some back for next time before I mix up the dough. He hangs out all day as I stretch and fold the dough every hour or so, and he lets me know when the dough has done its thing and is ready to rest. And I know for sure he is there as I take the hot loaf out of the oven.  

One night, after spending months baking my way through two cookbooks, I decide it’s time to experiment a bit. What should I make next? I listen closely, and I hear Dad giving me some suggestions.  

“I think we should try pizza, with maybe some sautéed morel mushrooms on top?” he whispers. I can almost see him standing beside me, smiling with his bright, blue eyes crinkled.

“We might have to wait until spring for the morel mushrooms, Dad,” I say, “but pizza sounds perfect for dinner one night this week.” 
 

Words and image by Cathy Sly.

*100% hydration is when your starter is made of equal parts of water and flour. Because my dad would just eye it, going by the consistency he wanted for pancake batter, I had no idea what the hydration was of my starter. Today I measure mine by grams, with a digital scale; feeding it equal parts of starter, water and flour. 

Another Wedding Ring

“Just a minute!” I holler toward the tiny fists that are pounding on my bedroom door. This is the standard morning scene: I’ve been awake for nearly two hours and, after getting my kids fed and ready for the day, I’ve finally barricaded myself in my bedroom long enough to put on a bra and host an inner debate about how many days it’s been since I washed my hair.  

I sift through a pile of bobby pins and loose change in my jewelry tray until my fingers close around my wedding rings. I start with the wedding band, a plain white gold ring with thirteen small diamonds dotting the band in a half circle; then I stack the princess cut engagement ring above it. They stop without making it past my knuckle, as they have been all week.  

I’m twenty-five weeks pregnant with my third child, and this is my least favorite pregnancy side effect. I’ll spend the next four months with swollen fingers that leave no room for my wedding rings. I know I get off easy—no morning sickness to contend with or serious pregnancy complications to face—but I still feel a little mournful about the rings. They’re easily the most beautiful thing I own, and wearing them on a daily basis pulls to the forefront memories that might otherwise slip away. 

When I put them each morning, I’m twenty-one again, being proposed to on a dorm room futon in the living room of my college apartment. We were surrounded by plain, grayish beige walls I wasn’t allowed to mar with so much as a 3M hook, and my feet rested on the edge of a blueberry pie stain set into the gritty carpet. There wasn’t a hint of elaborate romantic planning, not a single candle or rose petal, but I couldn’t care less because there in front of me was my future husband, holding up my ring. 

After dinner each night, when I slip both sets of diamonds off my finger and set them on the window ledge before plunging my hands into the dishwater, I think of everything that’s happened in this kitchen. We’ve swayed in front of the window with dinner simmering behind us; we’ve screamed at each other in front of the fridge and apologized by the stove; we’ve put silverware in its place while debating major life decisions; we’ve sat on the steps near the pantry with our heads on each others’ shoulders, sighing after a long day at work. 

Now, the same week as our sixth anniversary, I have to admit to myself that it’s time to put my rings back in their box until spring, when we’ll have another baby to hold and my fingers will, hopefully, shrink back to their original size. I set the rings back in the tray with a clink and make a mental note to find their box later.  

The pounding on the door has gotten louder and is now accompanied by occasional screams, but I ignore the chaos for a few seconds longer, scanning the jewelry tray until I find another ring.  

This one has a thin silver band, topped by an oval sapphire that’s surrounded by a halo of diamonds. The gems in this piece aren’t real. We bought it for less than 100 euros in a tiny town on Lake Como in Italy. It was one of the most expensive souvenirs we could afford on the European vacation we’d scrimped to go on before we had kids.   

We had raced through the shop, past antique end tables and hand-carved chess pieces, trying to see everything before we missed the last boat of the evening that would take us back to our hotel on the other side of the lake. The deep blue sapphire of the ring caught my eye, and I bought it without ever trying it on.  

The sapphire ring never fit quite right: too big for my fourth finger, just small enough to be uncomfortable on my third. It sat on my dresser, a fond but useless memory of our travels, until two months later when I got pregnant with our oldest daughter. Soon enough, my fingers swelled, and the Italy ring fit perfectly. Now with this pregnancy, I’ll wear it again and be visited by a different set of memories. 

I’ll fiddle with the lightweight band, twirling it around and around in my jacket pocket while I tell the kids, “Don’t climb too high!” and “Let’s give someone else a turn on the swings.” I’m absentminded, no longer at the park down the street but at a swing set we stumbled across in the Swiss Alps, where my husband and I laughed like schoolkids as we took a break from hiking.  

I’ll catch a glint of light off the faux sapphire in a stream of sink water while I wash vegetables, and suddenly I’m a new mom again, remembering what it was like to cook dinner while bouncing the screaming baby strapped to my chest. Did she need to eat? Was it a dirty diaper? When was the last time either of us slept?  

It will all flood back to me at once, opposing memories of awe at seeing the world as barely more than newlyweds, and awe at meeting our firstborn baby and realizing we didn’t know what we were doing at all.    

I open the bedroom door to the preschooler and toddler who come barreling in. We still don’t know what we’re doing, of course, not about any of it. But we do know some things, I think, as I watch the two tiny girls now jumping on our bed. We know that we walk side by side with a hand to hold through every moment of doubt or uncertainty, and we know every second will be worth it. 

 

Words by Ashley Brooks.

Stories All Around Us

Tristin arrived in my driveway on a Thursday afternoon to pick up some free junk I had placed at the curb. I waited for him to go away but he lingered even after loading up his car. I could see him making phone calls and looking exasperated from where I stood at the kitchen window. I knew I would have to find out what was going on despite hoping the issue would go away. After all, it could be my kid. 

“Do you need help?” I asked tentatively. He wasn’t sure, maybe a jump start? That sounded easy enough, so I repositioned my van and we gave it a try. But it was no good, his car just wouldn’t stay started. I packed up the cables and asked if there was anything else I could do. 

 “Do you have someone you can call?” I asked. He assured me he did and that as a AAA member, he could easily get a tow. 

We talked about gardening. It was the worm composting bin that had brought him to my house; he and a friend were starting a micro greens endeavor.  

“I wanted to do something since I’m not in school, like something good for the world, you know?” he said.  

I returned to the house, gave my husband an update on what he thought was a possible serial killer or thief when Tristin knocked on the door. 

“Um, sorry,” he mumbled. “So, my phone died.” 

Even though I really wanted to get back to my life and stay uninvolved I asked, “Would you like to borrow mine?”  

I helped him figure out his membership information, our address, and other details, and after fifteen minutes he finally got through to the tow service. While he was waiting, his dad arrived in a shiny Range Rover, and I could see Tristin physically shrink as his father and I chatted about kids, driving and education. 

“I told his mom to send him to military school but he’s an ‘artist,’” the father said. Tristin cringed at the idea of such a structured environment and I inwardly agreed that it would be a bad match for someone more interested in sprouting seeds and keeping his hair long and curly. 

I soon excused myself, and left them to wait for the mechanic. An hour later they were gone. 

*** 

Marcy came by last week from the locally owned home improvement store to measure for window blinds. Friendly and talkative, we were quickly comparing notes on children, college and degree choices, along with pet stories.  

I confessed my worries about my children’s future, as two of them have started the college search, and was grateful to have another grownup to talk to. Working at home, I sometimes go days without talking to anyone outside my family, and I sometimes crave doses of conversation to balance out the solitude.  

Marcy mentioned that after her appointment with me, she had three medical tests to fit in, all before her husband’s health insurance ended. He was let go after a long career with the same employer and the loss has made him scared, irritable, and depressed. I wondered if that could happen to my husband. Could this story become mine? How would I react?  

I keep listening and learned that Marcy has two Siamese cats and a new puppy, and her son took eight years to get a two-year degree, but now he’s got his act together. “It just took the right girl,” Marcy noted. As a mother of a male teenager who hates to leave his room, this was reassuring. 

She worries about her elderly mother who lives alone in Florida and how much longer she will be able to fly to Pennsylvania with her own elderly cat, also a Siamese. 

If felt good to hear someone being honest and sharing her real feelings and concerns. So often we meet people who are wary and closed off. But here in my home, while she measured for window treatments, I connected with another woman – a wife and mother, a daughter, a human being. I was grateful for the chance to be honest and real, grateful for the chance to connect.  

*** 

Yesterday I bought this week’s groceries. My clerk’s name tag read “Jaxsin” and when he asked, “How are you doing today?” I knew he actually wanted to know. He paused, made eye contact, and gave me a smile.  

I returned the question and he quickly confessed that he was “jonesing to get a new tattoo” right after work while he had the money. It wouldn’t be his first (he pulled up his sleeve so I could see the treble clef on his inner arm) and it would be small in comparison with the Millennial Falcon on this thigh. I loved his honesty and nerd pride. 

I confessed that I had just had some ink added to an existing tattoo, my third. I was glad that I hadn’t wasted time on my phone in an effort to just get through the mundane task of buying food. I prefer to keep to myself, but Jaxsin definitely liked an audience. He kept up the chitchat while he scanned my items and it felt good to look him in the eye and really listen to him. 

“That’s cool, you have tattoos. Now you can’t tell your kids not to,” he exclaimed.  

I wished him good luck and walked past more strangers on my way to the car, each of them with their own story. Not everyone is open and willing to share with a stranger, but when we take a risk and listen, when we share a little of ourselves, it can be powerful. We all want to be seen and heard. How can we step out of our comfort zones? Make eye contact? Really listen to someone who might need it? After all, everyone has a story to share. 

 

Words by Megan Fraser.