Life After Sourdough

What are we going to do now?

Photo: Francis G. Mayer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Photo: Francis G. Mayer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Photo: Francis G. Mayer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Four months ago, right before the city shut down, I made one last in-person trip to the grocery store to buy flour, yeast, and red lentils. Also chili-garlic paste. Also two bags of chocolate chips. By then, I understood, sort of, that things were bad, but I wasn’t ready to become a survivalist about it.

Then I left the yeast on the kitchen table, and the dog ate it. (She is fine.) Then there was no more yeast to buy. “No problem!” I told my boyfriend, hopped up on the adrenaline of no longer having a job. “I’ll just make sourdough!” For three minutes, I felt resourceful and wise, like the kind of person who’d be a real asset on a wagon train. Then I checked Instagram, where the movement was already fermenting.

The best thing about pandemic sourdough is that it’s actually two hobbies: making sourdough and reading trend pieces about how other people are making sourdough. In some way, I’d hoped that my fermenting sludge — the “starter” — would reframe misery as urban homesteading. A pandemic, yes, but what a wholesome one! In between the feedings, I learned to knit. I kept the radio on all day, every day. Outside, there was no noise except the sirens. Inside, my apartment was incongruously cozy.

My first sourdough loaf had the distinct quality of something recovered on an archeological dig. “I mean, you can’t say it’s not bread!” I announced repeatedly. My boyfriend agreed that it was bread.

After that, I started to lose interest. I fed my starter, but I resented it. People kept getting sick. A thin film of flour settled over the kitchen. “Who cares?” I thought. My boyfriend started asking if I’d fed the starter. I said I hated the starter. He said he was taking over the starter. “Fine!” I said romantically.

There are many ways to get good at something, but the most efficient one I have found is to outsource it to someone else. My boyfriend is still not clear about which vessels are pots and which are pans, but it turns out he is extremely good at sourdough. It plays to his strengths, which are meticulousness and staring at the internet. Every loaf was better than the previous loaf. I found this annoying and delicious. He branched out into rye.

Periodically, I’d interrupt my moping to offer tasting notes. “Sour!” I’d say. “Spelty!” Sometimes, an incisive “I don’t know how I feel about caraway?” We wrote these and other insights down in our Bread Diary. I felt I was contributing. Criticism is an art. Even if I wasn’t the one doing the baking, caring about sourdough with everyone else on the internet was (I think) like rooting for a baseball team: somewhat tedious but at least a distraction.

At first, my boyfriend said he’d stop making bread when all this was over and then he’d keep going and then the question became moot because the pandemic kept going.

Fresh sourdough is still exciting, but, much like the coronavirus, it is no longer novel. By May, the baking had stopped feeling like cosplay and started feeling like the rest of our lives. And it’s hot. It is so hot now. Who wants to turn on the oven in this heat?

We are so lucky, I kept thinking. And also: I hated everything. Nothing felt fun. I wanted fun! Remember three long months ago when sourdough was fun? I wanted all the benefits from the trend pieces, except with something new and fresh and exciting. I wanted to feel competent. I wanted to feel hopeful. I wanted to stop looking at Twitter. I decided I needed a new summer project. It had to be time consuming but also relatively passive. It could not require too many ingredients. It should not result in botulism. Ideally, it would not involve the oven.

“I’m trying to find a new project,” I told my mother. She suggested I have a baby. I decided to make ice cream.

I am using “ice cream” loosely here. It was, for ethical and digestive reasons, a “nondairy frozen dessert.” I settled immediately on a mocha-flavored recipe from a book called Vice Cream, which is the 3,343rd most popular vegan cookbook on Amazon but the No. 1 most popular vice-cream-centric cookbook in my apartment.

What you do is blend cashews with water, maple syrup, cocoa powder, and ground espresso beans and then you chill it for a while and then you let the ice-cream-maker do its thing. It seemed like less of a production than I’d hoped — and I forgot how expensive cashews are — but I liked that it required an ice-cream-maker, because I’d had one sitting patiently in the cabinet above the refrigerator since at least 2010.

You’re supposed to put the ice-cream-maker in the freezer until the coolant freezes, a process the instruction manual says should take between six and 24 hours. I used this time to blend my cashews, a process that takes about four minutes. Six hours passed. My ice-cream-maker’s coolant was still sloshing, a sign that it was not freezing. Twelve more hours passed. More sloshing. I adjusted the temperature of my freezer. After 48 hours, it was clear the ice-cream-maker was broken.

I tried anyway. The machine churned and churned. Nothing was happening. My boyfriend came into the kitchen. “I think nothing is happening,” he observed. Eventually, we poured our vice cream into a plastic container, where it froze into a chalky cashew-mocha brick. I ate it anyway. It was sweet and cold and had the texture of a sandcastle. Beachy! I thought. As with most things in life, the secret to being satisfied is to first lower your expectations.

We got rid of the ice-cream-maker, and I moved on to pickles.

Or at least I thought about it. I read about it, even. It sounded hard. Suddenly, everything sounded hard. I thumbed through Usha’s Pickle Digest and Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation. I wanted to want to pickle, but I did not want to actually pickle.

What was the point of pickling? What was the point of anything? The kitchen was never clean. There were so many dishes. I worried about work. I worried that work was a dumb thing to worry about. My ennui felt self-indulgent and absurd. “It can’t stay like this,” I’d said for months, but it turned out it sort of could. I was still so lucky, and I was suddenly so sleepy.

Kombucha seemed obvious, but I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm. I liked the idea of making my own gin, but it seemed, perhaps, a little passive: I wanted a low-maintenance relationship, yes, but I still wanted something ongoing. Most cooking uses up ingredients, but sourdough only begets more sourdough. It is hard to find a kitchen project that yields that kind of companionship. You’re going to say “indoor gardening,” and that is also what I thought, before the aphid infestation. Instead, I started baking cakes. The cakes were good. My life stayed the same.

I wanted a project that was very hard but also very easy. I wanted something that would require constant attention but also demand nothing. I began to worry that what I wanted did not actually exist, and if it did, it might be sourdough.

The thrill of free fall has worn off, replaced by the general sensation of crashing. Ultradomesticity was comforting for a while — we should seize this opportunity to slow down, I read, way back in April — but now I would like to leave my house without weighing the potential consequences. I would like the freedom that comes from knowing I can go anywhere, or do anything, without the constant specter of disease. That’s a lot to ask of any hobby.

Life After Sourdough