Saturday, October 12, 2013

Bread Chronicles I - Grieving the Mother (Starter)

I threw away my sourdough (aka mother or seed) starter three weeks ago. She, my mother starter, that is, had been with me three years. There were some misgivings about just flushing her down the toilet but she smelled off and I just as soon have her gone. I was in semi-recovery from a combination stomach virus and hormonal shift and while everything smelled off the last thing I ate before tossing the cookies was my homemade sourdough bread. For days I laid blame on the “mother” and all she wrought until sense came back. If she was truly off, I finally realized, the bread wouldn’t have risen and the oven heat would have killed the bacteria. Still, it felt good clearing out the fridge and anything that could make me feel better at that point had higher ratings than a three year old relationship. Hmm, maybe that is why I am still single. Regardless, today I start anew. 

[Note: This sourdough starter is adapted from Peter Reinhart’s recipe.]

Day One. Briskly mix together ¼ cup water and 3.5 tbsp flour. (I use Kamut). Cover loosely with a plastic and towel wrap and set in a draft free place. Whisk two to three times a day for 48 hours.

Funny how starting anew with my mother starter parallels my relationship with my birth mother. I’ve written about her before but to summarize she died of pneumonia thirty-four years ago, the complications of an alcohol saturated liver. I was angry with her for many years and didn’t really start grieving until just under two decades ago. Even then, grief was interlaced with bouts of rage and it’s only been this past twelve months that things have really shifted. I wrote about that shift last fall and since then I feel her presence on a regular basis. It’s like having the mother I never knew but in retrospect was always there. It’s a tremendous comfort, a support I lean on most every day. So throwing mom, the mother starter that is, down the toilet has a certain symbolic resonance: like tossing out old resentments and what-ifs. Time to get on with life. 

A sourdough starter begins very simply. As stated above, it’s just flour and water. Sure I could use pineapple juice or cheat and use another person’s starter to birth mine but I like the purity of the two basic ingredients. But even that is a fallacy: flour is not so pure.  With naturally occurring yeast and bacterial spores, flour, when mixed with water, produces an enzyme called amylase (also present in human saliva). Amylase breaks down starch to eventually produce glucose and fructose. These sugars feed the yeast spores and voila, the starter grows.

Forty eight hours after first blending the flour and water and whisking several times in between I lift the wrap. Several tiny bubbles dapple the surface, an increase, however small, from the last time I looked. It is tentative these first few days of birth for it is the time when things can go wrong. You don’t need a sterile kitchen for this process but still, “bad” bacteria can enter the scene and wreck havoc. It’s okay (though not great) if you don’t find bubbles after it sits for however long but anytime your starter smells off, toss and start again. I sniff. Relief fills me. There is no smell except what one would expect from flour. 

Time to add two tablespoons each of water and flour and whisk again.  

Day  5. I open the wrap and my lovely starter is frothy and strewn with a multitude of miniscule bubbles. I hum Don Ho’s theme song.

I add 5 tbsp flour and 3 tbsp water, whisk and set aside again. 

It’s important to keep up with the whisking process. Good bacteria is nurtured on good air circulation. Effective wound management works the same way but it also reminds me of the grieving process. 

For too many years I disallowed thoughts of mom. There was no funeral or memorial service (she didn’t want one) and my family just seemed to stop talking about her after she died. It was like one day she was there and the next not. I was a young woman filled with confused and inchoate emotions. I teetered between angry outbursts, depression, hyperactivity and inconsistent moods.  Although I didn’t realize it back then I was angry at her for dying but I was also enraged that she wasn’t fully there for me when she was alive. But this knowledge was all in retrospect. I had no real understanding of this nor of the grief that lay below. Instead, through naïve ignorance, I let the grief stagnant. 

The grieving process needs to be aired. Not everyone, of course, grieves the same but regardless of how it is done—counselling, talking to friends, artwork or journaling—it needs to be expressed. Grief must mix with the air in the room, be free to expand and fill in the cracks left by that which was lost. Without this process we risk, just like the mother starter I make today, stunting our growth, becoming stale or, worst of all, souring. 

Day 6: The starter has grown twice its size and appears light and foamy. The recipe calls to discard half and mix in 7 tbsp flour with 3 tbsp water. Use your judgment on this. I bake a lot of bread, about twice a week.  So I blend more than half my burgeoning starter with about 9 tbsp flour. I also like a drier consistency with which to work. I add less water so I can knead rather than whisk it. I set it aside overnight.

When I finally started the grieving process I had lots to work through. If we don’t grieve a major event, the small ones, the ones that occur in everyone’s daily life, compound it.  Anything sad or even reminiscent of the blues looms large and forbidding. Many of us just don’t go there and put up a façade of always thinking “happy thoughts” or erect barriers to avoid getting close to anyone again. But the grief process or mourning needs to be done. And although mourning an age-old event can sometimes feel like unwrapping an ornately decorated box with complicated ties and intricate folds only to find another below; and another below that, it is not as tedious or ominous as it sounds. In fact, although at times heart wrenching, grieving fills one with wonder at the complexity of human emotion and the innate, but often hidden desire for stability and safety. Of course, I didn’t always feel that way, it is more in retrospect, but these last fifteen years have helped me mature in a way I never would without the grieving process. 

Day 7: My last prep work is complete. I blend the starter one more time, cover tightly with plastic, and set in the fridge. Tomorrow, after a month long hiatus, I make bread again.

The grief process has allowed me to become my own mother starter. Like the wondrous fermented blend of flour and water I, too, am now more prepared to birth new life into whatever metaphoric loaf of bread I choose to create. Stay tuned.

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