“All sorrows are less with bread.” ―Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Sometimes, you just have to bake something. At least I do. Especially after a long news segment on very serious issues like the climate crisis and threats to democracy. When such big worries about the future threaten to undo me, I first pet the cat, assuring him that everything will be all right; then I march into the kitchen and begin throwing flour around. I don’t actually throw it, but it looks that way, given the mess I make. We all have these odd little rituals and spiritual practices that keep us grounded in the present moment, centered, and tethered to the goodness in the world. Sometimes they are not familiar rituals, but brand-new adventures -- like my latest foray into the world of baking sourdough bread.
And like most adventures, there is a moment when you ask yourself, “What was I thinking?” Baking sourdough bread turned out to be more complicated than I imagined. After watching endless intimidating YouTube videos on the subject, all espousing different methods, my longing for old-world bread slowly crumbled in the face of its complexity. The “sourdough starter,” the timing, the equipment, the new vocabulary (autolyze, proofing, bread lame, etc.) -- it all made my head spin. Was there a sourdough secret society? Rarified secrets that only the few and gifted can know? How did bakers of old do it?
So I tried. And I failed, throwing out a perfectly good starter with a sigh of resignation and defeat.
But then I discovered a straightforward, old-world approach to making sourdough bread from Ikaria, Greece, that seemed to fit my KISS (Keep-It-Simple-Stupid) approach to baking. But I was also intrigued. The little island of Ikaria is famously noted by National Geographic Explorer Dan Buettner as a Blue Zone, a hot spot for long-lived, thriving centenarians. Apparently, whole-grain sourdough bread is one of their secrets, along with a plant-based diet, faith, walking, and helping one another. Their strong sense of community helps them not only live long but live well. And what is a community without breaking bread together?
Let us Break Bread Together
In my faith, we break bread every Sunday in a holy feast of sharing. We call it the Eucharist or Holy Communion. Eucharist means “thanksgiving” so it is a ritual of gratitude. Bread should be this: healthful, delicious, and shared with one another in a spirit of thanksgiving. A lovely loaf of bread reminds me to be grateful and to share.
And so, out of the ashes of defeat, I rose again to the challenge of bread baking. I ordered a new San Francisco starter culture and began to feed it. I have learned the hard way that you can’t ignore this thriving bacterial wonder. Like my cat, it must be fed twice a day. And, like my cat, there are consequences if you forget.
For centuries, sourdough starter was the only way of leavening bread, until commercial yeast came into fashion to make our lives easier. Now, we are discovering that the old-world, wild yeast from sourdough possesses health-giving properties that cannot be replicated with commercial yeast. With this new-found knowledge, I now respect the starter as a living thing, not to be thrown out in a fit of frustration or left to die. Sourdough starters, lovingly known as “mother dough,” are sometimes passed down from generation to generation, which is mind-boggling. You could be eating bread fermented by the very same starter that your great-great grandma used! Yes, this amazing culture, harnessed from the air and nurtured by flour and water, can outlive us several times over. (I still feel bad about throwing out that first starter.)
Okay, so now I am faced with this amazing life form, always hungry for flour. Flour is cheaper than cat food, but still, it seems wasteful. What’s to keep this thing from eating me out of house and home? I tried using less flour in each feeding, but the starter was not impressed and refused to give me a single bubble. Yes, it’s like adopting a finicky cat. And yet, it’s also like a science project back in the day. Even the jar I bought for the starter looks a bit like a beaker out of a high school science lab.
A sense of wonder and awe floods my soul as I contemplate the growing culture in my jar, a thriving bacterial life that I am nurturing twice a day. A life form with purpose, the starter ferments the flour. But while the active culture dies inside the bread, it leaves behind a valuable “prebiotic” for the digestive system, helping the human body thrive with health. This reminds me that death is not extinction, but transformation. I also wonder what I will leave behind -- and hope that it will be nourishing.
Oh, the secret life of trees and bees and sourdough starter! It’s all a wonder and all of a piece. When we think of “life” we tend to think of human life or animal life, or perhaps plant life; but life (or at least experience) goes all the way down. Bacteria is a simpler life form, but no less important to the web of connections that we are born into. The entire web, bacteria and all, is infused with divinity – a wondrous thought! I contemplate this when I feed my starter, thinking of all the fresh possibilities being nurtured into actuality with a little love and attention.
Once the well-fed starter is full of happy bubbles, I am finally ready to gather my simple ingredients: starter, flour, salt, and water, and put it all together. Things finally begin to take shape in this act of “the many become one.” As I don my apron and begin to work the dough with my hands, I breathe in the earthy aroma of wheat fields connecting me back to the soil, from which all life springs. Following the old-world way, I knead the dough vigorously for 20 minutes. Of course, today there are “no-knead” methods, but I feel the urge to follow the Ikarian way and put some muscle into it. It may be the only upper body workout I get this week.
My whole being participates in the stretching and folding, pushing and pulling, until the dough transforms from a listless lump of separate ingredients to an elastic whole that feels smooth and satisfying in my hands -- something like the Playdough of my childhood. Physical labor and play find each other in the kneading of bread.
The kinesthetic feel of the dough in my hands reminds me that we are God’s hands in this world, working lovingly with the push and pull of life to bring about something nourishing and beautiful -- like justice, kindness, sustainability, and the messy business of democracy. Only when we wholeheartedly engage in the world, take risks, connect, love -- without any guarantee of outcome -- can we find meaning.
Let It Be
I now shape the dough into a ball and “let it be.” It’s time to put in the earbuds and hum along with Paul McCartney while allowing the dough to sit for a couple of hours in a warm place. In the spirit of “a time for every purpose” I now cease my labor and let the work of love do its thing. There is a time to knead and a time to rest, allowing what I nurture to ferment and grow on its own, to rise and expand -- to simply become itself. I’ve done my part; it is now out of my hands. In response, the bread dough expands like the Universe. In the waiting, I learn how to be patient, hopeful, and trust in the fermenting power of love. (This also gives me time to brush off my cat who, by this time, is lightly dusted in errant flour.)
Bread of Heaven
Finally, I bake the loaf with the joy of anticipation. My kitchen is filled with the heady aroma of baking bread. In fact, the entire house is infused with its earthy scent. And then -- voila! The timer dings, telling me that the bread is done; it has been transformed from earth to table through a labor of love; it is now, an incarnation of divine freshness to enjoy and share.
The taste is tangy and satisfying, especially with a toaster, butter, and my favorite jam. I’m still learning and trying out a host of variations, but I am thankful to the Ikarian old-world inspiration to get me out of my defeatist funk. Because I am not a professional baker, I have no ambition toward perfection. (Some of my loaves come out comically lopsided, but who cares? The sourdough police?) It’s not the perfect outcome that gives satisfaction, but rather the process of baking that calms the mind and renews the spirit.
While a host of spiritual practices can be extracted in the process of bread baking -- living in the present moment, gratitude, wonder, nurture, connections, love, transformation, play -- I find joy to be at the top of the list. We can all get re-acquainted with joy when we choose to work with nature’s gifts to create something with our hands or with our voices or with our words. Creativity brings the yet-to-be into existence, and no matter how it bakes up, the process itself is thrilling.
Baking bread reminds me that every moment is an act of co-creation: we take the ingredients we have, stir in divine possibilities, and bake something fresh and delicious to nourish the world. Sometimes, the pain of this world makes me too sad for words, so I bake bread to re-ignite joy. Somehow it helps to know that out of the dust of the earth, life continues to spring forth in hope -- even with something as humble as a loaf of bread.