In September I started making sourdough bread. It's basically the hardest thing I've ever done. [Post forthcoming about baking as fitness.]
Bread is a beautiful thing. And sourdough bread is the most beautiful. For one, it's only flour, water, and salt. It rises from its own naturally-occurring yeast. Its leavening agent is this stinky old fermented flour-and-water solution, a force to be reckoned with as little bacteria feed on the sugars in the flour and become the leaven. Ideally, it results in this hole-y, cavernous crumb entombed within a crisp crust of dreams. This bread is the real deal.
Seems easy enough, but it's not. There is of course the reactivation of the starter a good few hours before you even intend to begin making the bread. Following that, is a lot of kneading, slapping, and folding of your dough. The more wet your dough, the more cavernous its crumb. But of course, wet dough is hard to shape. Thus, the need for a proving basket to help keep things under control.
And then there's the long proving time in a cool place - but not for too long, otherwise you'll discover a bubbly flour soup in your proving basket. After proving, you've got to gently tip the dough onto your baking surface of choice, being ever so careful and wary of knocking air out, lest you compromise the dough's rise. And then don't forget the slashing, so the dough's steam has somewhere to escape.
Now you can pop it in the burning hot oven with a spritz of water to help its crunchy crumb come to life. Or better yet, bake the whole thing in a pre-heated Dutch oven or casserole dish. Keep the lid on for the first fifteen minutes of baking so the steam helps nurture that crust along. Now wait an hour [you should be good at waiting by now] for your experiment to come to life, or fail.
[In the course of my rather brief sourdough bread career, I've failed more than I've succeeded. My first loaf [pictured below] was beautiful. Beginner's luck, I'm sure.]
Despite the hardship and my sad success rate, there's something so satisfying and rewarding about physically engaging in the food production process and in watching this nothing become something. Sourdough is incredibly sensitive to its environment, and for that reason, every loaf is unique. And because of that, I find I'm attentive to the details - the number of bubbles and the smell of my starter, the texture of my dough, the holes in the crumb, the crunch of the crust. It all seems so magnificent and mysterious. I'm eager to learn about what went wrong and how this affects that - how it all connects.
I'm slowly making my way through this really fantastic book, Food and Faith: The Theology of Food by Norman Wirzba. It covers a range of topics - the ethics of eating, our relationship to food, food as presented in the Bible. In his first chapter, Wirzba engages with the idea of eating as a spiritual exercise.
"Fast eating is but a symptom of the more generalized speed that drives and determines contemporary culture. The frantic pace that often characterizes work and social life makes it much less likely that people will learn the disciplines of attention, conversation, and gratitude that are crucial in a celebratory and responsible life" .
I think these words ring true of our "fast" relationship with food, in general. We value food that's quick to prepare and quick to eat. Of course there's nothing wrong with a quick meal, but a regularly immediate approach to food isn't worth the expense it can be to people, relationships, ecosystems, and the nurturing of ourselves and our souls. Food is more than life-giving sustenance. It comes from a web of relationships - how it's grown, where it's grown, how it's harvested, where it's transported and sold - and it creates opportunity for relationship, out of which life can grow.
In light of our hurried contemporary culture, Wirzba calls for eating to become a spiritual exercise, to help cultivate an awareness of food's connection to the grace of God. I think his words here about eating could also be said of preparing food:
"When eating becomes a spiritual exercise, it isn't simply that people will have occasions to become more attentive to each other and the world. They will also have the opportunity to see, receive, and taste the world with spiritual depth. What I mean is that careful attention that promotes thoughtful eating, particularly eating that is informed by the Eucharistic table, will also potentially lead eaters into an understanding of food as ultimately rooted in the grace of God. To move into this possibility, however, requires that we look at eating in an unhurried yet fresh way, a way that is open to dimensions of depth that elude us if we are not attentive" .
Not that I have arrived at this, but there certainly is something in the slow production of sourdough bread that requires my attention and awareness. On top of that, my frustrations surface in the process and my impatience shows in the product. And I'm reminded of all these wonderful and simple lessons about who God is and who I am. And all the while, there manifests this connection to the land, what I'm eating, who I'm sharing it with, and Who it all comes from that's beautiful and unique.