28 April 2013

And spring.

And spring. Even here in this rented Vermont house with clod-covered nails, gravel and clay out the backdoor, I scratched today on the earth and dropped seeds into it, chard, kale, cilantro, romaine, with the hope and certainty of sunlight, warmth, and rain.

This burst of warmth brings so many woodland flowers into bloom, and on a sweet hike today we saw trout lilies and bloodroot, and many others whose names I don’t know but whose color brightens the damp forest floor in these early days of sunlight.

Last week I saw the excellent documentary Chasing Ice by James Balog, who’s tracked glacial retreat using time lapsed photography to show the staggering loss of some of Earth’s most significant glaciers in mere years, photographic certainty of massive climate change. I left the film feeling really cynical because even among the people who recognize the central importance of climate change, few of us are doing anything about it. Sure, we might buy our lettuce at the co-op, or carry canvas bags, but every morning in this small town of 6500, I’m in a crush of traffic as all of us who know that climate change may fundamentally alter life on Earth drive our kids to school, pick them up, drive them to tennis or swimming or soccer practice, ad nauseum. We want fuel-efficient cars so we can continue to drive as wantonly as we do, with no impediment to our routines. “If only those climate-change deniers recognized that they’re wrong!” we think, as we wait for the red light to change. We’re hoping for a big policy that will make the difference for us, but it’s not going to happen. Reversing climate change is not like banning DDT.

The Clean Water Act did a good job of curtailing point source pollution (the kind that comes, for the most part, from a single point, like a factory), but we’ve learned in the intervening decades that non-point source pollution (the kind that comes from everywhere – your lawn, your neighbor’s cows, the runoff from a parking lot) is just as malign, and its ubiquity makes it even harder to regulate or reduce. So, while Lake Erie’s water quality improved when some of the biggest polluters were forced to clean up their discharges into the lake, many of our nation’s other rivers and lakes have continued to deteriorate. And you and I are the non-point sources of increased carbon dioxide emissions, and it’s not until you and I and many, many others change our own habits that complement and strengthen any hoped-for policies that we should expect to see atmospheric C02 decrease.

So here I am with my sourdough bread, glad that I’ve nurtured wild yeasts in my starter. I wrote in my last post, after thinking about what a sour ferment is, that if food is alive, we have to pay attention to what it’s doing, not what a recipe is telling us to do. Working with a live culture necessitates that we pay closer attention to the thing we’re making. For me, this doesn’t mean I have to drop everything when I’m making a loaf of bread, but the usual four cups (or whatever) of flour a recipe calls for may not reflect how the starter is absorbing the new ingredients.

I’ve used a Zojirushi bread machine for three years and didn’t utilize its versatility until I started making sourdough. Lately, I’ve sometimes stretched rising times to twelve hours or more, incubating those wild yeasts in a warm, stable environment. Other times I’ll knead the bread for thirty or forty minutes and in that time the bread turns into a sponge-like batter and I have to add another two cups of flour to the mash. I continue to experiment with times and ratios, and my kids have complained a lot more this year as their peanut butter sandwiches are sometimes made on bread sour enough to be traded for an Atomic Warhead. Other times a loaf comes crashing down after rising to zeppelin heights, or remains gummy no matter how long it’s worked. Bread is alchemical, and making it without commercial yeast lets me appreciate the long history of nurturing food cultures that shared knowledge and starters and cultures when there were no stores to provide for us.

22 April 2013


A sourdough starter is a magnificent thing. Mine lives in a half gallon pickle jar, which gives me enough room to grow it, stir it vigorously, and ferment it. Its consistency is somewhere between pancake batter and porridge, but the bright, pungent smell of sour immediately identifies it as a sourdough starter. Depending on one’s olfactory experiences, its aroma can be off-putting or enticing. A healthy starter seduces my taste buds with a clean, sharp pungency that contrasts so nicely with the crusty earthiness of a well-cooked sourdough loaf.

We’ve heard so much about food borne illnesses and pathogens lurking in our kitchens that we react to sour smells with mistrust and apprehension. In part because we’ve been bombarded by advertising that conflates sterility with healthy, anything that’s pungent is suspect, and we cast a skeptical eye on a ripe, fermenting vat of sourdough, throwing away anything that doesn’t look perfectly preserved.

A good sourdough starter works like a compost pile, digesting raw materials and preparing them for their next use. The wild yeasts and bacteria that inhabit my starter are alive, and that’s the biggest obstacle wild starters have in gaining acceptance in our modern kitchens.

We have an explosion of cookbooks, food magazines, cooking shows, and food blogs that will make sure that any time we want to cook something, there’s a recipe to make sure it won’t go wrong. Someone else has tested it and fixed its flaws and all we have to do is follow the recipe, and it’ll turn out. And if it doesn’t, there’s a healthy dialogue in the comments section following every online recipe, where the next great chef will declare that he used 2/3 tsp basil instead of the ½ tsp called for, and everyone raved about it for months and begged for the recipe. The last thing most of us want in the kitchen – especially when we’re about to entertain, or we have an evening of kids’ activities – is unpredictability, because it will wreak havoc on our need to get dinner at our prescribed time. And the idea that we’re in a relationship with our food, that it can be temperamental and fickle, is not something that appeals to most people most of the time, because in the short term sterility is easier – we come in, cook, eat, and are done with it. If food is alive, we have to pay attention to what it’s doing, not what a recipe is telling us to do.

I replenish my starter nearly every day. After I take a cup or two out for a new loaf, I add white or whole wheat flour, bread crusts, leftover oatmeal, and once in a while a scoop or two of brown rice. The water from my tap is chlorinated, so I leave a jar of it out for twenty-four hours before I use it in a fermenting starter because I don’t want the chlorine to kill the microbial life that is so active in the starter. I then use a wooden spoon to give the mixture a good stir, which exposes it to air, and the next day the bubbling ferment is ready for the next loaf.

15 April 2013

Brown rice and weeds

This is the place to begin.  A long season of change tempered by the steady influence of brown rice and weeds, oat groats, and sourdough bread. 

I left Minnesota with my family and moved to Middlebury, Vermont in October 2012, and we've spent the past six months settling into a new community, new schools, a new job, and everything else.  And now it's almost spring.

When I walk with my daughter in the evenings after the dishes have been washed I smell the still-cold air against the birthing earth, warm with rot and new growth, piles of crust and slips of green, always.  

Birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Lent, Easter; we've now celebrated these seasons among old friends, family with whom we haven't shared holidays in many years, and new friends who have been kind, generous, and welcoming.  I helped my sister make Thanksgiving dinner for thirty-five or so in Buffalo and we shared the Christmas season with my wife's siblings, parents, cousins, aunts and uncles, and other relatives in Montreal, eating great Vietnamese food and a few of our traditional Christmas cookies.  It's good to be here.

I've eaten oat groats for breakfast since I've been in Vermont, having switched to oatmeal more than a year ago after many, many years of coffee and doughnuts in the morning.  Lunch is typically brown rice and some leafy green -- weeds, as far as my kids are concerned, and I don't know if it's necessary to differentiate the chards from the kohls; what I notice is green life and energy as I walk back to work. 

And then there's everything else that we prepare and eat, buy and make.  Everything still is our food, and we eat at our table every night, candles lit and some form of grace said or recited.  On weekends there is wine, rare on a weekday unless a special meal is served.  Nuts and dried fruit find their way to the table most evenings, and when mangoes are ripe I peel one for my youngest.  We press our children to make desserts themselves, telling them that their effort is all that will produce a sweet on the table.  And still we talk, sit at the table and let conversations turn and grow into this tendril or that, as I hope this blog continues to do.