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Terrestrial Sourdough: On Thinking Through Bread
Dark Mountain: Issue 23 – Dark Kitchen
The Dark Mountain Project has long been a haven for my writing, and I was thrilled last fall when they asked me to contribute to their first Dark Kitchen issue. Dark Kitchen is “an assemblage of writing and art that investigates food culture in times of collapse.”
If you can, please join the online celebration of launching the issue – Thurs 20th April, 7pm BST. It should be great fun.
Terrestrial Sourdough appears in the print version of Dark Kitchen. Like all of The Dark Mountain Project’s issues, it’s a gorgeous, hardcover volume. Mine is still wending its way across the ocean, but I can’t wait to get my hands on it.
Since I couldn’t figure out how to excerpt this essay in a way that I was happy with, the good folks at Dark Mountain said I could publish it on my site. I hope you enjoy, and please go check them out. They’re doing terrific work.
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Terrestrial Sourdough: On thinking through bread
It’s a Saturday morning in December and I am making bread. Sunshine pours through my kitchen window, the winter sunshine upon which I placed my hand and vowed 35 years ago never to go back to the Midwest, never to go back to those low grey skies, to snow turned black from traffic, to wet winters in houses with screen porches wrapped in plastic.
I saw sunshine from the top of a Colorado mountain one January in my early 20s, skies so blue you felt like you were inside a Navajo turquoise, and said ‘never again’. It’s a vow I’ve kept, moving from Colorado to California to Utah to Montana, but never east of Denver.
It’s a sunny Saturday morning and on the other side of the country, my spouse’s mother is alone in a hospital room on the seventh floor of a Boston hospital, hurled by the shock of breaking a hip into a nether world where she does not know who she is, who we are, or where she is. And so, because she is a person of iron will, she is refusing. Refusing to eat. Refusing to drink. Refusing to take the few prescriptions she needs at 90.
And because she’s now testing positive for Covid after a week in the hospital, they’re not letting my brothers-in-law, my father-in-law, in to see her. We’re afraid we’re losing her, our tough nut, and are determined that even though at 90 her time is limited, we’re going to pull her back from the wilderness of her own mind, pull her back into the world so she can go out as she went through, bossy and fired by a fierce love.
The hospital, they only see a confused old woman. They are letting her go. We’re in a battle. Yesterday I dug the quart mason jar of starter out of the back of the fridge where I’d shoved it when we were trying to find space for the Thanksgiving leftovers. It had been a while since I baked, the liquid had settled out, gone that black colour. After all these years, it no longer alarms me. The starter isn’t dead. It just looks like it is.
I added four heaped spoonfuls from the flour bin, measured by the round silver soup spoons that I inherited from my namesake great grandmother. People seem surprised sometimes that I use them every day, this silver set a remnant of the long-lost family fortune. But I like knowing that a Chicago brides’ wedding gift from 1909 is still in use, here in the Montana she only visited as a tourist. To the flour in the jar, I added water, made a slurry and set it in a warmish corner of the kitchen, and by evening it was ready. Enough small bubbles to show the whole thing was alive.
Into the old yellow pyrex bowl went two cups of King Arthur all purpose flour and a cup of the local Conservation Grains Flour, a blend of hard wheat, spelt, rye and Kamut, grown and milled up on the High Line near the Canadian border, 200 miles north of here. In Montana, that’s considered local. The King Arthur I fret about. The wheat is grown here but milled on the East Coast. I tried the local flour, but it’s not as good. I don’t know why, but it never works as well, and so after experimenting with it for a year or so, I went back to King Arthur. During the pandemic, when I got spooked, I ordered a 50lb bag. It lasted about a year.
Does knowing your flour matter, or is it an affectation? As we watch the blockade at the Ukrainian ports, see the ripple effects of hunger from disrupted grain supplies, fussing over the brand of flour feels like the worst sort of first world problem. Is using local wheat one of those things we make important in our own minds so we feel that we’re accomplishing something authentic? My own sourdough. Made with Montana wheat. A bread that is rooted in place, a place where I did not grow up, but where I have deliberately built a home, and a garden, and a family, and a life?
Those big Ukrainian grain elevators, pouring grain into the holds of ships, there are elevators like that all across the midwest where I grew up, loading rail cars, or in Duluth, loading ships like the ones blockaded at Odesa. The commodification of grain is what made Chicago, my home city, a great industrial power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s what paid for my great grandmother’s wedding silver. We were weaned on the early morning farm report, the first show on the television when we were small, the litany of wheat and corn and soy prices. The price of pork bellies. My grandmother explaining the hedged bets that were grain futures, deciding with her broker what price to sell the corn or soybeans off our family farm.
In his early work, Nature’s Metropolis, William Cronon argued that commodification was the innovation by which natural products lost their ecological identities and were converted into capital. A standardised grading system and the rise of the grain elevator meant crops could be consolidated into a anonymous , almost liquid, substance, one that could be stored in elevators, poured into rail cars and ships for transport. In the case of meat, the vast Chicago meatpacking industry, enabled by the rise of refrigerated railroad cars, converted cattle and pigs into disassembled cuts of beef and pork, distancing consumers from the flesh-and-blood reality of the animals themselves.
It’s this commodification I’m resisting, there in my kitchen, mixing my small bags of bespoke Montana ancient grains, ground into flour in a restored mill in the nearly-deserted downtown of Choteau, with the commodified flour from King Arthur, standardised to the point that the gluten content is stamped right there on the front of the bag. All purpose flour at 11.7%, cake flour at 10%, bread flour at a whopping 12.7%. For sourdough, I like the all purpose – it’s soft enough to let the big bubbles rise, strong enough to form a crust that sings when it comes out of the oven. And yet, my bread is different every time. Some loaves have big air bubbles, most do not. Sometimes it rises to a near-sphere, other loaves stay flat, rising only enough to justify themselves as a bread at all. The ingredients are the same, but variables of temperature and how recently I’ve fed the sourdough and whether our humidity levels are in the low teens or, on a wet day, in the 20s, these all save my homemade loaves from the standardisation of commodity products.
They are each mine these loaves, they are of my hands and my home. These wild yeasts change across the seasons, but they are of this yard, this town. When I’ve had to travel, it’s the first thing I do when I get back. Set the starter to feed, start making a loaf of bread. There’s a reason every culture has its breads, the bread of home.
While I am stretching and folding bread dough, and my husband’s mother is barricaded inside her own mind, he is in the air, crammed miserably into a seat in a metal tube, hurtling through space. His parents have, over the past few years, made the same journey as millions of older people, moving from a house, to an apartment, to a smaller apartment in a facility where there’s a dining room for meals, where there are other people for company, even if their only common denominator is being old. They’ve entered that dark wood where one fall, like the one Joyce took, losing her balance getting up from the table, a hip bone cracking like the dry sticks we use to light our wood stove, and it’s off to a hospital, to a nursing home, to the grave. No wonder she’s refusing. She doesn’t know who she is, or where home is, but she knows this is not it. She is not home. She is not safe. And so, she refuses. All of it.
You have to admire her will. Old age is another thing we’ve commodified. Another thing we’ve made ‘modern’ as Bruno Latour, the French philosopher of technology and science, might say. In much the same way that commodification modernised animals and grain into capital by divorcing both from the dirt of the farm, the blood of the packing plants, so Latour notes in Down to Earth that the injunction to modernise ‘is at the core of every sacrifice: for leaving our native province, abandoning our traditions, breaking with our habits, if we wanted to ‘get ahead,’ to participate in the general movement of development, and finally, to profit from the world’.
The trajectory our elders face is only one example. We all became modern. We grew up and moved away from our families, sometimes, for some of us, that was for the best. But in the wake of this atomisation, Capital has rushed in to fill the gap, to take money from us all, from elders who need help but who desperately want to hang on to smaller and smaller pieces of their autonomy, from us, their children, who desperately want them to be safe.
I pull the pyrex bowl out of the proofing oven, do a quick fold-and-stretch, then stash it back in the oven. An hour or two later, a few more fold-and-stretches until the dough feels alive, feels like a new animal in the house, and out comes the Dutch oven. Tuck it in and fire the oven up to 450F, leave it for another 10 minutes after the beep for temperature, then into the hot pot goes the dough. Twenty minutes with the lid, 20 without, and onto a baking rack to cool. The bread sings when it comes out of the oven. A tiny, high-pitched whistle of steam, an audible crackle from the crust as it settles. I have been making this bread once or twice a week for the 20 years I’ve owned this house and that whistle, that crackle, it still feels miraculous. Every time. That I can do it in my sleep, that I can do it with sourdough, or add a light sprinkle of instant yeast if the sourdough is looking tired, is one of the psychic rocks upon which my mental health rests. Hence the 50 pound bag of flour, the brick of yeast, I ordered during the pandemic. If I can make bread, we’ll be OK. When it all goes sideways, there’s always bread. If there’s bread there’s a meal. If there’s a meal we’re OK.
It was the summer I did field biology in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on the border of Minnesota and Canada that I learned how forgiving bread is. The thing about wilderness stations is that they depend on good housekeeping. It was Becky, the camp cook, who made all of our bread, who taught me this. We were an hour’s drive from town, and while she made a store run once a week, and could have fed us on the cottony sliced commercial bread that is all that was available in the mid-1980s, she didn’t. She baked for us. It was Becky who taught me the rhythms of bread, that it wasn’t finicky, that it could accommodate leftovers. If there were leftover mashed potatoes, or leftover oatmeal we hadn’t finished, they went in the bread dough. I learned a lot of things that summer, the biology of the fish and birds of the northern boreal forest, how to be in love, what to do when you’re in the bow of a canoe and a moose is standing midstream as you come around a bend, but decades later what remains is the sense memory of Becky teaching me to make bread, to roll the loaves, settle them in their pans before bed, so they’d do a long, slow, cool rise and be ready to bake in the morning.
How we cook is how we do everything else. If sourdough shows us anything it is how the wild and the domestic are not a binary. I was in the Northwoods to escape the domestic expectations of my parents, that I’d finish college, meet a nice boy of our social class, and get married. I was fleeing domestic life. I thought marriage would kill me like it had my Aunt Lynn, who drank herself to death when she couldn’t get away. But despite my rejection of domesticity, it was during my years in wilderness camps and leading trips that I learned how to keep house.
Earth, House, Hold. The title of one of Gary Snyder’s earliest books of poetry, a collection of poems about working as a fire lookout, a collection that has trails and trail crews, fires and cooking, and wilderness threaded through. I was lucky enough to study with Gary in graduate school and if there’s one thing he taught us is that it’s all the same. “Everything is phenomena,” in the Zen sense, undifferentiated in essence, coming into being and then passing back into the Tao. The Earth is our home, and how we do anything is how we do everything. The etiquette of freedom, he calls it in Practice of the Wild:
‘We can enjoy our humanity with its flashy brains and sexual buzz, its social cravings and stubborn tantrums, and take ourselves as no more and no less than another being in the Big Watershed. We can accept each other all as barefoot equals sleeping on the same ground. We can give up hoping to be eternal and quit fighting dirt. … The wild requires that we learn the terrain, nod to all the plants and animals and birds, ford the streams and cross the ridges, and tell a good story when we get back home’.
Wilderness travel relies on good housekeeping. When you pull your canoes ashore at the end of the day, the first things you do are set up the tents, build a fire, start prepping a meal, figure out where the toilets will be, assign spaces for washing. Shelter, food, and cleanliness are the mainstays of wilderness travel as much or more so than are courage and passion and physical stamina. I first led trips in my late teens, and it was the first thing we had to do, teach the kids to be clean. Teach them how to scour cooking pots, how to wash their hands with soap and to do it away from camp. The biggest dangers we faced were not bears, or drowning, or twisting an ankle, but giving everyone the runs from bad camp hygiene. A messy camp is a contagious camp.
And yet, in the wake of everything, our parents failing, the creeping fascism that is currently ascendent in our corner of the world, wars and famine and pandemic and climate crisis, the engine behind it all, I find myself fretting over this 20 year experiment I’ve been conducting, I find myself questioning why I’m compelled to spend so much time and effort feeding us from our local foodshed. My large vegetable garden, the fruit trees and bushes, the chickens, the elk and venison my neighbours hunt and gift to us as non hunters, the local beef or pork or lamb we can buy on the carcass, have cut and wrapped locally for the freezer, the question haunts me, does any of this even matter? The whole concept of the local, of being a local is so fraught in a world where climate change is cascading into political xenophobia, and especially here in this corner of the United States where the white supremacists, Christian nationalists, and cultist preppers are all heavily armed and taking over our state legislatures, are storming the US Capitol when they don’t like election outcomes. How does one dig into place, without becoming a xenophobe?
How does one dig into place on land stolen from the tribes who still exist? Who are still here? The Paradise Valley, where our cabin is located, on the shoulders of a dormant volcano called Emigrant Peak, was summer grounds held in common by the Blackfeet, Flathead, Shoshone, and Crow. Their only real presence here now is in the winter, when they exercise their treaty rights to hunt buffalo exiting Yellowstone National Park. Our family farm in Illinois has an ‘Indian Creek’ running through the pasture. Which Indians? Who did the railroad run off before selling that section to my Irish great-great grandparents? How far back should we go? My grandmother’s father was a direct descendent of William Bradford, the Mayflower dissident who started it all.
Who is local? At a city council meeting to discuss development planning, the folks in the back of the room, in their ranchwear of pressed jeans, wool waistcoats and boots jeer when I mention my 20 years here. To them I’m not local because I’m not a rancher. I don’t go to their evangelical church. I don’t even go to the Catholic Church despite having been raised in that tradition. When I note that I brought a good remote job to support the tax base, that I’d like to see our open space preserved, that I think the network of walking and bike trails are a good idea they talk louder in the back of the room, until another man, always a man, asks them to keep it down, to let me have my say. This kind of partisanship came with the same waves of new people that I did. It’s accelerated in the last few years, as a popular television show is once again propagating Manifest Destiny, telling the story of an empty land waiting for a white man to colonise it. It’s brought yet more waves of newcomers driving giant trucks, visions of Rugged Individualism in their heads, looking for a place where there are no brown people, where they can lean into old ideas of dominion and white supremacy, where they can play out fantasies that the United States is a well-armed Christian nation.
My husband has to keep reminding me, when I’ve gotten in spats on dog walks, when I’ve lost my temper in parking lots: ‘They’re armed,’ he keeps saying. “They’ll shoot you’.
So how do we resist the commodification of globalisation without falling into the old ideologies of ‘blood and soil’ that are blooming once again, especially in places like this one? Because I have an academic background, I go to the literature when I’m fretting like this. Bruno Latour has been tracing these ideologies for decades, and it’s his small book, Down to Earth, published in the wake of Trump’s election that I find most useful when I’m in this space. Latour argues that the violence of this culture war is not irrational. He outlines the ways in which, faced with the looming threat of climate change, the world's elites deliberately turned away from the idea that the rising tide could lift all boats, indeed, they rejected the notion altogether that there is one common tide, that there is a common fate. As capitalism shifted to globalisation, Latour points out that what had to be abandoned, in order to modernise, was the Local. Globalisation deliberately destroyed the Local, and the fury I encounter at city council meetings, or while walking my dog on a public but out-of-the-way road is a logical, if terrifying reaction to living in the wake of the broken promises of modernist globalisation.
In this way only, these furious locals are like my mother-in-law, waking in a strange world, manhandled by strangers who are telling her what she doesn’t want to hear, that she’s fallen, that she’s broken, that she’s old and probably going to die soon. That she’s obsolete. Like stubborn Joyce, the hostile locals around me are refusing.
While I find Latour’s analysis of the brutality of the forces of global capitalism that have brought us to this predicament compelling, it’s his concept of the Terrestrial that gives me a tiny bit of hope. I mean, there has to be some way to live in this broken world, and no matter how personally fulfilling and grounding I find making bread to be, making one’s own sourdough, even from locally-milled wheats, is not any kind of solution for the situation in which we find ourselves. Latour, who hailed from the wine family, understood terroir, and his concept of the Terrestrial seems to stem from a winegrower’s relationship with land, one that goes back generations.
‘There is nothing more innovative, nothing more present,’ he notes, “nothing less rustic and rural, nothing more creative, nothing more contemporary than to negotiate landing on some ground.”
This was the impulse that drove me here from California, from a townhouse development perched in the hills above the San Francisco Bay, a development that I could see even then was about to be swallowed by more townhouses, on more cul de sacs, creeping across the East Bay hills. I fled. I wanted a place. I wanted some ground on which to land.
The Terrestrial, Latour argues, differs from the Local by containing two contradictory impulses: ‘attaching oneself to the soil on the one hand and becoming attached to the world on the other’. It’s a way of grounding oneself while not building a barricade, not filling your basement with weapons to protect your barrels of freeze-dried food from the civil wars you believe are inevitable. He then borrows the term worlding from fellow philosopher of science Donna Haraway, and continues: ‘the Terrestrial is bound to the earth and to land, but it is also a way of worlding in that it aligns with no borders, transcends all identities’. Like Latour, Haraway’s life work has been thinking through how we can escape the binary view of the world in which grain, and meat, and ‘raw materials; are all commodities that exist for humans to exploit. By gerundising the noun world, she seeks to make active that which has been considered a passive, inert repository of commodities.
Stories matter. The stories we tell ourselves, that we tell one another, are the means by which we know the world. For years I’ve had a quote from her 2016 book, Staying with the Trouble, tacked to the board above my desk:
It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties.
Stories matter. Stories are how we know ourselves, our world. That my story involves pulling out my jar of wild yeast when trouble comes, that my mother-in-law’s story involves an iron will and brilliant mind, these are not immaterial.
The way we do anything is the way we do everything.
Which might be one way to think through my long practice of cooking and eating as locally as I can, here on my tiny town lot, in the middle of the latest skirmish in the battle for the American west. If it matters what matters we think with, then my sourdough starter, that not-quite-domesticated wild yeast I feed and use to feed myself and my family, then it’s perhaps more than just an empty gesture. Perhaps it’s a mechanism for worlding, a practice like Gary Snyder’s Zen lessons back in the day, a means of being in the world that can, by keeping practices alive, be one of the tiny bridges by which we might all get through what’s coming next.
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