Yesterday I found myself reflecting on making sourdough bread in this time of isolation and uncertainty. Looking at the mechanics of the process and the experience leads to a different way of reflecting on life.
Making bread, especially the long slow process of sourdough, is a journey. I daresay a spiritual journey if you will let it be such. You begin with basic elements of flour and water. To make a starter, that’s the very beginning. Simply flour and water combined with time and attention. Let it work. Let it do its thing. If you rush it, the results are less than what you might hope for. If you need things to happen faster, keep it warm but not hot. Hot will kill it. If you need to slow it down, put it in the fridge. Not the freezer, just the fridge.
Isn’t that how a getting to know the heart of the Universe (which I call God) works? Basic elements like flour and water. Combine. Let it catch wild yeast in the air around it, or let any yeast trapped in with the wheat grow by giving it water. It grows and bubbles and it can double or triple in size. But, you have to feed it, and you have to remove some of it before feeding or it gets out of hand size-wise. And it might just die on you if it gets to large or out of hand.
Sometimes I think that’s a problem for big congregations (big parishes, megachurches, etc). The beginnings were active and vibrant. They understood and nourished the process. The excess was removed or allowed to go another way, while the core was fed and continued to grow and overflow and give away the excess. Isn’t that what Jesus (and/or Paul and others) seemed to want? Go out and spread the Good News to all the world.
Take that starter, feed it up, take the excess and do many things with it: bake a loaf or 2 of bread, make crumpets/waffles/tortillas, pass it on to someone else so they can feed it up and make more bread/waffles/crumpets and maybe even pass it on themselves. The resulting bread draws from the starter but the specifics are influenced by the flours that are added (whole wheat? white? eichorn? rye? barley? oats?). The product is influenced by any number of additives like powdered milk, seeds, how much salt and how much time at what temperature is used for fermenting and rising. How was it shaped and baked: in a steam oven, a dutch oven, as a boule or in loaf pans? How hot was the oven? How long did it cook?
The expression is different, but it’s all bread. And, all sourdough bread. It might be more or less sour. More or less chewy. Beautifully “decorated” by the slits made before baking. Or not. It’s all bread and it draws it life from the yeast that grew in the dough. (Don’t get me started down the road where I think about the yeast having to die before the bread is completely cooked… for another day).
It’s hard to throw away the discard when the starter is being fed or in its beginning. And, the discard can be used for other purposes. Yeah! But, if you don’t remove the discard, then your starter is going to flounder and possibly die. If you can’t let go, it (you, me) can’t grow and become healthy and active. Let it go! let it go! Rejoice that there is so much spirit or love that it has to be culled or spread around. Rejoice that there are other congregations or denominations or even religions because there is so much Love to go around. And the results are so varied and delicious.
My favorite it the simple version of the bread. Flour and water make the starter; flour and water combine and relax together; add the starter and the salt and let it work. Bake it at high heat in in a dutch oven lined with parchment paper. Crisp crust, serious bread, the taste of the sourdough coming through strongly. That doesn’t make the waffles, crumpets, sandwich loaves and buns bad or wrong. It doesn’t make it wrong when you add some yeast to help the process. They are each good in their own right.
In this time of uncertainty and social distancing, I’m having some troubles adapting. I long to be able to go to mass (not watch it on Youtube); I need the leavening and the interaction of being physically involved. I really haven’t gotten in to watching mass. It’s not a show. It’s not about seeing it “done right.” It’s about being present here and now. For me, that is very hard to do with a livestream video or recorded video. For others, this video mass is a lifesaver. I don’t feel that the church is being persecuted because of the rules about gathering close. It’s a call to look deeper and let the yeast work in whatever way it needs to do so.