Today's post comes from Lyndsey Medford, a writer and self-proclaimed "inexpert social justice advocate" in Charleston, South Carolina. Lyndsey and I met through church three years ago while she was a student at Boston University School of Theology.. She writes on spirituality, grace, and social justice at LyndseyMedford.com.
I’ve been making sandwich bread with commercial yeast for about a year now, so I expected that learning to make sourdough would be a fairly quick process. I’d make loaves and loaves of snowy, chewy bread and cultivate a modest reply for when people complimented me on it. Being new to town, I secretly thought that this bread would even make friends for me; I’d take bread to acquaintances and neighbors, and its deliciousness would compel them to invite me over for coffee. I planned to bring my first loaf to a potluck two weeks ago.
I still have not made any bread.
My starter wouldn’t start. I tried baking with what I had on the seventh day, and my dough was a soupy mess that never rose. I began again; the starter remained in a lackluster state of barely-bubbling stasis. Again, I take (too much?) (kind of weird?) pride in my baking, and I have been taking this a bit harder than I probably should. I especially felt like a failure because here in the Charleston spring, my kitchen is the perfect temperature for yeast. One day I tried to work from memory and ended up with the wrong measurements for feeding the starter. I think I almost cried.
Finally, yesterday, I peered at my jar of timid yeast and sticky paste, then marched out the door and went to get unbleached flour. Yes, Kendall had pointedly recommended this about a week earlier. No, I didn’t want to believe that the White Lily I’d used all my life could actually be the culprit keeping my sourdough dreams from coming true. 24 hours later, the starter is doing better than ever.
The people closest to me might be a little shocked to hear that I didn’t immediately go for the “crunchy,” “natural,” industrial-food-production-is-to-blame solution. Over the past four years or so, I’ve become more and more aware of the ways that technology and consumerism—particularly as they relate to food—have unintended consequences; by focusing exclusively on the most cost-effective way to reach one goal, technologies tend to thwart other important processes and priorities. In this case, I’ve learned, bleached flour is a bit lighter and softer than unbleached, but the main reason it’s the de facto flour for most people is: money. Unbleached flour needs to age after it’s milled for several weeks in order to naturally become light and soft. Bleached flour can be shipped off—and profited from—right away.
I think of white flour as a simple ingredient: a carefully harvested, separated, dried, and crushed-up plant. The fact that it’s not at all that simple comes as no surprise to me after all I’ve learned about the modern food system. But I waited a week to learn this fact (and fix my starter), and the only reason is that I didn’t want to know it. White Lily is a Southern institution, and it’s what I had, and I didn’t want to change. It might sound silly, but I just didn’t want to face the fact that my lifelong brand of flour is good for biscuits but antithetical to the cultivation of yeast cultures.
One of the main reasons I wanted to learn to make sourdough as a spiritual discipline is the same reason I’m planting a container garden: not that I think any of these actions will have a measurable impact on the food system or the environment, but because I’ve come to believe we are more ethical consumers and happier people when we have our hands in the literal, material stuff that makes up our own lives. We realize that we are making important choices when we buy breads and flours; we start to see the threads formed by a purchase, connecting us to farms, farmers, factories, bakers, and even microorganisms. And we learn necessary skills, little valued in our current culture, for making our lives more sustainable, more human-sized. Skills like watching yeast-burp bubbles and knowing our lives depend on other lives. Waiting patiently and savoring what is in front of us. Ordering our schedules around our own homes sometimes. And making change, even when it feels foreign, to make room for new growth in the absence of an old habit. Humility, patience, presence, and delight in warm bread: we are cultivating qualities I think Jesus possessed in his bones.
Lyndsey Medford is an erstwhile evangelical and social justice nerd in Charleston, South Carolina. She has also been an improv coach, food pantry coordinator, young adult minister, sailor, backpacker, caterer to famous people, and SAT question writer. Lyndsey holds a Master's degree in Theological Studies from Boston University School of Theology.