Lois Clary is a software engineer at General Dexterity, a San Francisco robotics company with world-changing ambitions. She codes all day and collapses at night, her human contact limited to the two brothers who run the neighborhood hole-in-the-wall from which she orders dinner every evening. Then, disaster! Visa issues. The brothers close up shop, and fast. But they have one last delivery for Lois: their culture, the sourdough starter used to bake their bread. She must keep it alive, they...
Sourdough: A Confession, a Recipe, and a Playlist
These are strange times, ripe for confession, so here is mine: I am a terrible sourdough bread baker.
I tried. I tried so hard! Years before I ever wrote the novel that took the substance as its name, I read Tartine Bread and I thought, “How lovely. How San Francisco! I will do it.” I set out my dish of floury paste, snared my starter out of the air, fed it, coaxed it. And it bubbled, if never with quite the vigor I had dreamed of for it. But the fault was not with the starter; the fault—for reasons I could never pinpoint—was with its keeper.
So, the flood of fresh sourdough success that now fills my social media feed — “look at my first loaf!” they exclaim, the camera aimed at a buoyant loaf, its crust artfully scored and crisped — has me a little vexed. They tag me in their photos, sometimes, and I get it. I am thrilled for them, thrilled to see starter out in the wild… but, also, your FIRST LOAF, really? How is that possible? My first loaf was a sodden puck. My first DOZEN loaves were pucks.
People ask me for advice; if only they knew! I tell them, first, that they shouldn’t be asking me for advice. I tell them not to start with Tartine Bread; it’s a beautiful book, but far too exacting and humorless for the first-time baker. I tell them to pay close attention to the starter’s temperature. I tell them I have nothing left to tell them.
Why did a failed sourdough baker write a novel about a magical sourdough starter? The answer is right there in the question. There was something I wanted from the starter, something I dreamed about and never achieved, not in this real world; so, I imagined and exaggerated and distorted and recombined to invent a starter of my own: not classic sourdough, but something more versatile, more alien. A starter with a secret origin and strange powers.
A starter that could even—here’s the crux of it—compensate for a baker’s lack of skill.
Sourdough is, I believe, the first novel to feature a possibly-sentient sourdough starter as a supporting character. When the book was first published, that earned some raised eyebrows. Now that starters are bubbling in so many more kitchens around the world, even skulking on streetcorners, perhaps it feels more reasonable. Obvious, even.
But, if your first loaf of sourdough bread doesn’t look like the ones you see on Instagram, don’t despair: I’ve got the book for you.
P.S. One last note of advice: If you want your sourdough starter to sing, Craig, you’ve got to feed it some tunes. (THIS PLAYLIST IS NOT FOR HUMANS. HUMANS DO NOT LISTEN TO THIS PLAYLIST.)
Robin Sloan is the author of the novels Sourdough and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. He is also the co-proprietor of a California extra virgin olive oil producer, Fat Gold. The olive oil is not imaginary, and it is very delicious with a slice of sourdough.