The Death of a Culture
If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, happen to have taken one of my classes, happen to know me IRL or were within shouting distance of my home or place of business a few months back, you might have heard my
desperate screams screeds sobs pleas for help. Hercule, my very aged, desem sourdough starter, had disappeared. Hercule was very dear. He’d lived with me in 3 states and two countries. He was a gift, and he originally came from Belgium (or at least that’s the story I was told)! He was special, and I’d (mostly) treated him with great care for the years of his life with me.
For the many years of Hercule’s stay with me, I reveled in the fact that he’d gotten around. I pondered the many microbes within him, and the (in my mind) fact that they had been built up on Pacific and Atlantic coasts, in valleys and on mountains. I thought I must have one diverse community living in my little ball of dough.
I’m not a huge baker, and although Hercule made delicious bread, a loaf every week or two in the winter, in the summer, he mostly lived in the refrigerator except for his feedings. I’m not a cruel microbe-master. I just can’t stand heating up the house with the oven in the warmer months. When it’s hot, we’re an almost exclusively salad and smoothie family. That’s just what tastes good in the warm months, you know? Come fall, though, Hercule lives out in the world with us humans and makes delicious smells and even more delicious breads. Or, I should say, lived. He did live with us in the cool months, but now he’s gone. One day, I went into the fridge to get him, and there was NOTHING there. Just kidding, I ferment, there was a ton of shit there, but there was no Hercule. I searched high and low. I cleaned out the fridge. I searched every container in there and every cupboard in my kitchen before finally accepting the truth. Hercule was gone. Why he’d left, I have no idea. Where he’d gone, a mystery. But I knew he wasn’t coming back.
I was initially completely freaked out and upset by this. Total panic. Then I remembered that I’d done this before. Not this exactly, but I’d neglected him until he bred (bread?) no more. I’d gone months without Hercule, but then replenished him from the stock of friends. I recalled that I’d given out at least dozens of sourdough starters, so I assumed I’d have no problem getting Hercule back. Incorrecto. Frantic emails to past class participants, anguished tweets and pleas on Facebook yielded not a single person who’d kept their version of Hercule alive. I slowly began to accept that he wasn’t coming back. I wasn’t okay with it or anything. I may have cried. I definitely did some reading on sourdough to assuage my pain, and to kind of memorialize Hercule. Are you judging me? That’s fine. I hope you never lose a culture you’ve cared for for 7 years. I hope you never have to know how it feels. *Splashes face with water to simulate tears.*
Katz on Sourdough
The happy news is that in my reading, I went to my own personal Life and Fermentation Guide, aka The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz and found some unexpected solace. I mentioned this passage in my previous discussion of SCOBYs, but I’d like to go a little further in-depth on it here. The basic thesis statement is that you have native yeasts in your home. The yeasts in the air impact which bacteria (naturally present on the grain) thrive, and the communities of bacteria and yeast that are present in your home will dominate the cultures present in your sourdough when it arrives.
This is revolutionary stuff guys! It means that although Hercule is gone forever, he’s not really gone at all. The Hercule that moved into my South Philly home from my Old City loft is not the Hercule that was lost. And the Hercule that crossed the country with me from California is not the Hercule that I had mere weeks after arriving in Philly. The native community dominates, for the most part (start reading from page 233 in The Art of Fermentation if you want beautifully written prose that makes scientific studies sound gorgeous and fascinating).
It is clear that there are some strains of yeast that may survive travel and the strength of the the native microbiota of a place, but for the most part, the environment changes the dominant yeast and bacteria in no time at all. And speaking of bacteria, evidence presented in the same chapter of The Art of Fermenation suggests that there is much more bacterial activity than there is yeast activity, contrary to popular belief.
So in conclusion, don’t pay money for a sourdough starter. I’ve done it. A few years ago when I was testing stuff out, just to see, I bought a culture that purported to be like Hercule from a very reputable source. I rehydrated it and it worked great. But I wish I had known that I was wasting my money, and that whatever came into my house would be adapting soon enough. So go forth and create your own, or better yet, take some from a friend and keep it alive. No reason to ignore your community just because your sourdough creates its own.
Want more sourdough?