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On Sourdough (Starters) and COVID-19 - The Social Connection

Sourdough is gaining in popularity these days on so many different fronts. During the COVID-19 outbreak period people started hording items like disinfecting liquids, masks and toilet paper. And pretty soon another more unexpected item became a rarity - commercial yeast.

As everyone settled into their homes during shut-downs, trying to figure out what to do with all the extra time they had on their hands, it became pretty clear from the empty shelves in the stores' baking aisles that people had developed a need to bake, with many trying their hand at baking bread to stave off the COVID-19 blues. It was after they discovered that the yeast packets in their cup boards had long expired that they also discovered a shortage of commercial yeast in their local stores.

My heart went out to these want-to-be bread bakers who, if they were lucky enough to find an unexpired yeast packet, probably ended up using it to make one single loaf of bread because they were utterly unaware of the fact that a 2¼ tsp yeast packets could actually provide them with rising power for 9 loaves (I kid you not!) if they only reduced the yeast amount to 1/4 tsp and added just one more ingredient to the recipe (see Jim Lahey's No-Knead bread recipe). An ingredient which could now be found in abundance during this period of shutdowns and shelter-in- place: TIME.

I wanted to share this exciting news with my local community, along with the lesser known possibility of using a sourdough starter instead of commercial yeast, and so I did what I knew must be done: post this valuable information to the local neighborhood FaceBook page along with the offer to share my 1847 Carl Griffith Oregon Trail Sourdough starter for FREE. I wanted to do my part in helping my local community to become (commercial) yeast independent. The response to my offer was unexpected and the start of a local social sourdough connection network. I had to create a spreadsheet to keep track of the many requests I received and a google map to help me visually track the location of my sourdough "offspring". I received pledges of the sourdough newbies to carry on the mission of BREAD Encounters after COVID-19 "to engage the community to bake bread for those in need".

COVID-19 has provided me with new opportunities to make social connections I had never even dreamed of before; not only by sharing my starter but also by bartering sourdough bread for fresh fruits and vegetables. I have no shame placing post-it notes on neighbors' doors with the promise of fresh sourdough bread in exchange for whatever garden fresh produce they have to offer. Again, creating new social connections rooted in sourdough.

As you can see I am very passionate about baking (sourdough) bread and have shared my love for baking bread with many over the years, by giving free workshops to friends, coworkers, neighbors and the women's organization of my church. I have baked with kids in an after-school program as well as young cub scouts. I have also spent much time contemplating the positive effects of bread on humans and ways to use that positive effect in negative circumstances. To that end I found a kindred spirit in cultural anthropologist Dr. Nadezdha Savova-Grigorova, the Founder and President of Breadhouses Network, whom I was looking forward to meeting this June in Sofia, Bulgaria until COVID-19 caused us to scrap those plans. If only temporarily.

Creating new social connections or re-establishing old ones is one of the possible positive effects of sourdough baking. To this end I would like to introduce you to Heidi, a young wife and mother, (and the daughter of my best friend) who shared with me her personal experience on how sourdough has been instrumental in making and revitalizing social connections in her life:

"When I first got my starter, I really didn’t think I’d be making much sourdough bread. It seemed daunting and time consuming, but I have fond memories with my mom because of bread. I’d often come home at night and smell fresh baked sourdough. We’d sit in the kitchen talking and would consume most of the loaf in one sitting. I wanted to give that to my kids and husband. 

The first time I made sourdough bread from start to finish by myself, I posted each step on my Instagram not thinking much of it. Surprisingly, a ton of people I knew wanted to know how to make it. I soon found out that others were interested in receiving some dry starter from me via mail. I continued to make bread for my family and extended relatives, but it wasn’t until recently that it became a huge hit!

 We just moved into a new home in November and hadn't made many new friends. We heard the ward (church congregation) was going to put together a little munch-and-mingle after church and everyone was invited to bring something to eat. I decided to make some sourdough since it had yet to fail me! People saw me walking around with 2 loaves of sourdough in church, one for my class which I teach and one for the ward. My students had already hyped up the bread to everyone and announced when it arrived. I barely put it on the table before a line formed! The sourdough loaf was gone in about 3 minutes from the time I put it down on the table. Shortly after I had people coming over to compliment my bread and striking up conversations. I really feel like since starting this new hobby 5 months ago it has brought me closer to my mom, friends I hadn’t talked to in years, and opened up conversations for (hopefully) some new found friendships."

And this is Heidi's adorable little son who cannot get enough of his Mom's delicious and healthful bread!

I love how Heidi's initial connection or desire to bake sourdough bread was rooted in "fond memories" of coming home to the smell of freshly baked bread and sitting down and talking with her mom, something she wants to share and pass on to her little family. My own children have had that experience of smelling freshly baked bread before drifting off to sleep as I did most of my baking at night so they could wake up to fresh bread. Having fresh bread to look forward to made it so much easier to get them out of bed in the morning!

Another interesting sourdough connection I made over the past month is with Charles Lamica, a gentleman in Washington State. Someone had asked a question with regards to camping and baking bread on one of the few bread related FaceBook pages I follow and this gentleman's name came up. I clicked on his page and found out that he had started a non-profit called 1804 Club ( reference to the Lewis and Clark expedition) with the motto "Using the past to prepare for the future" through which he teaches young kids 11 through 18 traditional skills and handcraft. I LOVED that idea and decided he needed to know that I loved it, and so I contacted him. Turns out that baking with sourdough in the outdoors had been on his bucket list and here I was providing him with both the opportunity AND a sourdough starter, albeit in dried form. I tell you, the Lord works in mysterious ways. As of the writing of this blog post, Charles has successfully baked his second loaf of sourdough and will soon experiment with baking it outdoors. I would love to travel to Washington when he teaches the kids the pioneer craft of sourdough sustenance! Maybe I will.

Last year I decided to go on a singles dating website. Of course, I had to include my passion for sourdough baking in my profile. A gentlemen contacted me because he also was a sourdough enthusiast and we decided to meet. He is a retired Navy ship commander who lives on a beautiful sailboat in one of San Diego's harbors with his dog and although we are not dating, we have become good friends and are planning some BREAD Encounter events together in the future. In fact, we had signed up to participate in the San Diego's Public Library How-To Festival which was supposed to take place on May 30, 2020 but of course, is highly unlikely to take place any time soon. Our presentation was going to be on "How to make your own Sourdough Starter", although I was really going to use this event as a platform to talk about WHY you would want to make a sourdough starter in the first place. Most people are not aware that sourdough has so many other benefits (apart from improving your social life) in regards to nutrition and gut health. If you are interested in that topic I suggest you get the book The Sourdough School by Vanessa Kimbell, winner of the World Bread Award in the category sourdough, and a British sourdough enthusiast who actually has a Ph.D in bread and nutrition. She connected with me when I quoted her in my last blog post "Yes, please staple your bread to trees!" You have to read it to see why.

I dare say that sourdough bread baking has enriched my life in so many more ways than just experiencing the joy of the process and a finished product. My passion for sourdough has actually changed my life and given me new direction. Far beyond anything I could have imagined when I baked my first loaf of bread, it has become a vehicle and the basis to the forming of a non-profit organization which aims to make make a difference in the world by inspiring kindness and creating human connections through bread.

SOURDOUGH. It's the way to go!

Over and Out.

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