Growing up, it was hard to get away from this concept that when you fell in love with someone, you chose to give them a piece of your heart and yourself. And that because of that, you ought to be exceedingly careful because your heart was limited and there was only so much you could give away and never get back before you were broken beyond repair.
The more I live, the more I find that to be a bogus and moreover, terribly limiting and sad way to view life, love and risk.
I started making bread again this week. There are two ways to make bread:
- Buy yeast from the store
- Start and maintain your own yeast culture/dough starter
The draw to the first method is that it’s easy, convenient and requires little patience. You can simply go to the store (or go online and never have to leave your living room) and buy a bunch of yeast packets and be ready to make bread whenever the mood strikes you. Which may be often or may be not at all. And, your bread is more likely to consistently taste the same because the yeast itself is more consistent.
But while the second method does require both diligence and patience, it also yields bread with a much more complex and satisfying flavor profile, and forces you to keep making choices and keep perfecting your skill as a baker in order to keep your yeast colony alive. The taste, texture and density of the bread you make will be different each time as a function of the taste and quality of your starter, your timing, your temperature and your kneading, shaping and proofing skills. Your bread becomes a reflection of your environment at that exact moment.
One method is based on a scarcity and commerce-dependency model, while the other is based on an abundance and self-sustaining model.
Beginning a starter merely requires initiative, a choice in flour and patience. Your success depends on diligence — how well you monitor your starter’s progress and respond to it by feeding it appropriately. The speed of your success, however, depends on external factors over which you have varying levels of control: ambient temperature, the wild yeast around you, etc. Both circumstance and choice come together to guarantee or forestall the quality and speed of your initial starter.
But it is in maintaining a starter that the process really comes to life. In periods of great activity and abundance with your regular maintenance feedings, when your starter is quickly turning over and being highly productive, you must decide what to do with the excess. You can:
- Make bread with it
- Share it with someone else
- Purge it
No matter what you do, there is loss involved. You cannot keep all of your starter all the time or else it becomes unwieldy, unmanageable, unpredictable, and in this case, more is not really better. So you must decide what to do with your loss. And this is certainly a way in which bread reflects life: It is in times of upheaval, grief and loss when your soul and character is most fertile for growth, change and abundance. All that wild yeast plus the perfect temperature will yield a whole bunch of experience and emotion for you to process. Your starter, your soul, will remain and will continue to grow more complex as you prune and renew, but you must make choices with that excess. You can’t just leave it to sit, or else your starter will die under the weight.
You may choose to make bread. To practice your kneading and shaping skills along with your timing and ability to read when the dough is ready to move forward. The bread may turn out and it might not, but no matter what, you’ve learned something in the process of making it. More likely than not, each new loaf of bread gets better as your starter continues to grow more complex and your skills and feel for the art of it develop. You can bake bread alone or with friends, you can choose to teach someone how you’ve taught yourself to bake bread, or take your starter and learn from someone else how they make bread. You can keep the bread to yourself and savor it in private, you can give it away to give joy and tastiness to someone else to do with as they please, or you can share it directly with someone else. Or hell, if the results were really not what you were hoping, you can throw it out and know that your starter is healthy and strong enough for you to try again and be fine.
You may choose to share a piece of your starter with someone else to either help them start their own from scratch, or to add to the flavor profile of the one they’ve already begun either because they just want to try something different, or because their starter is lagging and needs a bit of a push.
Or, you may choose to simply throw out some of the starter. Maybe you’ve got more bread going than you know what to do with, no one who needs or wants some of the starter right now, or your life is just a little too busy right now to make those choices, but you want to keep the productivity of your starter going as long as you can. Still, you must discard and make room for growth if you want to keep having it. This is pure maintenance mode.
But there are other periods where your starter will be sluggish and slow. And here too, you have choices. You can:
- Feed more and discard more regularly
- Ask someone for some of their active starter
- Hibernate it
- Start over
Sometimes the best choice is to go through the motions until the motions achieve results. If your starter isn’t active right now, you can simply discard and refresh with more flour and water more frequently. Try a different flour. See if you can get the temperature to a more optimal place (this is sometimes easier than others).
Or you can always ask a friend with a starter for some of theirs to see if that can help kick-start your activity. As an added bonus, it will change your flavor profile slightly and make it a little bit different!
There’s also always hibernation. Make the container it’s in airtight, and throw it in the fridge until you’re ready to handle it again.
And of course, you can always let it die and start over. This becomes less of an attractive option the longer you’ve kept your starter going — losing all that complexity and history you’ve built up becomes more of a reason to find some way to keep it alive, but you really can always start over.
Your soul is your yeast culture starter.
Life, love, loss and the risk of vulnerability is an eternally renewing process vital to a full, delicious life. We must take risks. We must feed ourselves with experiences, relationships and challenge.
And we must also be willing to let go, to purge and to give ourselves away. In so doing, our starter souls keep building on themselves in complexity and dynamism. We lose parts of ourselves, relationships and connections that mattered, but we are far stronger for them and wouldn’t be the same without them. We approach loss, hardships and grief as something we can make something new with, knowing that experience has also made our starter souls stronger and more dynamic.
We see maintaining and keeping our starter souls healthy, whether in times of abundance or in ruts, as opportunities to make choices. We can make something new which we can keep, give or share. We can choose to share some of our soul with someone else’s and allow them to choose whether to integrate that piece of our starter into theirs or not; and maybe add some of theirs to ours in turn, marveling over how both of our starters change in subtlety as a result. We can purge when we’re in need of simplifying or when life is too full or busy to make things or share directly from our soul to someone else’s. In times of less abundance, we can focus on taking care of ourselves, feeding ourselves more frequently with nourishing experiences and activities, and/or we can ask others we trust to help kick start us back into activity. Or we can just take a beat to be quiet and still.
Our souls and hearts are not static or finite. We cannot give parts of ourselves to others and be lacking if that relationship ends unless we haven’t been doing the work of maintaining our starter souls for ourselves. Neither can a relationship thrive unless both people are doing that work with their own starters on a regular, ritual basis.
But if we do engage in that work, over time, we find our souls only become…
I’ve always, though increasingly, chosen vulnerability. I was never really able to buy into that concept that we could actively give ourselves away so much that we would be nothing but a fractured, broken husk in the giving. Every time I’ve chosen to give a piece of myself, I’ve only found myself more energized and more complete, even (and often especially) when there’s been grief in the ending, my starter has been enhanced by sharing some of it with another and taking part of someone else’s into my own.
To grow, we must shed. And even while we shed, the more we do so, the more characteristically and uniquely ourselves we become.
And when we choose to maintain a starter instead of depending on commercially produced yeast, we force ourselves to keep making those choices. It’ll get messy. It’ll be inconsistent in quality and texture. But it will be consistent in continual process and commitment to making those choices. And that’s the consistency I care about — consistency of process and impetus to make choices over consistency of product.
Go bake some bread.