It should be emphasized up front: the primary motivation was neither self-improvement nor altruistic baking for loved ones. It was fear of shortages.
Along with family, I was out of the country when COVID-19 began its wildfire stage. We returned to grocery shelves mostly still normal except for whole corridors emptied of toilet paper. But just days later half-empty shelves became the norm.
Flour started to vanish. Especially wheat flour, my favorite for bread. And yeast. My alarm rose. Amid the big fears — socioeconomic collapse, loved ones getting sick, I myself being infected post-heart surgery — I was beginning to experience my day-to-day pandemic concern: fear of shortages.
What if I couldn’t have bread? Especially wheat bread? The antidote became clear after several days of researching the flour/yeast supply challenges: sourdough starter! You can grow sourdough starter from flour and water. Eventually it feeds its way into creating its own sour-tasting yeast mix.
That didn’t solve flour shortages. I’ve not figured out how to fix these by, say, growing and grinding my own grains, but only by watching for sources of the occasional five pounds here or there. I try to accept that as anxiety-producing as the erratic supply is, the situation is dramatically less problematic than billions of people have long navigated every day.
So far the flour has not run out. More amazingly, the yeast keeps growing as the starter thrives on.
I experience a bit more fully now the power of the Old Testament story of the widow of Zarephath, who has “nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die.”
But the prophet Elijah, confronting barren land after God has stopped rain, is out of food. God promises the widow will feed him. Elijah tells her to keep implementing her plan but first to make a little cake for him and then one for herself and her son, because “The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” And so it happens (1 Kings 8-16).
I’ll never forget the surge, so intense I discovered the blood pressure I regularly measure had soared, when, on the seventh day of feeding, my sourdough starter doubled and more. And, when dropped in water to test its potency, it practically leaped out, so energized it was.
My family is bewildered. This is not the Michael they know. He’s made it all the way to Medicare without even hinting at the urge someday to bake bread. Now he feeds his starters, Paulette (who eats unbleached flour) and Buddy (who eats wheat flour plus unbleached white) whenever they become exhausted.
In an effort to experience more hints of the Zarephath miracle, he also does not throw out starter discard (a byproduct of feeding the starter) but offers it to waffles and English muffins.
Lo, the recipients of this version of flour and oil are enthusiastic. They plead for an inexhaustible supply.
I do my best to provide. I’m nurtured — to my surprise, given just trying to fix anxiety — in ways that help me grasp why so many new bakers have turned flour and yeast scarce. Sourdough doesn’t fix pandemic nightmares and deaths. But it does feel like healing balm on the wounds.
Michael A. King is publisher of Cascadia Publishing House and blogs at Kingsview & Co., cascadiapublishinghouse.com/KingsviewCo.