(This post was written by Associate Director, Abbey Gordon.)
This story starts somewhere in my childhood, somewhere in mid-November. In my nose, taste buds, fingers. It begins with my birthday supper, and my consistent choice of soup and warm sourdough bread. I reveled in the crunch of the outside, the warm steamy center, the way the butter melted, its tangy taste. I found myself in love with bread.
And now here I am, decades later, still in love with bread; but for most of my life, terrified to make it myself. I had tried…I followed the instructions, yet what I pulled out of the oven was a hard lump of once-dough. Albeit edible, it was not the bread I was hoping for.
Recently I went to a yoga/dance/hot-spring/heaven retreat at a little place in Big Sur called Esalen. On my way up to Esalen I stayed with an old friend in San Luis Obispo. My friend has the propensity to be obsessed with things. (Once he became infatuated with small clay flutes called Ocarinas—he was so deeply involved in ocarina making that he made thousands of dollars selling them at farmers markets and became known as “the ocarina man.”) Traditionally, I am less obsessive. On this visit he was fixated on something that smelled a little funkier than small clay flutes. He was obsessed with fermentation. There were many things in his two “fermenting refrigerators”: sauerkraut, kombucha, sprouted grains, yogurt, and a sourdough starter. I ate some of his fermented creations (which were surprisingly delicious) and moved on to be blissed out for a week at Esalen.
Esalen has an incredible amount of things: If the hot springs on a cliff aren’t enough, they also have a dance dome (something that makes my mouth water and limbs tremble), yoga, smooth sheets, gardens, more kale than I knew what to do with (which is saying something), and a 24-hour bread bar. At this bread bar they had numerous types of bread: Whole wheat, cinnamon, sour dough swirl and–perhaps the most outstanding of all–the sourdough rye. Now this sourdough rye isn’t fluffy bread. It’s nothing like going to Pier 39 in San Francisco and eating white sourdough bread with the other 4,000 tourists as the seagulls gorge themselves on the endless leftovers. The Esalen sourdough rye is a dense, grain-filled, sour, chewy, whole body experience. It is delicious. I ate a lot of this bread. I ate this bread toasted, I ate this bread plain, I ate it with butter, I ate it with jam, I ate it with soup, I ate it with salad, I ate it for dessert, I ate it from a take-home box while sitting in traffic on my way home. I loved eating this bread. I knew that I would want to eat this bread even when I wasn’t at Esalen, so before leaving I bought an Esalen cookbook, which had (I checked before purchasing) a recipe for the bread.
I looked over the recipe, and one of the many harder-to-find things that I needed was a sourdough starter. In the recipe it tells you how to make one, or it instructs to get one from a friend “if you are lucky enough to have such a friend.” Lucky me, I had a fermentation-obsessed friend who was right on my way home!
If you have never been around a sourdough starter (a “sourdough baby” as I call it), it is initially a bit of an adjustment. It looks like you are carrying around something you used to mix cement in, and haven’t washed for a while, and it smells weird. It smells–particularly if you are doing things right–sour, a little bit like sweaty feet. You have to leave the top slightly off so that your mixture of wild yeast, flour and water has time to ferment. You are intentionally letting a little ecosystem of funk live–right there on your countertop. It is exciting. It changed my morning routine, this putting just enough flour and warmish water into the container, watching it bubble at me, talking to my sourdough baby… I became a little consumed.
Once I had gotten all of the ingredients (the rye berries, which are actually hard to find, rye flakes, and rye flour), and after my sourdough baby was big enough, I was ready to try to make the bread. It was a bit of a process: I had to let it sit next to the heater overnight; it had to bake for a few hours; it had to sit for another 12 hours after it was cooked. I felt like I was in the summer of fourth grade with my “first day of school” outfit–not being able to wear it even though it was sitting right there in my closet. When it was finally time to slice off a piece of the bread, I get a little nervous. I wonder if it is going to be like the bread I had lusted for. I take a bite, and…IT WORKED! It was delicious, and I was hooked.
Since that fateful day with the sourdough rye, I have become obsessed with making bread—sweet bread, sour bread, eggy bread, grainy bread. I dream about bread. I fantasize about what the dough feels like when I’m kneading it. I consider what I need to add or subtract for next time. I went to visit my mother and I brought her three types of bread (I just had too much).
I realized, while pushing my weight into a cardamom-orange-cinnamon-raisin-walnut bread for the third time–to get it perfect–that the reason I love making bread is different from why I love my job. As a leader, there is absolutely no guarantee that if I change something, the end result will change. I have discovered that people change all on their own, sometimes without warning, a phenomenon that is both terrifying and beautiful. I love making bread because it is conclusive: The bread either works or it doesn’t. The yeast either rises, or I fed it too much sugar and time, and it dies. With bread making, there is an end goal. I can change what I am doing and the bread changes too. I get to take credit for the bread. I get to say, “I made that, and I am proud.” I can see it, smell it, feel it, eat it, and share it with others.Being a leader in a group of incredible people is different than making bread. People have more feelings than yeast. And while yeast and people both need sweetness and patience, for me, yeast is a bit easier to disappoint, to instruct, to excite—it is more obvious.I find peace and challenge in both spheres of my life: Trying to figure out how to get the challah stretchier, or how to supervise while still holding sacred relationship-building.
In the end, I am simply happy to feed people bread.