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Like penicillin, silly putty, and LSD, leavened bread was most likely discovered by accident. Most sources say the Egyptians were probably the first to experience it. Wild yeast from the air mixed with the grain-andwater dough mixture that constituted the first, cracker-like bread. Gluten and carbon dioxide by-products from this reaction formed bubbles in the elasticized dough, and voilà—a risen loaf.
My own discovery of yeast breads bordered on accidental. My junior year of college I spent a semester in Oregon, living with three other girls in a tiny cabin, in a neighborhood of other tiny cabins, on the side of a mountain—the town of Lincoln, the “Oregon Extension.” With about a dozen other college students from across America and a small professorial diaspora, I spent my mornings discussing everything from Foucault to Dave Eggers and my evenings adjusting to the absence of cell phones, microwaves, and central heat.
My first taste of bread handmade from yeast starter came the evening after the first day of class. I was reading about the Israeli-Palestinian conf lict with my cabin-mates when there was a knock on our door. It was John, one of the professors, a white-haired man who tied fishing f lies as he talked to us about Derrida. He brought Cosette, the canine darling of the campus, and a towel-covered platter. Under the towel was what would become a weekly tradition—half a loaf of oven-warm country bread and a tub of butter, bright green with freshly snipped herbes de Provence.
“I’ve come to feed you,” John said. “I like to get in touch with my inner Jewish grandmother.” He sat with us for a few minutes while we cut slices of bread and passed around the butter tub. I took my first bite: dense, but soft, with a crisp-chewy crust and a firm crumb. The richness of the butter and the earthiness of the herbs tasted like an edible embodiment of the mountain wilderness that surrounded us—green and untamed. We ate slowly, hoping John would offer seconds, but he put the towel over the bread and left for the next cabin.
As days turned to weeks, my cabin-mates and I shared stir-fry recipes, pots of coffee, and kitchen dance parties. We began to know details about each other. Allison was the daughter and stepdaughter of FBI special agents; Maggie became an orphan her senior year of high school; Sarah played college softball.
We were new to each other—no one in Oregon had known me before September. This newness made me feel somehow ungrounded. I wanted to be with someone who knew about my housekeeping habits and my relationship with my parents and my favorite breakfast foods because they’d been there, not because they had to ask. I wanted roots.
I’d left my grandmother in failing health; I was playing maid-of-honor to my recently engaged best friend from two thousand miles away; the guy I’d started dating over the summer was spending the semester in France, putting us at a nine-hour time difference. States and countries away, the people who made me feel rooted were living their lives. When I stood in the campus “phone booth” and dialed the long strand of numbers on the back of my phone card, it was hard not to feel isolated.
The professors did their best to keep me—and everyone else—from feelings of isolation. We enjoyed movie nights and games of billiards and Taizé-style worship services. And one night John invited Sarah and me into his home (which doubled as one of our classrooms) to learn to make bread.
“Shalom, Shalom,” he greeted us from the kitchen. “Do you like curry? Try some—it’s tofu.” He motioned to a skillet on the range. “And here’s the starter we’ll use for the bread.” He opened a container on the counter. “It’s the most important part—the yeast. What it does is draw yeast from the air—see how it’s gotten all these little bubbles? Because it comes from the air, yeast is different everywhere. We’re making Cascade-Siskiyou bread.” John scooped out a portion of the starter and put it in a bowl with flour, water, and salt.
“A good starter will last you, too. It keeps growing as long as you keep feeding it. Some people keep the same starter for decades, and it gets more complex. I brought mine back from France when Nancy and I went to visit our daughter.”
John put the dough in his mixer and attached a bread hook—”All these years, my hands are tired of kneading,” he explained. “Though it can be nice. Calming. Sort of therapeutic. After that it’s up to the yeast. I’ll let this set on the counter overnight, let it rise, then punch it down in the morning and let it rise again. After I bake it in the afternoon, I’ll bring bread and butter around to the cabins. So, got all that?” He smiled.
Sarah and I walked back to our cabin in the late-summer dusk, determined to make our own bread. We were dubious as we stirred equal parts f lour and water in a small container on our kitchen counter. The offwhite, wet paste that formed looked a great deal like the “experiments” I used to make in the kitchen when I was five. This was going to be yeast? The only yeast I knew came in 1 3/4-teaspoon envelopes and resembled the dry grains of tropical fish food.
Sarah slid it to the back of the counter and rested the lid on top— loosely, so the yeast could get in. “Wait and see?” she said, shrugging. The next morning, we stumbled into the kitchen. Allison blindly started the coffeemaker. I reached for my muesli.
“The starter!” Sarah remembered. She pulled the lid off the plastic container, and we gathered around. It had changed—it was a little darker, and the surface was covered with tiny bubbles. Sarah lowered her nose, and laughed. “It smells like beer.” I smelled it too. It was strange, potent—tangy and ancient. Much more surprising and alive than I had expected. Packaged dry yeast was tame compared to this.
Sarah took it back. “We can call it Gina.”
Sarah and I fed Gina with flour and water—”Are you going to take it for walks, too?” Allison asked—and followed John’s instructions to make our own bread. Our early loaves (and the later ones, too) lacked the complexity and stability that John’s bread had. One attempt was nearer in shape to a pancake than any sort of loaf. But we ate it all.
Sarah came back to the cabin in tears one evening. She’d mailed her dad a paper she wrote about Thich Nhat Hanh and Buddhist philosophy. She was excited about it, but her father was not. “I feel like I’m losing you,” he had told her. “I feel like you’re losing your hold on Jesus.” “But I’m not!” she told us tearfully. Maggie was gaining a hold on Jesus. “I could understand God before,” she said, “but I never knew what to think about Jesus. I just couldn’t feel him. Last night, I did.” Allison was less accepting of “mystical crap,” but after an exercise during our week of contemplative practices, she told of seeing herself as a girl, left behind, lonely, and how she moved the girl to a safe and loving place. Allison marveled at the peace the experience had given her.
I celebrated with them, and waited for my own revelation. I waited for dreams and visions, but nothing worked for me. I became increasingly restless. In October, still two weeks shy of the halfway point, I wrote in my journal, “I’m having to work harder at staying ‘all here.'” In November, I wrote, “I think I’m checking out.” I took the time to dial up and check my e-mail more frequently. I kept a list of things to do when I got home (sleepover with Rach, see Eric, flu shot, watch Roman Holiday, get a haircut).
Still, when December came, I was surprised. The months had run through my fingers, and it was almost time to go home. I went to a service at the Episcopal church in town. The Russian Orthodox songs chosen for the Advent liturgy were deep and full and appropriately heartbreaking. On the last day of class, we talked about how to leave the Oregon Extension, how to deal with culture shock when we weren’t even out of the country. I went for one last run on the voluptuous Greensprings Highway, still mostly clear of snow and ice.
The weekend of our departure, everyone gathered for one last meal together, a bring-your-own-plate community breakfast. We forged through six inches of fresh snow on the ground, arriving at Professor Doug’s house chilly and damp. John was preparing a special treat: sourdough pancakes. The fresh ones were ever-so-slightly crisp on the outside, warm and steaming on the inside. The sourdough starter gave them an extra kick, a little bitterness that kept them from being too sweet when drenched in syrup.
We smiled and laughed and took gag photos. We were all ready to go home, but we didn’t talk about leaving, not then. We would be going back to our cabins after breakfast to clean and pack. There was plenty of time to say goodbyes.
We left on a Monday morning. My cabin was up by three. By four, I had my bags loaded into one of the white twelve-passenger vans that were our primary means of transportation. With chains on the tires, we inched down the mountain, and in the pre-dawn blackness, I remembered how few guardrails there were. Despite a closed airport and rerouted flights, we dispersed.
When I got back to Michigan, I made another starter—in a Tupperware container, for old times’ sake. It felt familiar, mixing and kneading, f louring my hands, waiting for the dough to rise. The bread tasted different. John was right—because yeast starters develop from spores in the air, they are regionally unique. That’s partly why other places can’t replicate San Francisco’s sourdough. My Michigan bread tasted different from my Oregon loaf; and when Sarah talked about the bread she was experimenting with in Massachusetts, I couldn’t quite understand the taste she talked about.
I gradually returned to life as usual. I had coffee with my grandma. I talked my parents into buying a tree three days before Christmas, and happily strung lights. Eric and I compared coming-back stories and worked at fitting back together. I moved in with Rachael, and we cooked together and whispered late at night and watched wedding shows on TV when we should have been studying. I drove up and down snowy streets to look at rental properties with my future housemates. I dove into another frenetic semester.
My cabin-mates, too, went back to their lives. We would write, or call, but the conversation tasted different. The air is different in Chicago and Grand Rapids and Boston than it was on the West Coast. Somehow, though, we keep turning to each other when something important happens—graduations, jobs, relocations, broken hearts, birthdays. A whole semester laughing and eating and crying and playing Dutch Blitz created a reaction, leavened our friendship so that even now that we lack the intimacy of a shared space, our shared memory, our common ties to a place, is enough to bring us together.