Monday, April 19, 2010


I stood sorting through the contents of the refrigerator Saturday morning, trying to plan my weekly trip to the grocery store. Plenty of eggs. Need more butter.... I pulled out a stack of plastic storage bowls filled with leftover spaghetti and green peas and deer soup, so that I could examine the refrigerator's deeper recesses.

I froze, plastic cartons in hand. A wave of panic crashed over me. In the lower back corner of the refrigerator, tucked out-of-sight-and-out-of-mind, sat my jar of sourdough starter. Oh, no! I moaned. I pulled the jar out and swished the contents gently, looking anxiously for signs of life. How long has it been since I fed the starter?! Forgetting the grocery list, I shifted into EMT mode.

Sourdough starter is a living organism - or rather, a colony of living organisms. Even though they live most of their lives in the refrigerator, they DO need to be fed. They can't get out and hunt for nutrients on their own.

The little buggers eat a sweet slurry of sugar, dehydrated potato flakes, and warm water. I feed them whenever I make bread. However, I don't make sourdough bread every week - if I did, I would weigh 300 pounds. I have to remind myself, the weeks that I'm not baking, to pull the jar out and feed the culture.

What would happen if I forgot to feed the starter? Well, it would die. You may think, so what? - it's just a bunch of little microscopic organisms, right? No big deal. WRONG.

Sourdough starter is not something you can pick up at the local FoodRite. Creating a living culture from scratch is virtually impossible. In these modern times, finding someone who has a living culture they can share is also extremely difficult. And no starter means no sourdough bread. Definitely a major bummer.

But far worse, if I kill my sourdough starter, I lose a piece of Donna. That recycled plastic peanutbutter jar sitting on the bottom shelf looks like it's filled with cloudy goop. Actually, it's full of Donna. It's the little bit of Donna that I keep in the refrigerator.

You see, Donna gave me the starter almost ten years ago. A true sister, she sacrificially halved her own ration and shared with me. Donna and I lived much closer together back then, and visited almost weekly. Now, ten years later, we are separated by many miles. Visits are rare, separated by many, many months. Maybe because of the separation, baking bread has become for me a celebration of Donna.

I mix the batter and knead the bread, conscious of Donna's influence in my life. Her hospitality and generosity, which challenged me to "go and do likewise." Her sweet smile and sharp humor. Her down-to-earth, common sense approach to life. I cannot sit with Donna at her kitchen table this week...but I smell her bread baking in the oven and I smile. In spite of the miles, we will be breaking bread together.

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