Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Ferment

On March 29 1998, my last sourdough starter died.

I was teaching at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN, and living in the director's apartment of Crossroads International House on campus. Spring break had just started and it was quiet. My cat and I were sprawled on the floor, hugging the peace left in the wake of college students scattering to beaches, to homes away. The window was open, since it was balmy for Minnesota at that time of the year.

I heard the siren, but dismissed it. It was late winter in Minnesota. It must be a test.

The phone rang and it was Campus Security telling me that it was, indeed, a bona fide tornado warning and that I should gather the remaining international students in the building and take cover. I was skeptical, but responsible, so I gathered them and we went downstairs to the lounge--there was no basement, per se, but the lounge was on the lower level of the building and had a TV. We tuned in and watched the angry red dot--a classic supercell signature--on the image head east toward us. The siren sounded again.

This time I took my cordless phone and went out back to scan the sky. It was still warm and breezy, but the sun was shining. I called a friend in Mankato and asked what it looked like there. She said it was dark and ominous. I shrugged and went back in.

The students asked if I shouldn't go upstairs and get my cat. Now, I had grown up in Arkansas, where late afternoon sirens were a regular occurrence. Still skeptical, still responsible,  I went upstairs and stuffed a complaining Eliot into his carrier and grabbed my cell phone.

The third siren sounded. I put Eliot in the lounge kitchen and went back outside. By now it was getting dark on the horizon, like a black shade being lifted from ground to sky. I didn't see a funnel (I later learned the supercell was close to a mile wide), but soon I saw debris peppering the sky, and I knew. Things went very quickly then: in one second, I turned, ran inside, screamed for the students to take cover, had the door slam behind me, felt the building shake, my ears pop, see the lights go out, acknowledge the windows shattering, feel the ceiling explode and fall over us. All the time I screamed at the students "tell me you're OK!! Keep shouting!!!"--as if their audible voices and mine would hold something at bay.

Two minutes of two years later, it was over.  St. Peter tornado

Eliot's carrier was in a different room than the one I had placed him in, covered in debris. Aside from a fervently voiced unhappiness, he was OK. The students were shaken but fine. We were eventually evacuated, and I wasn't allowed to return until 3 weeks later to try to salvage what I could. I lost a lot: art, furniture, all my contact sheets and negatives and prints, my car, my sense of invulnerabilty.

But the only thing I cried over was my sourdough starter.

When I opened the refrigerator door, the spoiled food's stench almost knocking me down, I grabbed at the crock and looked in. I knew it was dead, and I sat down on the broken glass on the floor and wept. Wept for the yeasts from Ohio, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Minnesota that had fed the starter. Wept for all the bread I had baked with and for friends and family. Wept for the one living thing I had cared for, besides Eliot, for over ten years: not a husband, not a child--my sustained relationships were with a dear cat and a crock full of the yeasts of homes and meals and friendships. And now the yeasts had been blown away.

Looking back, I think the tornado swirled away a kind of stagnation. I'm brave and brazen now, grabbing experiences by the collar and demanding that they cough up their riches.

But I never started another crock of sourdough.

Until now.

Seattle, I am starting my little batch of biga, begun last night, with you. Maybe I'll move again one day, and your yeasts will go with me. But for now I'm bubbling and alive, and you, Seattle, will make bread with me. We'll share it with people we love. One Seckel pear, bought from a local farmer at the U-District Farmer's Market, one bag of local flour, and the yeasts flying around in this apartment in early January 2010...

the ferment.


Valentina Vitols said...

Beautiful words out of a scary and sad experience. Enjoyed this one very much!

Here's to happy baking!

Ps: March 29th is my b-day. Amazing how years ago, and in such different parts of the world, the same day meant a lot to both of us. Amazing how later in life, we got to meet each other in Seattle...

Jenifer said...

Valentina, we will have to have a "winds of change" party on 3/29!

Michael said...

That was beautiful.

I have a colony of my mother-in-law's starter; she grew it in 1988. I'm going to make some bread tonight. Well, *technically*, I'm going to build the sponge, then tomorrow I'll bake the bread.

Valentina Vitols said...

I like the idea! Definitely up for that one!

Sarah said...

Hi Jenifer

I came across your lovely blog and thought you might like to take a peek at mine. I live in the French Alps and write about food and renovating our old watermill. Would you be interested in exchanging links?