When you leave water and flour undisturbed and loosely covered somewhere warm for a few days, with some luck and the right conditions, you end up with sourdough starter. Sourdough starter, which brings flavor and rise to our bread, begins by drawing from the wild yeast and bacteria naturally present on the grain, on your fingers, and possibly in the air. Once started, it grows exponentially, providing an unending source of fresh bread–as long as you sustain an interest in baking it. Starter connects us to one of humanity’s oldest cooking traditions as well as to each other; breaking bread with family and friends is one of life’s simple and enduring blessings.
I’m not sure what the tone of this blog will be as time goes by, but if I can dabble in the flowery for just a moment, I have a few points to make about sourdough starter as a symbol. For starters, the analogy helps me think about what a successful food movement in this country might look like. Because we need one. The health of the consumers, workers, animals, farms, and landscapes implicated in our food system are in bad shape. We need something unifying and robust, something that doesn’t just exist at the periphery, in small non-profits and universities.
Here is what I think sourdough starter and a healthy food movement have in common:
Built from simple components, both start by drawing from what already exists locally. They grow when nurtured, and connect us to the cultures and traditions that have kept humans alive and well nourished for thousands of years. As long as we are able to sustain interest, they will continue to produce. The fruits of that labor? Nourishing and easily shared.
For me, starter as symbol resides where food, tradition, sustainability, health, and community intersect, that is to say, the place where good food is no longer a burden or a privilege, but a basic right and an unstudied joy.
Levain is the French word for starter, from the Latin levamen “alleviation, mitigation,” but used in vulgar Latin in its literal sense of “a means of lifting, something that raises,” from levare “to raise.” I assume the English “starter” refers simply to the stage in the baking process, as it is the first ingredient needed to make bread.
As a French-American, to me the word means at once the start and the rise. You need both to make change happen. The question, then, that I have set out to answer through this blog is what that start and rise would look like for a successful food movement. How do we get it going, and how will we sustain it? Hopefully, Sustaining Starter will be a place to learn from, and despite, the current chaos around eating and cooking as we move a little closer towards that answer.
In addition to finding solutions to alleviate our troubled relationship with food, I also wanted to find a way to alleviate my Facebook profile of what has recently grown into a constant stream of food-related posts. Those posts, questions, articles, and studies of interest will now be housed here, at Sustaining Starter, so that I can go back to exclusively posting Buzzfeed articles on Facebook. So I hope you will take a break from reading about 28 Cats Who Have No Idea How They Ended Up Here and stop by from time to time.