Sourdough Culture

I picked up Eric Pallant’s new book Sourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making from Ancient to Modern Bakers (Agate Publishing: 2021) a few months ago but only read it during a short break around the new year. In truth, I come into a book like this wearing several hats. I am an enthusiast, someone who enjoys both baking bread and reading food history. I am also a historian who has been slow-cooking a project on ancient bread. If this review comes off as overly-critical, it is because I couldn’t take the latter hat off and found numerous nits to pick with an otherwise-engaging read.

Sourdough Culture is an entertaining but, frankly, rather curious book. Pallant, a professor of Environmental Science and Sustainability at Allegheny College. The book is organized around two broad through-lines that sat somewhat uncomfortably together.

The first narrative hook is a personal mystery wherein Pallant investigates the genealogy of his Cripple Creek starter that has been continuously cultivated since the Cripple Creek Gold Rush of the late 19th century.

The second is a history of “sourdough” bread, ostensibly because the conceptual lineage of Cripple Creek starter can be traced back to the earliest domestication of wheat in Mesopotamia. While individual parts of that history were compelling, I often found the connection to the personal narrative strained.

Pallant is at his best when he explores the technology behind bread-baking. In that vein, I thought the strongest individual chapter was “A Reign of Yeast” in which he traced the emergence of modern yeast in the 1800s and explored the emergence of the industrial machines for producing bread, including a machine for injecting carbon dioxide directly into loaves as a mechanical hack to expedite production. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this transition was also the subject his Fulbright Fellowship. The transition to modern bread is also a process that has well-documented discussions of taste preferences for different types of bread, which is another of Pallant’s recurring interests as a sourdough baker.

Putting on my professional hat, my difficulties with Sourdough Culture emerged from the wild inconsistencies and historical faux-pas that make their way into Pallant’s account of the past. Some of these inaccuracies were just problematic throwaways like nebulous and nonsensical terminology like: “At the end of the Dark Ages, when Columbus was sailing…” (“Dark Ages” is not terminology we ought to be endorsing, but, even if it were, Columbus sailed a few hundred years after they “ended.”) Others treated periods with very broad generalities, like this from the first of just four paragraphs dedicated to bread in Ancient Greece:

In 332 BCE, Greece [ed. Alexander the Great, Greece is not a useful descriptor here] conquered ancient Egypt. One would think ancient Greeks, aware of Egyptian baking techniques and smart as they were, would have relied on a similar diet [ed. why? wouldn’t climate and ecology make a much bigger difference?]. However, most Greeks were poor—peasants, farmers, field hands, and their children, everyone except a small handful of elites [ed. this was also true in Egypt…]—and did not consume much wheat bread.

Pallant’s overall point in this section works well enough: the Greek diet was not the same as the Egyptian diet, in no small part because the soil in Greece is not well-suited for producing wheat. However, the way he gets there is muddled and misleading.

I could grump about what Pallant gets right and wrong in those four paragraphs all day, but that misses the point. It is symptomatic of the first of the two big issues that my professional side repeated bumped into while reading Sourdough Culture.

Pallant is not a historian by training which meant that he largely relied on what professional historians and archaeologists had done. His bibliography for this book was not comprehensive (and entirely omits anything on the robust grain trade in ancient Greece), but it also largely reflected the volume of output of research into bread in a given subfield. Egypt and Rome, both of which have relatively lengthy bibliographies on bread baking, received robust sections while, by comparison, the paucity of work on Greece led to cursory treatment.

(This feature of Sourdough Culture inspired my first post of the year.)

The second thing that I kept coming back to was what, exactly, Pallant meant by “sourdough.” The hunt for the Cripple Creek starter’s origins seems to imply that he is investigating the history of nurturing a unique starter that provides the yeast for baking as though that might be able to provide for him the origin of his heirloom starter.

It is unlikely, though not impossible, that the starter in my Meadville kitchen was once used in San Fransisco and Mexico.

This could all be tongue-in-cheek to provide a narrative hook (Pallant acknowledges the implausibility, after all), but he includes a story about talking with French bakers who put little stock in the age of their starters. The issue is that yeast for baking is readily available. Different strains will have different taste profiles depending on how they were isolated and what they are fed, but the you don’t necessarily need to carry a starter with you in the modern sense if you can just produce a new one when you arrive. Pallant is aware of this, of course, but he mentions is almost as a concession, disappointed to find the Romance of his Cripple Creek starter dashed by the practicalities of human existence.

In short, the adherence to the Cripple Creek starter as a rhetorical device introduces issues to this narrative. There is a simplicity of the path from the Mediterranean to Western Europe to the Americas to his kitchen that implies a coherent tradition that didn’t really exist. To my mind, naturally-leavened bread is a technique that exists in equal measure in glorious complexity and glorious simplicity that exists anywhere that bread does and is not limited to the traditional loaf. For instance, there are traditions for natural leavening that don’t involve a modern-style starter at all, including in Italy where the archaeologist Farrell Monaco has created a technique for a starter that uses Chickling Vetch and barley rather than wheat. Simplifying these traditions into this narrative does a disservice to these other breads.

Pallant is a talented baker, and the recipes included in Sourdough Culture give me some ideas for my own kitchen. Similarly, there is a fascinating discussion to be had about taste and consumer preferences when it comes to bread. In Sourdough Culture, Pallant has produced a book that puts a toe into these waters and reflects on some crucially unresolved issues about sourdough that are being addressed by research programs like the Puratos Bread Lab and the NC State Sourdough Project. However, reading it as a historian only served to remind me how much space remains for historical research into bread traditions.

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At this point I’ve basically given up writing about most of the books I read. Book posts will still make up a non-negligible percentage of the posts here, but I just don’t have time and generally prefer to spend that time reading. Recent reads that may or may not make their way into a full post include David Graeber and David Wengrow’s polemical and hot-button book The Dawn of Everything, Oliver Burkeman’s self-help manifesto Four Thousand Weeks that seeks to recalibrate how we think about the work that we do, Matt Gabriele and David Perry’s breezy grand tour of Medieval Europe, The Bright Ages, and Mel Brook’s show-biz memoir All About Me. I am currently reading the third book in The Expanse series, Abaddon’s Gate.