Sourdough or, Lois and Her Adventures in the Underground Market

“In every wheel of cheese, there’s revolution, alliance, betrayal…Can you feel it?”

I told him the truth: I could not.

“Nope. You’re honest, I appreciate that. Of course you can’t. I couldn’t, not at first. We’re blind to it. But this is their world, not ours, and their stories are greater.”

Her job working in robotics at a company called General Dexterity in the Bay Area crushes Lois. It pays well by most standards, though less so by San Fransisco standards, but the preternaturally motivated and motivating CEO pushes his employees to finish projects related to the development of robotic arms and the cheerily obsessive corporate culture encourages them to forgo everything but work. Many people sleep in the office. One group, including Lois, takes to the latest fad diet, a grey nutritional paste called Slurry. She nearly burns out.

Then she discovers a small restaurant that delivers her two rejuvenating foods: a spicy soup and sourdough bread to sop it up with. Only two men work at the restaurant where this food is produced, the brothers Beoreg and Chaiman. The brothers are Mazg, a hidden European ethnic group with a proud culinary history (part Jewish, part Roma in structure), and when they are forced to leave San Francisco they deliver a gift to their “Number one eater”: a portion of their sourdough starter, instructions for care, and a promise to write.

Lois earned her title for a reason, ordering the same food multiple times a week. She doesn’t cook, let alone bake, but feels an obligation to the Beoreg who she has spoken to on the phone so many times, so she makes a loaf of bread. It emerges from the oven warm and delicious and with a misshapen face on its crust. So she makes more, selling some and trying out for a spot at one of the area Farmer’s Market. Before long bread-baking takes over her life and Lois finds herself ready to quit General Dexterity and try to make a living making bread, with a trusty robotic arm to help stir the dough. But like Alice entering into wonderland, Lois’ adventures have just begun.

Sourdough is a comic novel that treats three serious issues bluntly but each with a light narrative touch. Two of these appear in recurring scenes.

In the one, Lois attends the “Lois Club”, founded by her grandmother, where every Lois has a distinguishing adjective. Lois is wounded to find out that she is “boring” Lois. Bread baking changes this, giving her a distinguishing characteristic, posing the question which is more fitting: “bread” Lois or “interesting” Lois.

In the other, Lois falls in love with her Beo, the chef who won her heart through her stomach.

The third topic is tension between tradition and innovation. This is the most well-developed theme, a function of its development through the main narrative arc, both in the San Fransisco food scene and the General Dexterity corporate goals.

Sloan talks about bread and food bacteria with loving care and more than one scene features characters waxing poetic about microbiology. Moreover, he makes it clear that while Lois has potential she still knows very little about baking, and the reader is introduced to the topic through her eager and inexperienced eyes.

Despite these virtues and legitimately funny episodes, though, his treatment of Lois’ sourdough starter left me cold. This is not an ordinary starter, but a magical one that requires almost no effort to produce the most wonderful bread provided only that the baker feeds and serenades it. The peculiar traits of this starter are fundamental to the plot, meaning that it transcends a simple sense of wonder at this thing that Lois wrought (and that she did not actually work for). Instead, it provokes envy in other bakers whose own starters do not measure up, ironically undermining the otherwise loving portrait of baking bread.

Overall, I appreciated the sentiment that baking bread makes a person inherently interesting as someone who bakes bread and I understand both the catharsis and the mania that comes with baking bread. Sourdough was not among my favorite reads of the year, but it is a light, clever novel that filled a different niche than my usual fare.

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I am currently making my way through American Prometheus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. I am riveted so far, though I somewhat mistrust its tendency to psychoanalyze Oppenheimer as a young man.

The Bagel, Maria Balinska

Sometimes when Amazon reviewers give low marks to a book the comments indicate that a book is not good. Sometimes the comments reveal that the Person Angry on the Internet didn’t actually read the same book that the author wrote. Sometimes the reader understood the book but is just angry that it isn’t the book he or she wanted. The last scenario is true of Maria Balinska’s The Bagel, which the reviewer lamented was principally a history of Jewish labor history, rather than a history of the eating of bagels. This is a valid observation, though Balinska does her best to lay out what evidence there is for how bagels were consumed, too.

Balinska starts with an overview of what she considers to be related breads from China to Italy, all wheat breads (distinct from rye, barley, oat, etc) made into dense loaves that go stale quickly, are usually eaten by dipping in tea or other hot liquids, and are baked into rings. One of the closest relatives to the bagel is the pretzel, with the three holes taking on religious significance. Balinska traces the bagel from medieval Poland, where it diverged emerged from a Polish wheat ring bread owarzanek, a luxury in a region that mostly produced rye flour, but one that was a Sunday food because it was associated with purity. The bagel separated from the Christian version by being boiled when the Polish monarchy issued restrictions against Jewish bakers making owarzanek.

The story crosses the Atlantic in the 1880s with the waves of Jewish immigrants and is wrapped around the labor politics, food safety standards, and anti-immigrant sentiments in the subsequent decades. Despite the complaint lodged in the Amazon review, this was the most interesting and strongest part of the book and one that I want to use should I ever find myself teaching the second half of US history. The stories about the conditions in these bakeries make me thankful for food safety standards, and the labor upheavals mirror the more well-known industries. The 1905 Supreme Court Case Lochner v New York, which ruled that the government could not limit the hours people worked, was brought by a bakery. At the NY bagel baker’s union’s height, Balinska argues that it was the shape and density of the dough, which defied mechanization, that gave the union power.

Balinska concludes the story by recounting how mechanization and big business in the form of Lender’s Bagels led to the Jewish bread conquering the United States. Frozen bagels made them last longer (fresh bagels earlier had a tendency to go stale in a matter of hours) and they became a readily available convenience food for homes and hotels alike.

The Bagel is an engaging read, though Balinska’s specific narrative is how special Jewish food in Poland became ubiquitous in America gives short shrift to the story of bagels in Montreal and tends to be somewhat reductive in order to trace this narrative. For instance, the existence of Bagel traditions in Florida, Buffalo, and those in New York run by organized crime are only accounted for in terms of the challenge they presented to the proliferation of New York style bagels. Being more comprehensive is impossible in a book so short, but what does appear hints at a larger, richer, and more complex story out there. The Bagel was published in 2008 and I was left wondering if, like other consumable products, there is an addendum to the big business, moderate quality climax–one where there has emerged a decentralized, artisanal bagel movement.

On Baking: I have a bowl

My current apartment has 480 square inches of counter space, twenty four by twenty inches, most of which is covered a utensil basket, drying rack, and coffee grinder. To give a bit of perspective, the sink, including edges, is 552 square inches. This arrangement is problematic for cooking, but even more so for baking, which usually requires prolonged kneading.

I have a bowl. This bowl holds eight or more quarts, though, to be honest, I do not really know how large it is. The exact size isn’t actually important. It is large and fits comfortably in my lap when I sit on the floor. As a result, I have compensated for my lack of counter space with this bowl. Almost everything I make I knead in this bowl, seated on my living room floor with my iPad playing something or another on Netflix; kneading, particularly with limited motion, usually takes about an episode of a half-hour show like “Attack on Titan” or “Parks and Rec” (recent go-tos). From there I sit and I knead. From time to time I add flour from the bag at my side and after a while I cut off a slice to see if it passes the window-pane test by stretching until it forms a complete, translucent membrane. If the dough tears I adjust the water or flour levels and continue kneading.

Netflix works well for kneading because I don’t look at the dough. Almost exclusively, I knead toward a texture and a stickiness until the point of giving the dough the window-pane test. In the meantime, bread dough serves as an oversized stress ball with the promise of something delicious to come.

Another virtue of baking is that it requires patience. Bread is one of those things that cannot be rushed. It is possible to bake the bread before it has fully risen, but that cuts only a little time off the total process. The rest of the time is spent waiting. I’m not a particularly patient person, but the rewards of baking are worthwhile. It is cliche to say that the world moves too quickly and reminders to slow down are necessary parts of life, but it is nonetheless true. Baking plays this role for me and the periods when the dough rises work well for various chores and for reading (though not work), while kneading causes a practically meditative state.

Four things I like about baking, from most to least important:

  1. Eating. Everything I bake I can eat and I do love to eat good bread products, including bagels, pizza, brioche, challah, stuffed crescent rolls, cinnamon rolls (to name a few). Without question, this is the top reason to bake bread.
  2. Sharing. One of my favorite things to do when I bake is to make about twice as much as I am going to eat myself, and then to give the rest away to other people who like to eat.
  3. Making. It is deeply rewarding to make something, from start to finish and get to see the final product.
  4. The whole stress-ball thing. Seriously, it is relaxing to knead dough.

Assorted links

  1. How the aroma of freshly baked bread makes us kinder to strangers– A story in the telegraph about a study demonstrating that fresh baked bread (as well as other pleasant smells) make people kinder to strangers. I know (from experience) that at least one person gets hostile at the smell, though.
  2. Barack Obama and the paradox behind his African-American support base– a story in the Guardian about Obama’s record for the African-American community. It touches upon the issue of whether equality means getting someone elected to office as the final point on the checklist or whether it means changing hearts and minds. It suggests that for many people the former holds true, while the latter has actually taken a step back under Obama’s presidency.
  3. Should Science Majors Pay Less for College Than Arts Majors– An essay in the Atlantic that discusses some of the pitfalls of the proposed Florida legislation that would make liberal arts degrees more expensive than STEM degrees. The article also pointed out that one of the motivators of this may be that Florida lags behind national averages in terms of those degrees.
  4. Driver who drove on pavement to avoid a schoolbus told to wear an “idiot” sign– A woman in Cleveland was filmed by a bus driver driving onto the sidewalk to avoid stopping for the bus unloading children. She is thought to have done this regularly. In addition to a suspended licence, the woman has been told to stand at an intersection with a sign reading “only an idiot drives on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus.”
  5. Ancient Fears: The Return of the Flood Saga– An essay in the New Yorker talking about some of the discussion in the wake of hurricane Sandy as paralleling much of the language in the ancient flood sagas.