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Notes from the Kitchen

Kitchen Diaries: Lessons from a Sourdough Bread Loaf

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Early Friday morning is an exquisite pocket of time. Perhaps it’s knowing that the sprint is almost over and only five hours stand in the way of what shapes weekend hours from the weekday ones. The kitchen comes slowly to life on Friday mornings, rising with the sun. Usually I am already bedecked in bits of flying flour that cling to my sleeve or adorn my slipper before breakfast.

I once tried baking bread on a Monday and ended up tossing the entire batch of dough after the rising period had exceeded its time by a full day. Tuesdays are a bit of a continuation of whatever check boxes from Monday’s list fell off and landed in the batch of next day appointments. Hump-day, better known as Wednesday might as well be Monday part two, making Thursday, Tuesday part two.

Then comes Friday: its crystalline possibility snaps out like a tablecloth floating down to cover kitchen projects that need more time, knowing that your mind can expand after a week of busyness and invite whatever cooking idea has been knocking, in. For me, Friday is set aside for bread.

Before 2013, I had never considered myself a bread baker and didn’t fancy myself much of a bread eater. Before 2013, we were bumping right along at a speed of life I could recognize, along a route that was familiar. But then, the pace became frenetic, the route detoured in a direction with little control of where we were headed. Baking quietly provided an evening answer. It became my teacher in patience measuring blessings by weight and not volume.

It’s too easy for one week to bleed into the next and to begin playing a game of hopscotch from one month into another with little to show for the time spent. I think of this and want to blink back the blur of aging without being fully present. And as sometimes happens, a contradiction crept in.

On a Tuesday morning I eyed the full jar of Salvatore sourdough starter that would soon migrate into the refrigerator for a chilly slumber. That morning’s decision was based out of a desire to use as much of the starter as I could in between switching vessels. I mixed together my ingredients casually, measuring out flour, plunging the thermometer into the warm water and played with pushing the hydration in the dough. Since we’ve moved to Oakland, I’ve baked a few tasty loaves that don’t look as lovely as I’ve aspired for them. If baking bread has taught me anything it’s to take a calculated risk, try to answer “what if?…” through jotting down notes of changes made and then wait it out to see the final offering. When we moved to Oakland I worried how my starter might react. We were leaving the 94118- would the bacteria be so very different or the air so dry that my starter might change dramatically? None of my recent loaves have set my heart into a steady state of glee until Wednesday morning, the day after I audaciously started prepping bread dough on a Tuesday. What came out of the oven was big, bouncy, practically puffy in its enthusiasm and somehow I had achieved a whole new type of loaf. On my counter, the crust crackling, sat the fine art of not giving up.

So on Friday mornings, with the light creeping in the kitchen window through the slit below the curtain, I can start crafting a small universe in the metal bowl that is big as a sled. It all starts by scooping flour into a cup. The beginnings of bread baking remind me of a great truth of living: from small starts can arise big possibilities. So, as I wait during the second rise and see my dough doubled in size, I have the heft of the thing in my hands to show for my patience, the loaf that will feed us for a week to give promise to what the future might hold.

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Notes from the Kitchen

What We Really Need

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On a cover of last week’s New York Times, a jagged thunderbolt line of people spanned one edge of the above-the-fold photo frame to the other. They waited in line for food and staples like bread. That image tugged at me long after I had left the corner store, quickly exiting with a dozen eggs and a brick of butter. It didn’t escape my notice that as I looked at the tightly packed pixelated line of people waiting to purchase bread, a bowl of bread dough waited at home, proofing on my counter. Even after my house filled with sweet, slightly sour notes of bread baking, I couldn’t shake the disparity.

A day before, while waiting at a stop light, I spied a homeless man taking shelter under a bus awning. Something about the way he clutched at his coat with one hand and buried his other hand in his hair arrested my attention. Even as he stared into the sidewalk with a look of desperation I have never experienced, I choked up. The ragged image kept my eyes open that night, as I flipped in bed trying to resolve my personal comfort with the knowledge of a homeless man asleep on concrete crosstown.

Earlier that week, a portrait by Lee Jeffries haunted me enough to push me into the web to be caught and stunned by the other photos in his Lost Angels series. In this collection of unbelievable captures, his photos evoke grit and raw emotion in the faces of homeless people he encountered and befriended in Los Angeles and London. Their faces tell their stories etched in hard lines that furrow in shadow. Some of the photos disturb and unsettle the spirit, but can you expect anything less from good portraiture of homelessness? It’s too easy to walk by a homeless person and look away or not see them, but what Jeffries does is provoke a response from his viewers while dignifying and lifting up the people in his photos. An elemental instinct  draws my eyes in and keeps them locked on the emotion conveyed in the eyes looking back at me. Perhaps this consists of seeing basic needs unmet and feeling helpless to resolve them in a bigger picture beyond merely handing a homeless man a few bills.

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Something about the way we all need the same things ties us together. Without food, water and shelter, how can we survive? Just as important, though, being known and understood in community and being loved keep us intact. What would happen if, then, we really took to heart and to hand the idea of treating our neighbors as ourselves? How would our cultures and countries change? Would a country usurp another’s sovereignty? Would we glut ourselves on excess while others starve?

I’ve been asking myself challenging questions as all the recent headlines jumble together in my head. Reading beyond hard headlines helps cultivate empathy with people we will never meet, letting their stories of struggle become our own for the two minutes it takes to read the article. That we might think of them well beyond the confines of the article continues forging a bigger community for us to be a part of, than the one we have carefully cultivated at home. To stretch ourselves and grow more into the people we will be is to not ignore injustice or stay silent about oppression. It’s to care about the welfare of the people of Crimea and the Ukraine even as the Academy Awards dominates the airways.

What we really need isn’t much: we need each other and perhaps a hunk of sourdough bread to remind us that a little naturally leavened yeast goes a long way and yields something bigger than itself.

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