Over the years, I have received some curious gifts: when I was ten, my father gave me a roll of sweet wire, I never knew what for. They have given me cat candles, blouses that would fit women with a bust four sizes larger than mine. When I was a teacher, my four-and-a-half-year-old students gave me several half-eaten cookies; they have given me tree leaves, stones, a lulo, and guava. A few months ago, they also gave me a sourdough.
The sourdough, named ‘El Arbol del Pan,’ was given to me by an artisan bakery that I started supporting when the quarantine came. I had never tried it, and before the pandemic, they did not make deliveries either, but like many other businesses, they had to start. After the government lifted the restrictions, they had to continue making deliveries to keep the expense and personnel structure in check.
Perhaps the only gain from the delivery service was cultivating a closer relationship with customers. I have never seen the person who replies to me on WhatsApp. I don’t know if it is a man or a woman. I don’t know if she’s calm or distressed. He or she knows that I always order the same nutty oatmeal sourdough, frozen croissants to have at home, that I like blueberry oatmeal cookies, that sometimes I order frozen cinnamon rolls, but also, that I never order rolls and croissants at the same time.
While we were cultivating this sustained relationship in wheat and oats, ‘El Arbol del Pan’ turned ten years old. To celebrate, they ran a promotion: a decorated box that, in short, had one of everything in the bakery: chocolate croissant, almond croissant, cinnamon roll, sourdough, and a surprise. The surprise was a tiny glass jar with a tablespoon of sourdough.
Sourdough is a thick dough, fungi, and bacteria used to leavened bread by hand. Bread made with sourdough is firmer than other types of bread and has a slightly sour taste and an odor due to the gases produced by fungi and bacteria. From that acidity comes its name in English: sourdough.
Along with the jar was a rolled letter that very kindly invited you to do one of two things: take advantage of the tablespoon of sourdough to make pancakes before it died, or transfer it to a larger jar and continue feeding it every day with flour and water. Just out of curiosity, even knowing that baking bread is beyond my culinary skills, I opted for the latter.
Three months have passed since then, and I already had to change the jar mass for the second time. It went from being the size of a thimble to what I believe is a pint or so. I kept feeding her while building up the courage to bake bread again and fail once again. And no, I have not fed her every day with religious discipline.
Every time I have forgotten about it, I see it the next day with a deteriorated texture that emits a more acidic smell than before. Instead of being firm and homogeneous, it looks watery. When that happens, I feel as if the fungi and bacteria are scolding me for being irresponsible, for prioritizing my pleasures over their survival.
Growing the sourdough has helped me to make banana pancakes a few times, but it has also made me reflect on the speed in which we perceive life and the desire we have to find a useful purpose for everything.
There are some means of work, some elements, that force you to assume that whatever you do will take its own time. It’s not your time; it’s his. An artist who paints in oils knows that the rhythms do not depend on their hand’s speed but on how quickly the paint dries. The laborer knows that he has to wait for the concrete to dry. The hairdresser knows that it doesn’t matter what they do; hair growth does not depend on him. And those are such great truths that there is no point fighting them.
In the realm of food, however, we do it all the time. Indeed, life does not allow us to make pasta from scratch every day, make cookies from scratch, prepare a vegetable broth, or bake bread. The people who have enough time to do all of this are called cooks, and they get paid for it. But if we chose, from time to time, to stop to enjoy the slowness with which some of these things are done, we would enjoy them more just as the painter rests and smiles when the painting looks good, after having been patient with all the vagaries of oil.
In the days following New York’s total quarantine, the New York Times ran a weekly podcast titled A Bit of Relief. My favorite episode was Tea and Toast. In this podcast, NYTimes CEO Mark Thompson explains how to make a cup of tea the way your holy mother taught you. And he sighs with painful resignation as he says: “Quite honestly, one of the most disheartening things about American life is not the politics, not the incredible social division. It’s the way so many of you make tea.”
In this episode, Thompson tells how tea rescued England from the deepest crises it has ever gone through: two world wars, the end of the British Empire, the separation of the Beatles, the 2008 crisis … and Thompson’s point is that tea achieved that not only because of its taste, but because it takes its own time. It was how it was prepared and drank, not the product itself, that made tea a refuge in the darkest days and good company in the pleasant ones.
We could choose that for coffee or, in my case, bread. As long as I manage to bake sourdough bread, I’ll keep feeding it. There is a small gesture of rebellion in taking care of something despite knowing that it will be a failed attempt, but still enjoying seeing how things grow. That slowness with which plants, bread, and love grow.