Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
writer editor born-again horse girl

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Rise Again

April 17, 2009

My sourdough starter died at the end of March. I didn't mark the exact date. I don't even know what date I should have marked: the evening I took it out of the fridge, poured it into my big bread bowl, and whisked in a cup of flour and a cup of warm water? or the next morning, when the usual signs of successfully doubled starter -- many bubbles and a light spongey texture -- were missing? or the morning or two or three later when I finally admitted that it was dead? That took a while. It looked so like its old self, like thick pancake batter. But it wasn't alive.

I couldn't believe it had been that long since I last fed it. Many times over the years it had gone three or four or even five weeks without doubling. I'd check it regularly, stir down the liquid that rose to the top, and the yeast crustiness around the edges. If the time between doublings seem to be stretching too long, I'd feed it a spoonful or two of flour and maybe a little warm water or milk if it was looking too thick. That was enough. It survived the four and a half years I lived in an apartment with no oven; unable to bake bread, I used the starter to make pancakes. It made wonderful pancakes.

My starter had a longer history than that, a much longer history. A history so loaded with portents and allusions that I couldn't help suspecting that more than my sourdough starter had stopped bubbling. It's been, after all, a portentous winter. The Mud of the Place has been largely ignored by the island's media -- Holly Nadler's review in the Vineyard Gazette and Ann Bassett's intelligent enthusiasm on the Vineyard View show are the conspicuous exceptions -- and has received little attention elsewhere. So I've been staring down and finally facing up to the only practical conclusion: that the book's audience has to be built reader by reader. Mud and I are the yeast, in other words; our job is to get some fermentation going out there.

The history part is that I brought my sourdough starter with me from D.C. It and my brown Greek fisherman's cap link my daily life now to my daily life then in ways that nothing else does. And there's more: I got my starter from a poet who has become pretty well known, at least in lesbian/gay/feminist/poetry circles (at the time she was lovers with the woman I sublet my basement room from and shared a kitchen with), and she'd got it from some lesbians living on the land in, I think, Tennessee. So much of my strength and commitment, especially as a writer, flows from those days, but that place/time doesn't exist any more, and in any case I chose to leave it: it's the motherland I long ago left behind, across the sea, on another planet.

So right around the time my sourdough starter died I received a call for submissions from Trivia, which as a print journal in 1990 published one of the best pieces (prose poem essay?) I've ever done, "Mimi's Revenge." Trivia is now online, and the call for issue #10, "Are Lesbians Going Extinct?," began like this:

In an essay written in 1983, Nicole Brossard wrote: “Une lesbienne qui ne reinvente pas le monde est une lesbienne en voie de disparition.” (A lesbian who does not reinvent the world is a lesbian going extinct.) At that time, the phrase made very good sense. As writers, thinkers, activists, and in our day-to-day lives we felt (many of us) compelled to reinvent a world in which we were for the most part invisible if not unthinkable, a world whose values we largely rejected. Today, over 20 years later, we are accepted, even embraced, by mainstream culture—as co-workers, wives, mothers, talk show hosts—in ways we could not have imagined then. But how have we gained this inclusion? Have we gone quiet as lesbians  (not denying our lesbianism but seldom foregrounding it)? Are we still reinventing the world? As writers, are we inventing new forms? Is there still a radical edge to the word “lesbian”? Or are we now, by Brossard’s definition, a disappearing species?

I think about this stuff all the time. It's all tied up with my work in the world: what is my work in the world, is it worth doing, and even when giving up looks like the only intelligent option, why the hell can't I do it?

Well, the deadline for this issue is May 1, and I seriously doubt I'll have anything remotely submittable by then, but it was so obvious that the demise of my sourdough starter and "Are Lesbians Going Extinct?" were linked in myriad fermentatious ways. As I set out getting a new starter going, I started making notes.

I did manage to get a new starter going. Two, in fact. They're both in the fridge, one in a quart-size Mason jar covered with wax paper held in place with an elastic, the other in the glass container that was home to my old starter for at least 17 years. I've always heard that it's hard to get starter going from scratch -- what you're trying to do is attract wild yeast into a hospitable liquid medium -- so I tried two methods at once. One involved mixing a cup of flour with a cup of warm water in a bowl and leaving it on the counter; the instructions said to pour off half of it every 24 hours, discard, and mix half a cup of flour and half a cup of warm water into what remains. The other, from one of my old standby bread books, Floss and Stan Dworkin's Bake Your Own Bread (which is how I learned to make sourdough bread in the first place), started with a cup of reconstituted dry skim milk, left out on the counter. When the milk sours, whisk in a cup of flour. Wait for bubbles. If you haven't seen any bubbling within five days, start again.

I used 1% non-fat milk. I sniffed it several times a day, but it never smelled sour so I didn't notice that within maybe three days it had curdled into a smooth custard. Aha, thought I, and whisked in the flour. Two or, at most, three days later, it was bubbling. The other method seemed to be working, but the bubbles were more subtle. I had two bowls going with this method, one started fresh and one an attempt to revive the inert batter from my old starter. Once the skim milk version was thriving, I used it to reinforce bowl #2. The contents of bowl #1, along with the batter I'd poured off in the preceding days, became the sponge for a yeast bread.

The revived starter (which I'm considering a collateral descendant of the old one) successfully raised two big loaves of whole wheat walnut bread, and very peppily too; the sourdough tang is already there and will just get better with time. The skim milk version raised the pancakes that I just ate for breakfast. I'll combine the two eventually. I never named my old starter, and don't intend to name the resurrected one, but I did, Mary Ellen Carter would do quite nicely.

Now to see what I can come up with writing-wise by May 1 . . .


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