Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Wild bread

As readers of the bygone Influence Machine may recall, I’m fond of baking. Since the birth of my son three weeks ago, I’ve taken a renewed interest in this pursuit (though my wife is likely to call it an obsession). Baking seems a particularly domestic, civilized thing to do: Tolkien used Gollum’s aversion to bread as a symbol of his loss of humanity, and in The Stolen Child, a wild little puck uses a confession about stolen biscuits to cement his “return” to home and family. A home full of the scents of bread rising and baking feels like a good place for a child to start his life.
Somehow, my efforts to bake a proper sourdough have been fruitless. (Although, I have gotten great results with Mark Bittman’s semi-sourdough recipe, as my picture of sourdough baguette with Nutella attests.) I wondered over and over why this has been. Then, it came to me. Pure sourdough rises (and is distinctively sour) because there’s no packaged yeast or other leaveners added. Instead, all of the leavening comes from wild-caught bacteria and yeast. But, the use of vintage wood floors instead of carpet in most of my house and my fastidious (OK, Howard Hughes-esque) use of HEPA filters in my home’s air handler mean that there isn’t much outside dust to be found. The out-of-doors isn’t much help right now, anyway: The air is cold and dry, and I’ve raked-up all of the leaves that would otherwise make a productive home for all manner of bacteria and fungi. And, of course, this time of year my house is fairly cool. As in so many other areas of life, the natural environment plays a central role, and I simply wasn’t recognizing where it fits-in.
Everything that people do is played-out in the setting of the environment. Obviously, all of the raw material that goes into everything from cheeseburgers to apartment buildings must either be grown or mined, and all of the waste produced in making, using, and disposing of those things must go somewhere. Beyond this, natural systems provide a wealth of critically important services that are largely invisible. Plants and blue-green algae ingest tons of carbon dioxide and produce tons of oxygen everyday. Upland forests and streamside thickets cleanse runoff and support healthy populations of fish and other animals. Soil bacteria turn noxious waste into valuable nutrients. Missing the circular connections between environment and economy can have larger consequences than lackluster bread. Think Dust Bowl, the Maya, and Centralia, Pennsylvania.
I begin to see again that I need to pay better attention.

Image source: E.R. Dunhill


Sue said...

Ah, sourdough. I remember learning about the impact of environment on sourdough at a young age, growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area. True "San Francisco sourdough" can only be made within the boundaries of the city itself. All attempts to produce the bread any where else (including just a few mile south in San Mateo where I grew up)produces a pleasant, but distinctly different type of sourdough bread. The unique cool fogginess of SF itself was essential to producing the sour chewy/crusty true San Francisco bread.

A related thought: some medical professionals are concerned that our obsession with cleanliness, is actually making our children more rather than likely to have asthma and allergies as adults.

E. R. Dunhill said...

The increasing obsession over cleanliness is a good point. I've been concerned for several years about what I perceive to be a fairly widely-believed myth that humans are closed systems. I think this myth negatively affects our ability to build sustainable lifestyles and negatively impacts our health.
As for the geography of food, if I'd followed a different academic path, I feel fairly certain that I'd be researching and writing on this. There's a good bit written on the (bio)geography of wine/beer/spirits, but I can't say that I've ever seen anything on bread (though I've only ever scratched the surface on that). I'm interested in spatial variation and patterns of movement, there. Alas, I'll have to content myself with cooking and traveling for "research purposes".

Pat Jenkins said...

erd you may have mastered the biology of food, but the final test is how it tastes..... and the response to your creations?

E. R. Dunhill said...

I'm not sure I've mastered the science of food. In fact, I'm quite certain that I haven't.
Since you ask, the response is generally favorable. Although, I'm almost never entirely happy with the outcome.