A few weeks ago I decided to try making sourdough starter. I tried it once before but didn't recall ever actually making sourdough bread with it. Can't remember why, either! So, I looked up a recipe for starter and went to work. I put it all in the appropriately glass container and stirred it with an appropriately wooden spoon, stuck some saran wrap over the top and put it in a place I knew was going to be warm: the mantel. You see, we live in a drafty old farmhouse and unless I'm actively COOKING in the kitchen, it's not what one would consider "warm" as it is around the corner from the lovely heat of the woodstove.
So, on top of the mantel it sat and I went back to the kitchen to clean up. About ten minutes later I went in to check on it and the sight of dripping doughy goo reminded me of exactly why I'd never made bread with the first starter I made several years ago! Ah, well, the mantel needed a good cleaning anyway, and the mess all dripped conveniently onto the woodpile below.
Back to square one! I got out my biggest glass jar, dumped the rest of my goo in it, added a few more ingredients, and... left it in the kitchen. Near the sink. And stuck a rubber band over the saran wrap. Like that was really going to help! But hey, it made me feel better!
As it bubbled and settled and began to sour over the next twenty-four hours, the smell pricking my nose brought to the surface some old, old memories of breadmaking in my childhood.
When I was a little girl, my mom would make whole wheat bread the old-fashioned way. She'd get out her two biggest bowls, a large silver one and a gigantic green Tupperware one. She'd mix a couple of warm quarts of water with salt, sugar, oil and yeast in each, then start adding in the many, many cups of flour. We had an old hand-crank mill that we made our whole wheat flour from and I'm sure we all had our turns with cranking that long handle around and around and around and around! I have a vita-mix now that I do all of my grinding in, but I wish I had that old mill sometimes!
A few hours of rising and kneading later, and we'd have several lovely loaves of freshly baked bread. Those were happy times. I loved to watch my mother and help and smell the warm, yeasty smells filling up the kitchen.
I learned how to make bread on my own like this when I was seven. These days I never make bread by hand, it's all done with my two bread machines and unless I'm making dinner rolls I do nothing more than dump in the ingredients and push a couple of buttons.
It's a far cry from that little girl who so proudly showed off her baking skills:
But it sure takes a lot less time with a bread machine!
Anyway, the year I was in fourth grade I had advanced enough to be making my own cinnamon rolls. I took a couple of batches to school to share on special occasions. My teacher could hardly believe I made them all by myself. I had to reassure myself many times that I did, indeed, make them myself, his disbelief was so strong! I couldn't understand it - I clearly excelled at EVERYthing else in his classroom, why should he doubt my ability to do something as simple as bake my own cinnamon rolls? I'd often overheard him bragging to the other teachers of how bright and intelligent I was and how advanced in certain subjects I'd become under his teaching. Surely the trek I made each week from one end of the school to the other to procure more difficult classwork from the sixth grade classroom had proven to everyone in the school that I was, indeed, one of the most promising students in the whole district, right? So what was the difficulty in believing I also had the ability to bake some cinnamon rolls, anyway?
Where was I? Oh, yes, telling how how fully I had grown accustomed to my role as "Teacher's Pet". I often fit into that role in grade school but never so much as that year. In theory, teachers never play favorites. In reality, it happens. That was, in some ways, a terrifying year, for as much as that particular teacher gave praise to those whom he felt deserving of it, he punished the ones that did not please him. I shudder to think of what it felt like to be on the other side of his good graces, and of how it must have impacted those little souls.
Even though I often felt as if I were basking in the sunlight when he'd approve of my work, I never felt secure there. Which is probably why this story turned out like it did.
At the end of the school year I wanted to do something extra special for my teacher so I baked him a loaf of bread. It was a lovely, freshly baked, golden-crusted loaf of whole-wheat goodness. I presented it to him grandly, after all of the other children had gone with the remnants of their cleaned-out desks. He looked pleased as he examined it, then he took a deep breath, holding the loaf up to his nose.
"Is this sourdough?", he asked.
My eyes smarted as I tried to decipher the words. Was that a smile? Or a smirk? Aaah! I couldn't tell!
I carefully tried to explain that it wasn't sour, it was fresh and that it was whole wheat bread that I'd made the day before! I reached out carefully to take it back, thinking he didn't want it, but he didn't hand it back, and I didn't snatch. Snatching was NOT something you did in that classroom.
"No way!", he exclaimed, "It's smells like sourdough! Are you sure it's not sourdough?!"
I bit the insides of my cheeks. Hard. There were no words left to say. I had to get out of there before the floodgates opened. I slowly started backing away, turned and fled with my backpack as soon as I was out of reach and never looked back.
I hadn't exactly gone home and demanded answers to why my teacher thought I was feeding him rotten bread. I was much too quiet about these kinds of things. It was many years later that someone finally explained to me what sourdough bread was.
And even more years before I finally found joy in bread making again.
Once again, I'm never looking back. I have a lot of years to make up for and there is a LOT of fun in breadmaking, especially when I have such adorable little helpers!