Flour. Salt. Water. Heat.
by Katie Huey
The goop came in a six-ounce mason jar with my name scrawled in black sharpie on the metal lid. A Post-It note with a clear message clung to the glass.
“Call for instructions.”
Carrying the package inside, I placed the mysterious ingredient on my counter. At the same time, the biggest historical event of my lifetime crept closer from overseas.
In February, I was given a small batch of sourdough starter. A family friend fed and split the mix for the last twenty years. With roots in Alaska, the starter followed her to Oregon, and ended up on my front step in Colorado weeks before the pandemic hit. Spanning decades and miles, the mysterious form of life brought history to my steps.
The longevity of life struck me. Halved again and again, the mix kept working as it relied on consistent feedings to stay strong. Someone removed the old to make room for new growth.
From the table in my kitchen, I stared at the white mixture. What could we create together?
I am a lover of bread. When vacationing, I reroute to bakeries and patisseries. I’m dedicated to the search of the satisfying fall of a flaky crumb. Ripping crust into hunks, I enjoy sopping up olive oil with drizzles of balsamic - dark and sticky marring the stark white of the dough.
Bread is a love language.
I did not consider what would need to be discarded to allow for new growth.
As stay-at-home-orders buzzed through my phone, I realized travel to far off cafes would not be happening. I cancelled a trip to Ohio and declined wedding invitations. Travel guidebooks to Canada and Maine were tucked in return slots at closed libraries. For adventure I turned, instead, to the jar of potential living in my fridge.
I picked up the phone and was coached through a basic recipe.
Flour. Salt. Water. Starter. Mix. Wait.
Let heat and time combine as fermentation brings bubbles to the surface.
Knead once. Wait again.
Knead twice. Turn and fold and slice with a razor, creating space for the steam to release.
Wrestle parchment paper and a dusting of flour to situate the loaf just right.
Place in a hot oven. Wait.
Remove the lid.
Watch as your ball of dough morphs, creating a magical, crispy golden crust.
I became enchanted.
Baking on Easter Sunday at home, I nodded to my Christian roots and thought of Jesus’ red letter words as he served communion, thousands of years ago.
“This is my body, which is being broken for you.”
Outside my kitchen, things kept breaking. A virus spread quickly, stealing my peace.
Cool spring afternoons turned to hot summer ones. I’d wake earlier to bake knowing the oven would warm my kitchen sooner than the promised 90 degree temperatures. With each opening of the oven, my glasses steamed. And when the fog cleared and the bread cooled, the serrated knife met crispy crust with a tenderness and appreciation for life.
The love affair continued.
With nowhere to go and few people to see, this starter became my companion. My responsibility to nurture and feed gave me purpose. The simplicity of ingredients then fed me.
Dawn turned to dusk on repeat. Fires burned turning the sky dark purple, heavy with smoke. In capitals and hospitals and parking lots of Walmarts, conflict grew from broken arms to broken lives to broken hearts. Warm mornings turned again to cool nights as the leaves began to fall.
What the starter taught me in 2020 was to go back to simple things.
Flour. Salt. Water. Heat.
Basic combinations bring delight. Repetition became the gift to look forward to. The ingredients aren’t difficult. The magic lies in the transformation. With each crispy crust, and tearing of the loaves, we turn what was whole into more manageable bits. Whether you snack on tiny morsels or slather palm-sized chunks, the ingredients must bubble and break to become.
Brokenness is a historical constant. Sustenance too. How do we combine the truth that both will and must exist?
As a tumultuous year closes, and another uncertain one rises, I remember I am not solely responsible for the solutions to the monstrous challenges facing us. I do, however, have a role. The pain we are witnessing is often too much to bear. Too many are deprived of access to the basics.
Mixing simple ingredients into loaves of sustenance helps. Slicing space for the steam to escape remains necessary. Life is better when you can soak hunks of warm sourdough in puddles of olive oil or top with spreadable cheese.