Sarah Gilbert is a freelance financial writer; she keeps chickens; and she’s a beginning urban farmer. She lives with her three small boys and husband in Portland, Oregon, and keeps her own blog, Cafe Mama.

What price time?

Catching yeast in the air for sourdough

By
February 14, 2008

Price, I’m slowly learning, has very little to do with what’s on my grocery receipts.

I have so many of them, my favorites the old-fashioned cash-register receipts from Limbo and Pastaworks that say little more than “produce 3.87, meat 9.82.” They’re folded up and stuffed into a dresser drawer; some are crumpled up in the bottom of every pocket and market bag; more are flattened out and shoved into a file drawer in my office.

“Grocery 2@2.35” is what I bought tonight, two little packages of organic stone-ground whole-wheat flour from Bob's Red Mill. I’d go out there and buy a 100-pound bag, as Harriet was going to do, but I’m not driving and, really, I only had $7 to spend. And $2.30 of that I had to save for bus fare.

I am going to make a sourdough starter. Its ingredients: water and flour. Once it’s done, I can make it into bread with flour and honey; into waffles with flour and eggs; into biscuits with flour and butter. I was instant-messaging earlier with my friend Jen. She was re-starting her sourdough after a freezer defrosted and flooded her refrigerator. She told me that yeast is in the air.

In the air! Yeast is free! Immediately I was captivated and suggested we both start sourdough and trade the results, comparing the yeast in the air of Missouri (where Jen lives) to that in Oregon (where I live).

Bread dough, risen.

But nothing is free, I’m discovering; nothing is cheap. In fact, the very cheapest things come at the dearest price. That’s why I spent $4.70 on flour that would have cost me less than $2 were I to get it in a white paper bag at the supermarket. At what price?

Wheat, harvested from where-I-don’t-know, perhaps even China or Russia or Argentina. Ground with 21st-century technology that neatly chops the nutrition off along with the color. Do I know what the soil will be like in five, 10, or 20 years where this wheat was grown? No, I don’t. Perhaps the farmer is using sustainable agricultural techniques, but more likely, that soil is very far from “tilth,” cozied up to chemical invention, and the laborers are plentiful and poorly paid. If I were to bet, it would be that the fossil fuels used to get that white paper bag of white flour to my grocery store were excessive.

I know a little bit more about the flour from Bob’s Red Mill. The wheat comes from Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Canada, and it’s farmed organically. I know that it’s ground with stone and that all the good stuff is still in there. I wish I knew more; I wish I could have a guarantee that the agricultural practices used were such that the farmland would still be productive when my children were grown. I don’t know that for sure.

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But the cost is certainly much, much less: the cost to me and my family (eating organic whole grains has health benefits that cascade over our family, from fewer colds to better dental health to possible mood benefits and a greatly reduced probability of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer); the cost to our land (we know now that the chemicals used to grow food rob soil of its natural nutrients, destroy ecosystems, and throw the whole earth out of balance); and the cost to our planet (the fossil fuels used to transport wheat from Central America may be cheap for corporations, when compared with labor costs in the U.S., but it’s clear that shipping tons of wheat halfway around the world is a net loss for our climate).

In exchange, I must pay with my time.

You might value my time, calculating my annual salary, dividing it by days in the work week, hours in my work day, coming up with a dollar figure. Does this sourdough cost $25? $100? If you believe that time = money, surely it’s not worth it.

Suddenly I no longer believe in spending time; no, I believe in investing time. Time = money? Then my time is capital, stock in my own collection of skills, accrued quality of life, assets of food and drink and pottery. Money is not real. Bread is real.

Tonight, I choose a crock and wash it carefully, by hand, in my decades-old kitchen sink. I do not look up recipes; instead, I choose to start with abandon. One-third of a cup, let’s say, of each water and whole-wheat flour. I stir it carefully, imagining the wild yeast floating as does the dust in the air, caught before the window in the summer sun. I say to myself in a quiet voice, “Wild!” and set the crock on my windowsill with great hopes.

Every evening, now, at about the same time that I rinse the sprouts growing nearby, I must add in a little, feeding the culture with a tablespoon of water, a tablespoon of flour. It is not just those minutes I must invest, but the remembering, the responsibility, and then the commitment to using the creature which I have grown and tended from conception. Much in the same way as with my children, I must develop its best qualities, learning the secrets to a proper sourdough crust, the recipes my family eats most heartily. I must guard it from well-meaning visitors to my kitchen; I must shepherd this ingredient.

No longer is the origin of my food a mystery shrouded in marketing-speak, logos, little letters with circles around them.

My food is here; my time is now. I am hunter, gatherer, steward, trustee. My stakeholders will receive a fair return.

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1. by Holly on Feb 14, 2008 at 2:09 PM PST

Damn. I just bought a bag of Gold Medal all-purpose flour because it was 99/c and I was feeling cheap. Now I really feel cheap.

Generally I like King Arthur’s bread flour for baking. Haven’t tried Bob’s Red Mill wheat flour, but I like their oats and cornmeal.

2. by MamaBird on Feb 14, 2008 at 6:26 PM PST

Oh, I so loved this, so much so that I even came back to find your writings hours after I read it (kids!). You might like trying to grind your own flour, it sounds overwhelming but my cousin’s been doing it and I am intrigued. Nourishing Traditions/Fallon-inspired. Especially since you are into fermentation, you should check it out. Investing time, indeed...

3. by Jen on Feb 16, 2008 at 9:30 AM PST

I am feeling cheap too-- I haven’t considered where the flour comes from that I am using, or the soil, or the investment.

But this is indeed food for thought-- and it’s not too late for me to add good flour to my starter.

I am the Jen in this piece. I have been growing my Missouri starter for about 11 days now, and yesterday when I added flour and water (fed it), I saw it break into bubbles! This is what will happen eventually when I make it into a bread dough, and those bubbles will leaven my bread.

I forget what adding grapes to a starter can do (something to do with yeast and sugars I am sure and feeding the starter), but I added about four grapes to my starter. The starter separated and I took them out after about a week, but the starter thrives.

According to my recipe, the starter will be strong enough to leaven bread after about two weeks of growth. According to my personal experience of throwing away lots of bread (I fed the loaves to cows, actually, pastured across the street from my house), I don’t think it’s strong enough without some additional yeast for about a month.

But the experience of growing and caring for a starter, and the bread you receive from it, is a heady thing.

4. by gretchen on Mar 26, 2008 at 6:21 PM PDT

the grapes introduce yeast a little differently. (grapes= wine. yet another wonderful yeast product.) in the course of a move i forgot that i needed to keep the lid loose on a starter and lost it. i started a new one the day i moved into my new house 400 miles away, and i had good healthy sponge soon. it took awhile but it happened. people are amazed that i havent bought bread in like a year or so. but there is no need to. and when i tell them how easy it is (and it really doesnt take all that much time from me.)
i love it. it is one of the most critical parts of my kitchen.

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