Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Kim Ode Crashes the L.A.B.

OK, here’s my response regarding sourdough starters, for you to plug in whenever it makes sense. Thanks for sharing your platform……………..

Klecko isn’t the only one capable of breaking and entering. Kim Ode here, infiltrating the LAB, in light of what Klecko has written about sourdough. Regular readers – and are there any other kind? – know that Klecko has described me as his baking spouse, as Harper Lee to his Truman Capote, even as a cock-eyed optimist regarding all things Bigfoot. There is one other thing that I am: the owner of a liquid sourdough starter.

This is one of the few things upon which we disagree. Well, that and canned peas (him, love; me, ick), Hugh Grant (me, love; him, ick) and the Three Stooges (men, love; women, ick.) (Really, my husband also thinks the Stooges are hilarious, while I can watch a whole episode and never crack a smile.)

The realization that I used what Klecko considers a “savage” starter revealed itself over time. For several months after we met, we’d baked together at Bread Club and the odd weekend at the bakery. I remember him asking me to help out with a bake for some visiting international dignitary and me thinking: I can’t do that.

I mean, quite literally, I’d never worked a Hobart mixer, or a carousel oven. I’d never weighed my loaves. But also on a more personal level, I’d never baked for anyone outside of family and friends. People who had to like me no matter how it turned out. This was on a world stage and I grew up in South Dakota.

But the thing about Klecko is that he gives you a sense of confidence in yourself. True, it’s a confidence achieved only after feeling great trepidation and occasionally tearing up. But there is no confidence like hard-won confidence – confidence gained only by wrestling yourself to the ground.

Still, I was only in half-Nelson mode when the subject of sourdough starters came up. I’d seen Klecko’s brick starter Annelisa – a grayish stucco fermenting in a huge plastic tub, gray from a bit of rye flour in the mix, stucco-y from the very denseness of the mix. It looked nothing like the starter I’d been nurturing at home.

Mine was a creamy white froth of flour and water, with an almost fruity aroma. When at full strength, it poured with an almost sensuous viscosity, with a subtle, crackling soundtrack of bubbles as they broke with the pour. It was the presence of these bubbles that would inspire me to name my starter Glinda – after the good witch in the Wizard of Oz and her favored form of transport.

The formula for the starter came from Nancy Silverton’s book, “Breads of the La Brea Bakery.” After I built my brick oven, I realized I needed to be a serious baker and serious bakers bake sourdough. I had no idea how many different theories of starters were out there. I mean, wasn’t this the stuff that gold miners slept with in their armpits to keep it warm?

Silverton’s formula called for wrapping a bunch of organic grapes in cheesecloth -- swaddling them, really -- then submerging them in a slurry of flour and water. I thought that sounded impossibly romantic. (Careful readers will note that Harper Lee never married.) Over the next several days, I moved through the stages just as Silverton described them, the starter variously looking like a milk shake, seething with large bubbles, and finally graduating to a yeasty-smelling culture into which I squeezed the last bit of juice from the now spent grapes.

Then Silverton lost me, advocating a feeding schedule of three times a day every day. Every day. “Don’t miss a feeding!,” she scolded, equating my relationship to the starter to that of a mother and her newborn. Oh please. The she-wolf of sourdough was getting on my nerves.

I’m happy to say that, more than 9 years later, both my kids and my starter are alive and well and have learned to go with the flow.

But back to Klecko. (Klecko now breaks into a broad grin.)

When he learned I was baking with a liquid starter, he all but spat in my face. “Sorry you spent all that time, effort and emotional coin on your starter, Ode, because it will never survive in Minnesota,” he said, smirking. The grapes were the culprit, he said. Hippie fodder from California. That’s why his brick starter was built with potato flour – potatoes, those gems of the northern steppes, whether in Russia, Poland or the Twin Cities of Minnesota.

I rolled over like one of his Jack Russells, cowed by the master baker. It’s funny how we beat ourselves up for kowtowing to authority figures, and yet to whom else would we acquiesce? Lesser mortals? Novices? Larry, Moe or Curly? I nudged Glinda to the back of the fridge and began baking exclusively with Annelisa. And it was fine. The bread was dense and flavorful. Compliments were offered and humbly received. But ….

But it was Klecko’s bread.

On a whim, I decided I would give Glinda one more chance. If I fed her and she recovered, I would love her forever. If she faltered and died, I would consider it a sign and renew my allegiance to the brick starter. Poor Glinda had languished due to my neglect, but it was her fate on the chopping block instead of mine.

Valiantly, she responded.

She responded like a high school girlfriend called after 20 years of distance, like a favorite aunt who’d patiently waited through your know-it-all stage, like a mentor from your first job who gets in touch upon hearing of your promotion: We picked up right where we left off, never missing a beat.

Glinda bubbled, I baked – and since that moment have maintained a running banter/battle with Klecko about the amazing resilience of my soupy California starter versus his stone-faced Euro brick. As he wrote in this blog back on April 26, he likens my starter’s chances of success to being “as problematic as planting palm trees in the Arctic.”

And he may be right. Someday.

But in the end, it’s not really about which starter is better, or whose bread lasts longer. It’s about both of us – him long ago, me more recently – realizing that we have an emotional relationship with an amalgam of flour and water. Even more weirdly, with bacteria, although I prefer to call it yeast. I mean, we feel so strongly about this that neither of us is willing to give in although – and this is important – we both understand why we’ve practically erected a fortress of spiked logs around our philosophies. A fortress called confidence.

OK, I think I’ve worn out my welcome in Kleckoworld, but I wanted to leave any budding sourdough bakers out there with one last thought. At one point in some discussion with sourdough types, someone told me that my starter is growing stronger all the time not only because I tend it, but because as I’ve used it, my whole kitchen has grown more permeated with its yeasty spores. In other words, Glinda has created an environment that is a reflection of herself, and nurtures herself. I was dumbstruck by that notion – and thought it sounded impossibly romantic.

And I realized what’s at the heart of any sourdough starter: it’s all about her.


  1. Good stuff, Kim ... I am afraid to pass final judgment on the respective starters .. how would a fella like me know ... but I get it about Glinda.

    Also, it was nice to read one in English.

  2. I knew they'd take your side.....sigh!