In August my mother entered hospice care. In September I stirred together flour and water, hoping to make a new life.
It wasn’t quite like that, of course. It’s only now, with some hindsight, that I see the connection between the dying and the baking. At the time, it was just the best way to answer my son’s question. He’d read a novel in which baking sourdough bread plays a part — saves a life, really — and when he asked how sourdough starter works, I suggested we give it a whirl without stopping to consider how much I needed its lifesaving myself.
Mom always made bread baking seem easy. She taught me to bake when I was in elementary school, not with any kind of lesson, simply by making the kitchen a comfortable place to be. Saturday mornings, her long hair hanging loose down her back instead of in its regular weekday knot, she would pull out the yellow Pyrex mixing bowl and stir together warm water, honey and yeast. Once the mixture was bubbling, she’d add whole wheat flour and wheat germ, the vacuum-sealed jar cracking open with a satisfying whoosh, then set her rings — a diamond engagement ring and a deep blue star sapphire — on the windowsill. Sometimes I slid the rings onto my own fingers and stretched out my arm to admire them; sometimes I was more in the mood to punch the dough. A couple hours later, the kitchen warm and fragrant, she’d pull the bread from the oven and cover it with one of my grandmother’s soft tea towels, gently scolding me away from slicing it warm.
I make that bread still — all kinds of breads. Mom gave me the sense that baking bread is no big deal, and I want to pass that gift on to my family. At Thanksgiving we shape her wheat germ and honey dough into balls, tuck them into a pie pan, and call them Grandma’s Rolls. My son has always stepped in when it’s time to punch down the dough; when he was little, he’d pull a stool up to the counter to give himself more leverage. He’d wind up and pummel the dough with his small fist; he’d lift it and stretch it and drop it down with a thump on to the counter. This year, when Thanksgiving fell just a couple weeks after Mom’s death and I couldn’t fathom cooking the meal, my son made the rolls from start to finish, giving me a sense that maybe we could carry on — with Thanksgiving and bread-making and life — without her.
When my son asked how starter works, we headed to the local bookstore. My mom had never been one to follow a recipe exactly, instead combining elements she liked from several and urging us to enjoy the result because we probably wouldn’t ever eat it again. So we channeled her approach in the bookstore, reading sections and comparing notes until I felt confident in our ability to combine flour and water, and wait.
Establishing a starter takes an astonishing amount of flour and water, and a lot of patience, but really nothing else. We read recipes that called for honey or dates or even pineapple juice, which seemed interesting but too weird. Again channeling my mom, we went for the most direct approach. We stirred together flour and water, let it sit overnight, poured half out, added more flour and water, let it sit, poured some out, and on and on for over a week, waiting for the yeast in the air to settle and make the mixture its home. Eventually the mixture started getting bubbly, the sign of an active starter, lively enough to leaven bread.
It was October by now, and as my mom faded, the routine helped anchor my days. Almost every night, I stirred the starter into some flour and water; almost every day I baked it into something new: loaves and loaves of bread, plus also biscuits, English muffins, waffles, crumpets, pizza dough, even a sourdough chocolate cake. I pretended it was to feed my family, and it did, but it was more to sustain myself.
I had been sleeping with the phone by my bedside for three nights when my dad’s call woke me just after midnight. Hanging up the phone, I paused before getting up to drive to his apartment, and leaned into my husband’s arms: “Now I have to figure out how to live in this world.”
It would have made sense if I had been absolutely unable to bake after Mom’s death, but it turned out to be practically all I could do.
I tried lots of different bread recipes those first few weeks, baking with an intense need to lose myself in a new project. Some recipes took a day or two, while some went from starter to loaf in less than six hours. Some recipes were very hands-off, while others required folding or kneading the dough every hour or so. The resulting loaves emerged with very hard crusts or soft and chewy crusts, with a dense, fine crumb or a crumb that was big and loose. I proofed one loaf in a heavy old metal colander and it emerged from the oven imprinted with the colander’s holes, like a sprinkle of snowflakes. I developed enough confidence to start experimenting, just like Mom, combining my favorite parts of different recipes (no hot water, yes kneading) until I came up with a version that turned out reliably every time. I typed up the recipe, but I also knew it by heart.
I was baking so much, I started gifting loaves to the friends who fed us so well in the days leading up to and after Mom’s death.
And then, quite suddenly, the starter stopped working. Every stage, from leaven to dough, the bread looked fine but baked up heavier than usual, dense and flat. “It still has good flavor!” my family said, chewing determinedly.
I discarded half the starter. I stirred in extra flour and water. I measured more carefully. After another couple batches that looked like Passover loaves, I added yeast to the dough and it, too, failed to rise. My very pragmatic mother would have advised me to just bake a quick bread for goodness’ sake, and I did, and it tasted okay, and I missed her even more. What was I doing baking sourdough bread in the first place? She never had. It suddenly struck me as a betrayal to have been mourning her this way all this time.
I tucked the starter into the back of the fridge and took a break. I had been getting away with something; wanting so much for my baking (and my grieving) to look effortless, I had pretended it was, and now I was caught short. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I needed my Mom.
A couple weeks ago, I pulled the starter out and stirred it up. I opened the first sourdough bread recipe I’d followed, poured a bit of starter into a bowl, added flour and water, and let it rise overnight before adding more flour, water and salt the next morning. The bread came out fine. Two days later, I tried the recipe I made up myself, and it turned out fine, too. I am spending more time with the dough, messily kneading, letting it cling to my mom’s old blue sapphire. I am no chemist in the kitchen, so I have no idea why the starter failed nor why it’s back, but I can live in this uncertainty. I am grateful, and I know not to take it for granted. My mother taught me that.
Caroline M. Grant is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Find her online at carolinemgrant.com.