In mid-March, as the number of positive cases and deaths from Covid-19 continued to rise, our governor put our state on lockdown. Life came to a near-standstill. Confined to my home, I spent hours at the computer, bearing witness to the devastation and massive loss of life caused by this virus as it rampaged without mercy through local communities and across the globe. I watched doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers step up to the front lines, putting their lives and the lives of their families in danger to care for the people stricken by this disease.
They’re your people! You should be working alongside them.
These thoughts pushed at me, penetrated my dreams. I had been a nurse for fifty years, and even though I’m retired, my deep impulse is still to turn into the danger, to respond without hesitation to a crisis. It’s what nurses do; it’s in our DNA.
But now I’m a 76-year-old woman with a bad back. My responsibility in this pandemic is not to put on my scrubs but to stay home. I get it. I’m in the elder, high-risk category, and by sheltering in place, I am less likely to put my life and others in jeopardy, causing an unnecessary burden on our health care system. But it felt inadequate.
What to do? How could I support my community from the confines of my home?
It came to me. . . Sourdough starter!
I’ve been baking my own bread for years, and since the quarantine, more and more people are learning to bake bread as well. It’s become a thing, and it’s hard to do because there is no yeast in the stores. Well, who needs yeast when you have a sourdough starter.
I put a notice on our Nextdoor Neighbor website: Giving away sourdough starter. Message me if you are interested. It took less than five minutes; the requests started to flood in!
For the next two weeks, scheduling arrivals every hour, hordes of masked people poured into my backyard garden. First, they picked up their bag of goodies—a jar of sourdough starter; printed sheets with instructions on how to care for it as well as recipes and other informational tidbits; a baggie containing organic flour for the first feeding; and a sample double-edged razor blade to score the bread before it goes into the oven. Then, they listened as I stood on my patio and gave them the transmission.
This starter has lineage; it’s been passed down from person to person for 100 years. It’s alive and depends on the wild yeast and bacteria from the air, the flour, and especially your bare hands. Do not use spoons or your Kitchen Aid! Your relationship with this starter will be intimate. The bread you will make from it is simple and hardy, made with pure ingredients. It will sustain and ground you. It needs minimal attention, but it does need your trust. It requires time and your faith that it knows what it is doing. You don’t knead this dough in a traditional way; you stretch and fold it upon itself—then leave it. Stretch and fold—then leave it. Like that… Now, go forth. Be safe. Wash your hands. And bake!
Clutching their goodie bags, they departed—happy, little, prospective, sourdough bread bakers. I felt like a neighborhood drug dealer!
It was suggested by some that I should consider going into the sourdough starter business. That never crossed my mind. This was not a monetary transaction; it was an offering, a small thing I could safely do for my community in the middle of a pandemic.
And, as with most offerings, what goes around comes around. The rewards I received in return were bountiful: connection, warm engagement, a feeling of solidarity among neighbors—not to mention fresh cookies, bouquets of garden flowers, more jars, toilet paper, and even a cherished bottle of Lysol spray!
People shared their stories. . .
This starter was a birthday present for my 20-year-old son. Here is a picture of his first loaf. He said it was the best gift ever.
My family is thrilled with this bread. Already I have received requests to share my starter with others. I’m mailing some to my cousin in Michigan.
I was inspired to get a mill to grind my own flour. I will bring you some.
I’m baking so much bread now, I have enough to give away.
My heart needed this moment of exchange. Neighbors helping neighbors.
This is a scary time. There’s no map for how to navigate it. I’m relying on science and data, but I am also leaning into our common humanity as my compass: kindness, generosity, respect, good-will, the basic goodness in people. My faith in this anchors me. And because I care about my neighbors, I wear a mask; I keep my distance; I smile with my eyes; say hello, and. . . give away sourdough starter!