Bread making has a very special place in my heart and soul. I think that we as human beings are stirred in a very primal way by the smell of fresh bread rising and baking. Baking bread symbolizes a step forward in civilization, a representation of our rise from hunter gatherers to a more sustainable, less mobile way of life. An abandonment, if you will, of the more animalistic tendencies necessary before the simple act of grinding grain to bake our bread. With the advent of bread, for better or for worse, we as a human species were no longer dependent upon the ebb and flow of animal migrations for our food sources and were less burdened by seasonal influences on food supplies. Again, for better or for worse, it can be argued either way. At the very least, we no longer had to fight other scavengers for meat sources!
I do believe in the notion that fresh bread does, as mentioned above, spark an only recently buried olfactory response. I grew up in deep Appalachia, the son of a coal miner and pastor. My mother baked sourdough bread every single week of my childhood. I am, to the best of my knowledge, the only recipient of this famous recipe. People would beg for her bread and practically line up on our porch on Friday mornings, the day when an entire weeks’ worth of kneading, mixing, kneading, rising, punching, braiding and buttering would culminate in our kitchen and the surrounding areas inundated with the wonderful smell of sourdough. She would place the starter on the porch in the spring to mix with the local yeasts and the resulting concoction, which she affectionately named Herman, after 36 years of feeding and handling was something that was literally priceless.
Herman died inexplicably a few years ago. My mother tossed the starter after several attempts to resuscitate him had no results. What happened? Who knows? I feel that my mother finally became bored and tired of the enterprise and was no longer driven to feed a family of nine that had become dispersed over the years. Maybe it was just no longer rewarding to spend days coddling, feeding, massaging and fussing over a temperamental food item that now comes pre-sliced and delivered in the grocery store.
I can tell you this: There is no better smell or experience as a child to be walking home after a long and painful day of school than the smell of fresh bread wafting down the “holler.” My fondest memories are of racing my siblings’ home through the freezing cold to spread homemade peach jam from our own trees on hot sourdough bread. The smell of summer would waft through the house, racing on the currents of peaches and yeast, mingled with the smell of a happily burning walnut knot in our wood stove.
In an attempt to recreate this wonderful memory, I have taken my Mom’s time honored and proven recipe and developed my own starter. His name is Hank and we will see what happens. He is showing some signs of life in the form of bubbles and seems to be happy by our wood stove. My first attempt at Mommy Carol’s sourdough bread will commence when she gives me the go-ahead. I’ll keep you posted! And no, I’m sorry, but you can’t have the recipe.