The Sourdough Starter
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It’s been said that better questions lead us naturally to better answers and that it’s in not knowing that we open the doorway to knowing.
I’m Scott Lennox and you’re listening to The Beautiful Question, a consideration of things that truly matter in a complex world.
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One of the strongest and most enduring traditions in my family is sharing the foods we create. Each of us has our own specialties and the bragging rights that go with them. One of own my specialties is sourdough baking.
Join me this week as I share a bit of history about that and ask what we can do to maintain our traditions or create new ones.
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It’s been my habit to record these podcasts in a way that there is no intrusion of sound that I don’t want to be there. Today, we’ll do it a different way, experiencing life exactly as it unfolds around us. So this morning, I’m recording on the patio behind my house as I sit at the edge of my wonderful kitchen garden, where I’ve planted flowers and vegetables and herbs of every kind.
As you’ll hear along with planes flying overhead and workers somewhere in the distance and dogs barking at nothing in particular, birds are constantly coming to the birdbath and doves are calling from the tree above me and the yards behind mine.
As I stop to take it all in, I have to admit that by building a garden over several years, I’ve created a beautiful and magical place that affirms life, feeds me, and activates something deep in me. It’s especially magical in the evening when more than a dozen small solar lights dot the garden with pools of luminescence. And a couple of evenings ago, the season’s first fireflies danced in the air at the garden’s eastern edge. For a while, I was a little kid looking out in wonder in the half-light.
If posts on Instagram and other sites like it are reliable indicators, people all over the world are returning to their kitchens as a way of coping with the pandemic. The images of baked breads and desserts and other fascinations are so mouthwateringly beautiful, I’m convinced that there are culinary wizards everywhere.
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At first glance, I would appear to be one of the people who has returned to cooking, but in fact, I never left it. I enjoy it so much that years ago, I installed a commercial-styled stainless kitchen as my living laboratory. It delights me to be continually exploring new ways of taking my skills to higher and more artful levels. And now, more than ever before, I’m finding that sharing the foods I prepare is one of the best things I can do to nourish my connection with other people.
I’ll get to that soon enough, but first, a bit of history.
My love of baking began sixty years ago on a Boy Scout camping trip. I was twelve. Over a glowing bed of coals, I used a cast-iron Dutch oven to bake a blackberry cobbler for the boys in my troop. The cobbler was so good, and their responses were so resoundingly positive, that I was completely hooked. I didn’t know it then, but a new form of personal mastery had begun. Before that year was over, I was planning and cooking compete meals for the entire troop. More than once, I turned several chickens on a spit over an open fire while baking foil-wrapped potatoes in the coals.
A number of years ago, my good friend, Lee Elsesser, offered to share some of his lively sourdough starter with me. Along with his unfailing friendship, Lee’s gift for writing poetry and his way of handling himself in the kitchen continually inspire me. Since his handoff of the starter, I’ve used it to bake countless sheets of high-rising biscuits, crusty loaves of bread, and more English muffins than I can possibly keep track of.
When he first gave me the starter, Lee shared a few stories about it, explaining that it first came to Texas around the time of the Civil War when a traveling Episcopal priest brought it with him. As a seasoned journalist who is scrupulous about checking his sources, I took what he told me as fact.
He also told me about a pioneer family that baked with it. Moving to what would become their new homestead, they had traveled a day and a half by wagon when someone noticed that the starter had been left behind. It mattered so much to them that they turned their team and wagon around and traveled another day and half to go back for it. Personally, I’m glad they did, and I reap the benefits of their dedication.
Another family came perilously close to losing the starter altogether. As fire consumed their Texas prairie home, the grandmother cried out that the crock that held the starter was still in the kitchen. Putting his life at risk to save it, one of the boys in the family raced through the flames and came stumbling back out with the crock wrapped in his smoke-blackened arms. I can picture his grateful grandmother shedding tears as she embraced him.
My own stories about it are far less dramatic, but I hold the starter as equally valuable.
There are endless recipes for creating a new sourdough starter, but I love the history behind this one. Each time I bake with it, I feel a strong but quiet connection to all those unnamed folk who lived a century before I was born. When my biscuits come out of the oven light and delicious, I think of them. As my English muffins come off the griddle with just the perfect crunch of coarse cornmeal beneath them, I think of them. And when I set a steaming loaf of bread on the window ledge to cool, its golden crust hiding the cloudlike softness that lays beneath it, I wonder what breads they baked and where and with whom they shared and enjoyed them.
When I cook for my family and friends, I often share what I have learned about the starter. I’ve been told more than once that hearing the stories makes the bread or biscuits taste even better and the muffins more satisfying. I agree, and yet for me, the true richness is in the sharing. That’s what makes all of it worthwhile.
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For the past few weeks, during this time of lockdowns and isolation and social distancing, my old starter has spread its reach even farther. Within hours of posting images and the recipe for my sourdough English muffins on Instagram, several people asked if I would be willing to share the starter or barter with them for it. And by the way, the quail eggs I received in trade were beautiful and the omelette I made with them was delicious.
To say it again, passing on to others what has been freely given to me is one of the meaningful things I can do to stay connected and to actively engage in our shared humanity.
That leads me straight into to this week’s Beautiful Questions.
What traditions have been shared with you that you can pass along as a way of nourishing your shared human family?
What things are you doing to maintain or feel your connection with other people?
Whether it is in or out of the kitchen, what new and vital collaborative traditions can you begin?
As always, I would enjoy hearing your answers. Write and tell me about them.
As I say each week,
My Light with Your Light
Thank you once again for joining me in these podcasts, especially now as we awaken to living in better and more effective ways as a result of the pandemic. My goal is for each of us to live better lives and to create better possibilities for ourselves, for one another, for the world, and for our beautiful planet home.
I look forward to your comments and feedback.
You can be further inspired by visiting my friends at Kosmos Journal. That’s K O S M O S Journal. Their mission is to inform, inspire, and engage global transformation in harmony with all life.
You can easily find them online at Kosmos Journal dot O R G.
And as we continue bringing our vision for it into reality, you’ll now see some changes on the new Beautiful Question website at thebeautifulquestion.com (That’s all one word.) It’s there that you’ll find all of my podcasts, including free guided relaxation audios that you may find helpful as you practice letting go on a daily basis. And soon, you’ll be able to read transcripts of each podcast, and there will be links to a number of other offerings to challenge and inspire you. I know you’re going to like how easy the site will be to navigate.
If you find these podcasts useful or encouraging, don’t hesitate to share them or tall others about them.
I’m Scott Lennox, and this has been The Beautiful Question.
The Beautiful Question is a One Light production, written, produced and engineered by Scott Lennox at Heart Rock Studios in Fort Worth, Texas, as a way of paying forward to life, being fully present, becoming better engaged with things that truly matter in a complex world, and committing to a healthier future for all of us.