new baking lead

Editor’s Note: Vanessa Hua is the author of the story collection “Deceit and Other Possibilities” and the novel “A River of Stars.” She is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and has written for many publications about Asia and the diaspora. The views expressed here are the author’s. Read more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

As many parts of the country shelter in place, some people are fostering dogs or cats.

Vanessa Hua

Our family has adopted a sourdough starter.

Or rather, I caught one in a glass jar, luring it with a small lump of dough. It looked unpromising, but patience would reward me – I hoped. I texted my friend, a bread-baking expert, asking her if it was supposed to look like Play-Doh or a little soupy, like pancake batter. A stiff starter is less sour, she explained. A soupy one tastes more sour.

In sourdough parlance, it’s a stiff versus a liquid starter; the former has a mellow flavor and the latter a bit of an acidic tang. They’re maintained slightly differently.

Keep it in the fridge if not baking every day, my friend added, then refresh it for two days before using it to bake.

“Have fun!” she told me.

Fun has been in short supply for many of us, as we’ve been gripped by worries about how to protect ourselves and our families, how to juggle working from home with home-schooling our children. Even going for a hike feels fraught, as we try to maintain social distancing. If we see someone coming, I scoot my twin eight-year-old sons to the side, reminding them to walk single file, to keep apart by at least six feet.

I’m not alone in attempting to raise a starter during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yeast is the new toilet paper for many. For weeks, we haven’t been able to find any in stores; there are reported shortages on supermarket shelves and online. Eventually, the supply chain will catch up with the demand but for now, I’m nurturing my pet.

I’ve been exhausted, despondent about the death tolls, worried about doctors and nurses, supermarket clerks, delivery workers, and all those at the frontlines, but my starter brings me joy and excitement when I see it bubbling away. The bumps and craters on its pale surface resemble the surface of the moon. I inhale its pleasingly sour scent as it doubles and triples in size.

Every morning, I feed two tablespoons of the starter with equal parts of flour and water. I feed the starter, and so far, it has fed us with biscuits, waffles, bread, my husband’s birthday cake and more. The Mason jar sits in my office, away from the sunlight, in the warmest part of the house, in these blustery first weeks of spring.

I showed the sourdough starter to my sons, in an impromptu science lesson – of the many I’ve been cobbling together.

“It smells,” one said, wrinkling his nose.

“Where did you get the yeast?” the other asked.

It’s all around us, I said.

People can get very attached to their starters, forming a bond that lasts through break-ups, job changes and multiple cross-country moves. A friend who forgot his starter had it mailed to him. Another friend fondly remembers the one she kept in her more carefree 20s, a gift from her parents’ neighbor, who’d started it years earlier in another city.

Those days feel faraway now. Even a couple weeks ago feels like another era, before and after coronavirus forced us indoors, and what once seemed like a hobbyist’s obsession now feels more essential, vital. Maybe it always was.

I’m pulled in a dozen directions at every moment, but taking a minute to feed the starter is a respite. It’s a small measure of control, when so much is out of control.

We’ve become so fearful of the viral dangers that the natural world feels somehow menacing. What other invisible risks circulate among us?

But Lactobacillus yeast are in our bread, our beer, and our cheese, a part of our terroir that shapes the way we’ve eaten for millennia. How plain our meals might be, without that tang and fermentation. I’ve been thinking about how long such yeast has resided in our mammalian guts, the both of us co-evolving in a symbiotic relationship.

The sourdough starter also puts me in kinship with American pioneers, like the Ingalls family from the Little House series in the late 1800s who feasted from their limited stores.

With Isidore Boudin, the French immigrant who began turning out his crusty loaves in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, and to this day, that wild yeast lives on its baguettes, bagels, and bread bowls.

I also think of Tie Sing, a backcountry cook fed a 1915 expedition of men who would go on to create the National Park Service. Each day, the Chinese-American prepared a new batch of dough that he wrapped up and tucked against a mule, whose body heat helped the biscuits rise in time for dinner. Ingenuity, making do with what we have, will carry us through the weeks and months ahead.

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    Then, now, and always, sourdough starters have thrived. In a world where so much else has been turned upside down, it’s the sort of constancy I need now.