In Indiana, when Cookie the possum was my baking partner.

In Indiana, when Cookie the possum was my baking partner.

I have decided that Fridays will be baking days and writing days. When you bake with sourdough starter, you have many hours of rising time in which to write, so I thought these two activities would complement each other nicely.

My starter is from Indiana, and was initially conceived and concocted by a sweet housemate of ours. She moved on, leaving her infant starter behind. The baby starter had a long way to go before it could be called “mature,” so I figured what better than an old lady to escort a maiden starter into cronehood.

I’ve been baking with that starter for going on three years now, and we’ve had some great successes and great flops in our bread partnership. The starter brings along the yeasts, the bacteria, and the ambrosiac tang. It is my job to coax these lovely qualities into a loaf of bread… I have to admit that the starter has never failed me, but I’ve certainly failed her more times than I care to admit. Of course, the birds and squirrels outside would hardly call the door-stop loaves failures. They eat them up in nothing flat. They never see those light, slightly-sour loaves the color of vanilla, soft as a baby bottom, high as the toaster. Nope, those loaves get eaten down to the last chewy crust by those of us indoors.

Before I left Indiana, I offered to give a jar of starter to everyone in our gift circle who wanted one. There were many takers, so I also supplied them with instructions on how to feed and care for their starter, and how to start baking bread with her. The first recipient, Brian, said, “This starter is really just like a pet, isn’t it? You have to feed it, grow it, and be careful of how you keep it!” I wish I would have made that  connection myself. My starter IS just like a pet. And like any animal companion or wild visitor, she has life lessons to impart. This is what she has told me these past three years:

Every Good Relationship is unique.

My little jar of flour and water is unlike any other such jar in the world. She is crafted out of the unique wild yeasts that happened to be floating around my house and yard on the day we began the long process of birthing her. She is an amalgam of the flours we used, the particular waters in our pipes, the invisible creatures we needed to simply trust were actually living in the air we were breathing each day. As such, she has her quirks, her talents, her angers, her stubborn streak, and her delights.

A Good Relationship Requires Time and Attention

Half of the success or failure in my baking is dependent on my starter. I need to know—by watching and sniffing—how she is feeling. Is she hungry? For what? Is she tired? Sleepy? When will she be ready to work with me? If the only attention I give her is on baking day, well, we’ll both starve. I have learned how she acts in the refrigerator (sleepy), and on the kitchen counter (perky), and when the day is cold, or hot, or wet, or dry. She has something to say about all of these things, and woe be to me if I don’t listen.

A Good Relationship Requires Both Heat and Cold

000_1174If I only keep my starter in the cold, she remains mostly in hibernation. We can’t converse much. She stays quiet and stiff. But if I only keep her toasty warm, well, she is happy to bubble and giggle and foam up all over the place. And she is also likely to collapse if she runs out of energy, which for her is flour and water. You’d be surprised how quickly she can exhaust herself in the summer heat. Now, if I apply too much heat, she simply dies. Yet, it is in the application of the heat of baking that she really surpasses herself.  She goes out with a heavenly rise, transformed into something that tastes just this side of heaven.  My task as her partner is never to let all of her fire up at the same time. I let her throw herself into the phoenix fire, being certain I’ve kept just enough aside in the fridge so that we can play the cold-warm-hot game over and over and over.

Patience, Or Lack Of It, Can Sour or Sweeten Any Relationship

Do you want your bread sweet? Or do you want it so tangy sour your teeth tingle when you bite into it? Sweet and sour is all a matter of patience and impatience. I love my sourdough loaves really tangy and the only way I can achieve that is to take a very long time to craft a dough. These days, a loaf takes me three days to complete. I can hurry the process along adding more heat to the rise times, and perhaps more flour to the dough, but I will end up with a sweet little loaf that a just doesn’t give me the complexity of taste that I really like . No, if I want a deeply satisfying loaf of bread—not just a shallow little puff of dough—I have to be willing to wait, and to tenderly coax the dough along the whole time. Trust me, it’s worth it in the end.

I have applied all these lessons to my marriage, and I can tell you that they work. Time, attention, temperature or passion, appreciation of our uniqueness, respect for the ancientness of the process, and just being willing to keep on “baking” is a recipe for a good loaf or a good relationship.

And to think—you can learn all this from a bundle of bacteria!

This entry was posted in Stories & Musings, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Nancy says:

    Susun, could my husband and I come and live with you for just a while? lol, I’m just kidding, but you do make life seem blissful compared to what we have been through these last three years, and are still going through. A sewer project, funded in part by those many 2009 ARRA dollars hit us hard. Hit is a good word, though many others fit here too. The pressure made me fall. The odor makes us both feel ill. The disrespect and disrepair of our beautiful property still makes me want to cry, and hurts my husband so. He loves this little piece of land we call home. We have memories of picking up rocks as a family until we could find no more. So many memories of building a life. I’ve gotten back up, and I’ve cried a river already. The air is better than it was so at least we don’t get sick each day. But I work each day trying to get our land repaired and our fresh clean air returned. Losing your home life to something like this is so hard. The flower beds are in weeds, life is not what it was. It seems a fight each day.

    I bought and read your book, Animals as Teachers and Healers when I was recovering. It was so very good to read during such a time. We have a sweet hound dog, Claire, and an old cat, Kaylie, and a younger cat Azzy. No matter what we go through, they stay constant. No matter how stressed we are, they never complain. Always faithful, always loving. Always willing to accept whatever we have to give.

    Please keep writing about the real things. The precious things. The things of meaning. There seems no escape from the road we’re traveling. No way around; just through. Your words help so much. I baked sour dough for a while. It was yummy as you describe.

    So thankful for you. Nancy

    • Susan McElroy says:

      Nancy, I’ve spent extended time in “blight” and I know it feels that it will never end. And I can so relate to the feeling of having your home/land disrespected. When my house burned down, I often felt that the rebuilding contractors were more like invaders than helpers. They just had no sense of the “precious” of the place. I did a lot of cleansing ceremony back then, over and over again. The one thing I keep telling myself when I’ve hit a bad, prolonged case of blight, is that everything changes. Even the crap. Just keep telling yourself that, over and over, and one day, you will find it to be true, and you’ll be breathing again, deeply. Many blessings to you!

  2. Nancy says:

    Thank you for your reply Susan, and I’m sorry I misspelled your name. It’s been another hard day here. I’ve learned more things that astound me, and frighten me. But I refuse to let fear control another day of my life. I’m sorry you lost your home like that. …no sense of the ‘precious’ of the place…I knew you’d understand. Just having someone understand helps so much. I feel so close to the land it seems it almost speaks to me. It’s like it knows I am trying to see to its protection. The floodplain that kept us safe and helped so many others in the 2010 flood is washing. Rich soil going into the creek. So much good soil was carried away by the construction company. I would love to learn about the cleansing ceremonies…I will read more on your blog to see if I can find some information on what you did. Keep writing. Your words are so real, and so healing. I’ll remember what you said and trust the changes will come. To feel safe enough to let my guard down, to breathe deeply again, would be bliss. Nancy

Share, please!