Sunday, August 1, 2010

Remembering Herman, the Sourdough Starter, and Melville

Today is Herman Melville's birthday. It's also the birthday of MTV, born in 1981 and Jerry Garcia. I feel there should be a poem in there somewhere, but I'm not sure what it is right now.

I never finished Moby Dick. We were supposed to have read it in high school, but I think only one person in our English class did. One of the punk guys declared it the best book he ever read. Yes, we had intellectual punks in our high school, and the most popular kids were the born again group who burned, literally, their record albums on Saturday nights. What can I tell you? Knoxville, Tennessee in the early 1980's was a very strange place.

Over at her blog, Leslie Pietrzyk has been reading Moby Dick this summer. It's almost enough to make me want to pick up the book again. Almost.

"Bartleby the Scrivener" will always be my favorite Melville work. At times I've felt like Bartleby. Lately I feel more like the narrator in that story, as I'm remembering that story. The narrator has to manage all these workers with very different work styles. He wonders why they can't just get the work done. Yes, that dynamic feels familiar.

I have a different Herman on the brain this week-end. On Friday, my friend gave me a bit of levain, a fancy name for sourdough starter. My friend has been experimenting with bread baking this summer, a voyage sparked by William Alexander's 52 Loaves. Alexander is a bit too scientific for my taste, with his weighing all the ingredients.

In a show of defiance, I measured nothing! I put the starter in my grandmother's mixing bowl, dumped in some flour, and stirred in some water. I've let it sit on the counter and stirred it periodically. I figure if California pioneers could make this work, so can I. I'm sure that no one went into the covered wagon to find the kitchen scale to feed the starter.

Years and years ago, I made bread much more regularly. In high school, I launched my own rebellion by becoming a vegetarian and baking my own bread. Some kids rebel by burning their record albums, some by doing weird things to their hair, some by experimenting with drugs, . . .
but not me. I experimented with whole grain flours and bread recipes.

It was a different world then, a world devoid of artisan breads. When we travelled as a family to big cities (like D.C.), the bakeries were a revelation (and they were separate, not part of grocery stores).

I loved sourdough bread, so when Southern Living magazine offered a recipe for starter and some bread recipes, I had to try it. The magazine called the starter Herman, and I did too. I kept that starter going until I left for college. I had hopes that my mom would care for it, but the family moved shortly after I started college, and Herman got tossed in the move.

Until recently, I couldn't find any sort of Herman recipe online, but this morning, I found a few. This one seems like the most similar to the one I made, long ago in the early 80's.

I love sourdough starter because it's fairly forgiving. I want to bake more often, but I know I may not be able to. The starter will wait for me.

And hopefully, it will encourage me to bake more. In some ways, it should be doable. I'm not spending much more time in my office than I was spending at high school. And in high school, I found time to bake. Let me hope that I can do it now.

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