Community Sourdough Project
Sourdough starter is a complex living matter. As the name implies, a starter culture is a group of microbes (such as bacterial cultures and yeast cultures) that are used to jumpstart the fermentation process. It needs to be fed to survive and grow. For millennia and across geographic regions, people have been making sourdough starter cultures and sharing them, sometimes out of necessity and other times for communal caring. This project builds on this common practice and connects people with microbes and foods in a shared community environment.
What is Food?
The Guided Activity
The project brings together a public audience in a guided activity of sourdough maintenance. Participants learn valuable techniques about sourdough and bread production. But the activity also intends to call attention to relationships we cannot easily see or sense — that is, the relationships with microbes and the greater public within which we/they circulate. The sourdough starter thus serves as a heuristic for thinking through the role of human and more-than-human communities in the food-making process.
Using the sourdough starter of Boulangerie Automne as a base, participants are invited to add one of five ‘feeds’ to the sourdough starter: wheat flour, spelt flour, kamut flour, maple syrup, and honey. Each of these ingredients help the yeasts and bacteria multiply, resulting in the creation of something shareable.
The resulting sourdough becomes the active agent for starting social, cultural, and culinary ferments. Participants are invited to take a portion of sourdough starter home which they can continue fermenting and sharing.
Questions to Ponder
What starts the starter culture?
Where do the yeasts developing in the sourdough come from? To what extent are they naturally occurring in the environment or cultivated in the original starter?
Who is feeding whom?
Humans “feed” the sourdough so it can feed humans, and these exchanges suggest that eating might be better thought of as being cyclical instead of linear. By inculcating ourselves in these feedings, we can nurture and nourish relationships that are difficult to see or sense.
To what extent is the culture alive?
Sourdough is a living matter with communities of bacteria and yeasts living together. These microbial communities nourish human communities as well, resonating from micro- to macro-scales of life.
What (else) goes into the culture?
Sourdough starters have a distinctive flavour. This is due to environmental conditions, type of feed or temperature of storage. But did you know that the wild yeasts living on the hands of the baker can also add to this complexity?
How does the culture evolve over time?
Since sourdough is a living thing, it is bound to change over time, and it can even ferment past the point of human desirability. But in optimal conditions, a starter culture can continue to grow and be shared for generations.
Maya Hey is a Vanier scholar and PhD candidate in Communication Studies at Concordia University. Her doctoral research examines fermentation and feminist theory, particularly attending to the themes of embodied knowledge, material practice, and interspecies thriving.