(Canada Day Eve)
After a month’s worth of conferences about food and land and society (a year of not traveling led to some overenthusiastic planning of meeting sessions), I am developing an appreciation for yeast.
Scholarly meetings give you many chances to think closely about mass-culture baked goods. Breakfasts, the one meal served at the CanadianAssociation for Food Studies meeting at Brock, had a lot of white bread, and bicycling around Sweden for the Relational Landscapes meeting (during a rail strike), I encountered many store-bakery versions of a cardamom bread I grew up making. And at the joint meetings of the Agriculture, Food, and Human ValuesSociety and the Association for the Study of Food and Society in Burlington, the Co-op had a fascinating spatial divide between extraordinarily artisanal breads and the plebian buns of the masses. (I allayed the anxieties of a bread-seeker agonizing over the ingredients of the hot dog buns I was looking for by pointing him toward the good bread section.)
All of these breads are enough to make one appreciate yeasts, and I made sure to feed my current resident starter as soon as I returned home. I am indebted to my Montreal colleague David Szanto for my current cultivation of this yeast community: it was the starter of his recently deceased dear friend Gigi, a starter for unpretentious and very flavorful bread. And it is promiscuously bubbling with my kitchen yeasts now, growing out in a warm metal bowl not long after midsummer, becoming part of the ecology of my home, and making me think about the disparity between the crucial function of yeasts and the prevalence with which we rely for functional metaphors on the extraordinarily available everyday functions that underpin bread and beer!
As I understand it from my insistent if gentle interrogation of my colleagues in the flour arts, although it is culturally allowable to widely mock Wonder Bread for its Modern replacement of Ecological Process with Technological Progress (yeastiness is added for flavor, not function, as the bread structure is wondrously machine-built), we have not built a particularly patient culture for yeastly function. My wonderful baking colleagues assure me that they recognize the superiority of wet-fermented breads (in which yeasts and flours develop fuller flavors in not entirely predictable relationships with humidity, heat, and weather) but cannot find adequate markets for them (an assertion I cannot believe, given how much more interesting they taste). But the less flavor-cultivating “double-acting” quick yeasts are the standards in almost all recipes I grew up with. As part of my ongoing experimentation to reverse engineer the recipes of my childhood to their pre-industrial versions, I have renovated most of these recipes into wet processes, and even when using commercial yeasts, I enjoy allowing them to co-exist with the feral ones.
As soon as I consider what it might take to develop yeast communities toward different qualities, I am struck by the need for an ethic of culture. With yogurt culture, I feel more like a herder: I can watch and feel as the bacterial community in my batches tends toward the gelatinous or the stringy, wait until things get just too Finnish and pull them back toward the palate of the Midwest. But with yeasts, I have always thought of them more like pets—a thought that feels illegitimate yet perhaps appropriate as I think about the qualities of inheriting, from a friend, a piece of a living community shared to become cyborg with different places’ airbornes. Am I stewarding a pet as I would a beloved but dependent animal? (What kind of class performance is staged by the yeast of someone from the gastronomic sciences? Beagle? Bird dog? Doodle? Laying fowl?) Or is this more of a collaboration, a wild symbiosis with my kitchen air, a potentially fraught if amicable relation of sustanance?
Maybe a collaboration with microbiota is too dauntingly complex and frighteningly unknown to make people want to build metaphors with it. Maybe there was a whole yeasty vocabulary sanitized by white purity. Maybe, with Canada Day looming tomorrow, and my longtime friend and neighbor Chef Melanie Dunkelman visiting from Toronto for some food and socializing, I may even be able to expand my beer appreciation to new social organizations of yeasts.
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