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Tracing the journeys of tiny tubs of flour, water, and hope.

By Margaret Eby
July 23, 2020
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A Sourdough Starter Grows In Brooklyn
Credit: Simone Noronha

When I set off from my Brooklyn apartment on a Saturday morning in mid-March with 19 pint containers of sourdough starter, New York City had been in lockdown for a week. I am, by nature, a restless person, unable to sit on the couch for more than 10 minutes without popping up to do some task from an unspooling list in my head: Check on my fruit inventory, simmer some beans, text my brother. With the onset of COVID-19, there was no clear way for me to be useful, Venmo donations and social distancing aside.

Read More: An Extremely Chill Beginner's Guide to Sourdough

However, I did have one resource that was suddenly of value thanks to a growing commercial yeast shortage: a bubbly, active sourdough starter named Enya. In the Before Times, offering sourdough starter to anyone was like hawking Great Dane puppies—cute, but my God, who has the energy? As quarantine set in and New Yorkers started to see the outline of how much time we’d be spending at home, I offered starters via Instagram story to anyone within a couple miles of my house. I got over a dozen replies in 24 hours, with more trickling in from friends of friends or sourdough-curious neighbors as the week went on. So I fed Enya a huge helping of flour and water, split up the discard, wiped the containers with Lysol, and started walking.

If you trace the 11-mile route I took to drop starter at doorsteps and on street corners (while also offering tips on baking and miming hugs from six feet away), it would be full of switchbacks and odd loop-de-loops. Sourdough starter isn’t a particularly impressive gift—no matter how you gussy it up, it’s still a tub of beige goo. When you give someone a starter, what you’re really giving them is potential. Like the world’s gentlest pyramid scheme, sourdough starter is basically infinite, as long as you have flour and water to feed it. It will keep for years, potentially decades, tucked in the back of your fridge, a promise of future nourishment, given the addition of effort and wheat. 

As the pandemic raged on, the starters I gave out were fed, split, and given out again. Over the following weeks, the dividends began to pile in: photos of freshly made boules, awkward first attempts at sandwich loaves, crackers, and English muffins. I saved them in my phone in a file marked “GOOD BREAD THINGS.” Each one was, and still is, a little sliver of hope.