A Wordloaf guest post by Anna Sulan Masing
I line up ingredients, vegetables, maybe a little cheese, a boiled egg or a little tin of tuna; all prepped and ready to cook or assemble. I then stand at the kitchen counter and just slowly eat my way through the lineup.
I am too tired to do anything else. I know that I must eat these things to nourish myself, to keep me alive. The next step just feels all too much.
Bread and rice are perfect vehicles for my favourite array of ingredients and produce. And my slow move back into cooking—when it happens—will involve me cooking rice and seeking out delicious bread.
During the pandemic I have developed an obsession over Bacillus cereus spores, which can grow into bacteria in cooked rice. It is illogical fear, as I have yet to meet someone who has suffered from this food poisoning, and my circle are avid rice eaters. It is to do with heating up leftover rice, don’t cook – cool – heat – cool – reheat. The fact that rice in my household barely lasts long enough to be heated once, let alone twice, is another reason I won’t have this issue. But, this idea of things growing on the rice, living and spawning to create havoc and death, is lodged in my mind.
At the height of this obsession I started making sourdough bread—a year after everyone else was doing it. My housemate at the time was (is!) a wonderful cook, a professional butcher, and home brewer. Curing, fermenting, brewing, preserving: enlivening. These were the things he is good at, and I was enthralled by that knowledge, it felt so different to anything I knew, when it came to food. He helped me through each step of the way. Carefully explaining why things might need to be done. Although not a bread expert, he understands the functions in a way I struggled to get my head around.
I watched in fascination as my starter grew
I watched in horror when it didn’t.
Moved it around the house.
And as seasons waxed and waned the corners for growth changed.
I sat beside the heater writing, with Mat’s bubbling beer and my starter or proofing bread, and breathed. It was like the air hummed around me. As I typed out articles things grew. The hairs of my arms moved with a sense of energy, and as I focused into my laptop screen I imagined at the edge of my vision, this fantastical world was growing in the room around me; where the wild things are.
It felt magical.
The idea of life, spawning, lost its danger.
I got into a pattern of feeding my starter, of feeding myself, of baking bread, of eating bread topped with wilted spinach, egg, smoked salmon, tomatoes, more eggs, lettuce, cheddar cheese, vegemite and butter, peanut butter, left over minced pork spiced with cumin, cold roast lamb and mayonnaise, fried egg and lightly pickled red onion.
I kneaded and rested and wrote.
I punctured my grief of the loss of my dad with flour. Flour all over me, my kitchen floor. It turns out I am a messy baker.
Life bubbled. Slowly and gently some days, and with vigour and purpose others.
This year I thought I had hibernated my starter when I went back to Malaysia. But on return I noticed it had gotten mouldy. To be honest I had been very neglectful, I only made a couple of loaves in 2022. My starter felt my lacklustre-ness. I settled into a new home, a place I had lived before and I was coming back to. I threw purposefulness into this space, pursuing new routines. It sensed my shift.
And in a fit of, “Well, I’ve failed at that,” I threw out the starter. I had remade myself as hard lines, of success and failure; there was no time for letting things softly grow.
But as I tipped the starter into the sink it bubbled. The top layer of mould slid off and below out tumbled a mass of aliveness. Transfixed I watched the thick liquid disappear down the drain, it pulsed. It was alive. What was I doing?
I imagined it making its way through the pipes. I had a ridiculous idea of this mass of starter traversing the waterways, gathering momentum and growing, a living being with agency rocketing through the sewage and finally encountering the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael defeating this unruly mass.
When did this daily companion become a figure of threat? Why was I so quick to rid myself of it?
And this thought developed into—What are we putting out into the world, are we responsible for the alive things? Should we work to shepherd them? I thought of the beer that was poured out in December 2020 when the government decided to ‘be open’ for Christmas, and then realised that was foolish, and so hospitality businesses ordered their festive stocks only to throw them out—beer is a live thing that couldn’t wait out that winter lockdown to be drunk. The brewers and the sellers were devastated by this loss, though the UK’s governing body paid scant attention. Heady consumption and frivolous waste. Are the TMNT battling creatures of starters and beer waste?
I can feel the lethargy starting to leave me. My limbs tingle, seek to stretch out into the world. I have tentatively started running again, pounding a rhythm and a routine back into my life. And the thought of folding, pressing, stretching dough with my hands beckons.
But I worry about the winter, and the price of energy meaning I’ll rarely turn the heating on. I will have to seek out the pockets of warmth around the flat, follow my cat as she basks in winter sunshine. A cat guardian, a bastion of cosy spots. Life seeking life, in the cooling days.
Anna Sulan Masing’s work consistently looks at identity, race and gender and looks to decolonise the cultural spaces we live in. In early 2014, she completed her doctorate, looking at how identity changes when space and location changes, using the lenses of dance, storytelling and food. Her career has spanned hospitality, the corporate world, media and the arts, but food has always been a huge part of her identity, and it continuously features in her writing, performance and research. Her podcast, Taste of Place, on black pepper and nostalgia, is part of the Whetstone Radio Collective.
Thank you for this thoughtful article. I am touched by how you "punctured your grief" by kneading your bread. I am a baker; but a very neglectful sourdough starter parent. I have recently lost my mother and am in a bad head space. I find comfort that you found comfort in bread making.
This was such a cool story! Thank you for sharing. The part with the TMNT after the starter went down the drain made me burst out laughing! Yes, I needed that this morning. I started my sourdough adventure in 2018 and haven't stopped since. Sir Bobby Farts-Alot is stronger than ever and helps me cope with life per se. Mom is still alive at 93 with dementia in Germany while I'm here in the US. Presently I have Covid (first time AND with all the boosters) but after going through the aches and pains I can't see myself making a trip anytime soon to see her and possibly bring her germs from the airport. Covid is nasty the first few days, getting easier with Paxlovid after--if you're healthy and lucky. And knowing what to expect helps too. But how would someone with dementia deal with that? Sir Bobby didn't have an answer either. He gets boosted once a week with freshly milled flour and a tad of milled Vienna grain from the homebrew store. ;) Next time your partner gets some grain, have him pick you up a lb of Munich or Vienna; mill it and use it as a snacky addition to your feeding flour and also as a dusting alternative. It makes a really tasty crust. Have you used the spent grain from the beer yet? I add up to 100g per sourdough loaf; turned into a beer smoothie with beer & water in my Vitamix and added to the flour. Solid. Healthy. High fiber. And totally yummy with cheese & homemade Sauerkraut. ;)