The Saturday after Thanksgiving found me seated at the dining room table, Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Bread Bible open before me. Little pieces of paper marked my place in about a half dozen pages. As I flipped back and forth between those pages, I scrawled numbers and math problems across a sheet of printer paper.
The week before, my best friend had visited from Iowa. She’s a theology professor with a keen interest in medicine, especially natural medicine. She relayed to me Michael Pollan’s theory that the reason we have so many gluten and flour sensitivities these days is because we no longer use wild yeast for fermenting our bread. Regardless of whether Pollan is right about the wheat sensitivities, his words about wild yeast struck a nerve in me. When it comes to food, I am all about diversity. I applaud those gardeners and farmers who grow heirloom fruit and vegetables. I rejoiced to learn of a man in Maine who is an apple hunter—as in, he hunts for heirloom apple varieties and saves them from extinction. As much as I can, I buy organic produce from local farmers who grow it from their own saved seeds. And yet, when it comes to yeast, I’ve been buying the little canister of commercial yeast for over a decade. I honestly had no idea what I was doing. If I’d thought about it at all, I would have thought yeast was yeast.
It’s not. Commercial yeast is a specific strain, derived from the brewing industry, that’s been bred primarily for long shelf life and uniformity of rising time. Wild yeast, on the other hand, is as diverse as the flour it lives upon and the air it rides upon. Seriously, a single gram of flour contains about 13,000 wild yeast cells and another 320 lactic bacteria (lactobacilli) cells! And every sourdough starter is unique simply because of where and when it was created—it literally tastes like the air around it from which many of its bacteria came.
When Susan told me about Pollan’s theory, my blind eyes were opened to a reality of which I’d never even conceived before. That is why Saturday morning found me scribbling numbers on a sheet of paper as I learned that I could replace the commercial yeast in my whole wheat bread with the wild strains growing in my sourdough starter. It just required some math. A whole lot of math, as it turns out. But when I believe in a thing, I’m willing to do the work. Even if the work is a page of arithmetic.
That week, I made my first two loaves of Cracked Wheat Bread using my sourdough starter instead of the canister of yeast in my refrigerator. I was pretty impressed with the result. It wasn’t perfect—a little dense and chewy—but hey, it was my first attempt, and it tasted good. So I made it again. And again.
As I keep experimenting with using my sourdough starter as leaven for my daily bread, I find a lot of humorous parallels with, or perhaps parables of, my spiritual life. This is hardly surprising, for the kingdom of heaven, you remember, is like a woman who pours a measure of leaven into the dough and kneads it in until the whole loaf is leavened. That woman wasn’t using commercial yeast. She was using the wild yeast that lived on the flour and in the air.
First, feeding my sourdough starter each week is essential for the health of the yeast. It has to have food to grow. As do I. From day to day—let alone hour to hour—I cannot see the growth of the yeast, any more than I can see the growth of my soul. But it’s pretty obvious when the starter hasn’t been fed (it starts to smell acrid), just as it’s pretty obvious when I haven’t been feeding my soul on silence and solitude and Scripture (I’ll spare you what that smells like!).
Furthermore, my sourdough is affected by the weather outside—last week, the cold, dry weather made my bread sourer than usual; apparently cool weather attracts the bacteria that make the bread sour. Had I known this, I could have helped my dough by using less starter or feeding it more flour or popping it into a warmish oven to thwart the bacteria. Similarly, the world around me affects me. I know this. I also know that whether it affects me a lot or a little largely depends on how well I’ve been taking care of myself, physically (adequate nutrition, sleep, and exercise), emotionally (time alone to read and create), and spiritually (communal and individual prayer and worship). These are the flour, water, and temperature that create the internal conditions in which I can continue to grow regardless of external circumstances.
Finally, sourdough is symbiotic; it exists in dynamic relationship. Really. Hang on for a moment, because I’m going to get a little technical. But trust me, it’ll be worth it.
Remember how I said that a single gram of flour contains about 13,000 wild yeast cells and another 320 lactobacilli cells? According to Rose Levy Beranbaum, those lactobacilli
convert…maltose, a complex sugar formed by the enzyme action on the starch in the flour, into a variety of acids, primarily lactic acid and acetic acid. Because all acids taste sour, these acids are largely responsible for the special flavor of sourdough bread. The wild yeast can coexist in perfect harmony with the lactobacilli because unlike commercial yeast, wild yeast can survive in this acid environment. Also unlike commercial yeast, wild yeast cannot metabolize maltose, so it consumes other sugars present in the flour and ignores the maltose vital to the life of the lactobacilli….[Furthermore] the lactobacilli…are also responsible for maintaining the health of a mature sourdough culture, by producing an antibiotic that protects it from contamination by other harmful bacteria.
All those little yeast cells and lactobacilli cells work together not only to leaven the bread but also to give it its unique flavor and to keep it safe from harmful influences. There are hundreds of thousands of yeast and lactobacilli cells in every loaf of bread I make, and every single one of them plays a role in making the dough rise, in flavoring it, in protecting it.
Does the parable jump out at you? Sourdough is inherently communal! Sourdough is a microcosm of both the individual and the church, which, “when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” And the individual and the church are in turn microcosms of our Triune God—the Three-in-One, the Unity-in-Community.
This God is a wild God, in the best and truest sense of the word. To be wild is to be true to one’s nature. And God is therefore the wildest Being of all, because He is always and everywhere true to His nature as a unified community of creative love. Our wild God, in whose image we were created, wants to set us free to be holy and happy, as He is. To grow as we were meant to grow. To leaven the loaf of this world. To become bread that He will break to feed a multitude.
But the ball is (to mix my metaphors horribly) in our court. Will we keep being monoculture yeast, stored safely in the refrigerator, able only to survive in highly regulated environments? Or will we step out into the drama of God’s wildness and become kingdom yeast riding the waves of the pneuma of God, alighting where He sends us, and leavening the place where we land with His love?