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  • Nathan Riley, MD

Senseless Acts of Sourdough



I recently took up bread. When I embarked on this endeavor, an experienced baker friend said, "wow...sourdough...well...sourdough is tricky". Another friend, a natural whiz in the kitchen, echoed his caution, especially after I killed the first three starters that she donated to my new ambition.


But I was determined. Sourdough may be tricky, but it's not impossible, and after several frustrating failures, I got it right.


Why is sourdough so tricky?


It requires multiple, perfectly executed steps beginning with your starter. The starter is an active culture of yeast and bacteria, which feeds off of the sugar in flour. You keep your starter in the cold so that it doesn't gobble up the flour that you feed it too quickly. If you go too long without feeding it, the culture dies. If you keep it at the wrong temperature, the culture dies. This is a daily struggle.


When you're ready to bake, you take some of the starter and add different types of flours in equal proportions and blend in some warm water. Several hours of fermentation later at 78 degree Fahrenheit, and you mix in a bunch of salt and the bulk of remaining flour and some more 90-95 degree Fahrenheit water. This blend is allowed to mingle for several more hours, with folding of the dough at strategic intervals to trap gas bubbles. This is what makes the bread bubbly and delicious. Once it's ready, the loaves are folded some more, then shaped and allowed to proof for up to 16 hrs. On bake day, the loaves are scored and baked for about 40 minutes.


All together, baking bread requires time and patience. It requires active participation from the baker, with attention to every detail...lest you forget exactly how many grams of stone ground whole wheat flour or the precise temperature for the water.


Sure, you can miss a few details here and there, and you'll still be baking bread, but this usually isn't sufficient for bakers. The problem is that, as you refine the recipe, you set the bar higher for future loaves. You become proud of the soft, fluffy interior encased within the perfectly crunchy exterior.


The salty, yeasty tang of sourdough brings people together. Don't believe me? Try whipping out freshly baked bread accompanied by a rich, freshly pressed olive oil at your dinner party...magic awaits.


For the baker, watching a hoard of hungry hippos devour your creation is compliment enough. To gift bread is to feed a person. To gift bread is to show a person how truly important they are to you. It's better than a text message and certainly far better than liking their Instagram post. It tells a person that they were worth an otherwise senseless act of kindness.


I was the recipient of a senseless act of kindness recently. My wife and I went to Home Depot to pick up supplies to patch a hole in our bathroom drywall. We approach one of their helpful associates who proceeded with a twenty minute tutorial on the repair, opening supplies, cautioning us on beginner mistakes. I wish I could say that his tutorial made it a breeze, but I still screwed it up. However, the time he spent with us was unnecessary and senseless. It was also extraordinarily kind.


We need more senseless acts of kindness in our world, in feeding the masses, in home repair needs, and particularly in medicine.


Senseless acts of kindness in medicine are free.


Holding your patient's hand. Sitting on their bed while they tell you about their pain. Writing out in very simple terms all of their medication changes. Bringing a piece of cake for the lonely old lady who was forced to spend her birthday alone in an uncomfortable hospital bed.


These are the ingredients of compassionate human care that are missing in modern medicine, yet they come free of charge. It requires an initial investment of your time, but eventually measuring out the correct amount of this or that becomes second nature, and the crunchy, delicious goodness of personhood will bubble to the surface.

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