Two friends recently gave us sourdough starter at the same time and, not knowing what we were doing, we accepted both. One came with a name: Bobby. One came nameless. We soon took to thinking of our starters as “hers” and “hers.”
Sourdough starter is weird because it’s alive. I took my jar out of the refrigerator this weekend, and it was pulsating like some zombie brain in a lab. Apparently, this is because bacteria eat the sugars in the flour and turn them into acids; yeasts that like an acidic environment eat the sugars and give off carbon dioxide. And get this: some of the bacteria come from the person raising the starter. Scientists have compared bakers with their starter and found they have many microbes in common.
Arline is experimenting with making bread from sturdy grains, like spelt. She is also retiring. After using her hands for several decades to grade exams and record homework assignments, she’s now using them to knead. It’s a different kind of nourishment, just as essential.
I made pancakes with my zombie starter. Buttermilk, sourdough, blueberry pancakes. With barrel-aged maple syrup from the Woodinville Whiskey Company. They were as good as they sound. After breakfast, I left a plateful in the kitchen to cool before freezing, but one by one they disappeared. Not saying how many I ate.
When I was a child, my maternal grandmother made sourdough pancakes at our family cabin in eastern Washington. Now that I know her microbes were in that starter, I’m even sadder that I didn’t inherit any. Rob Dunn, a Professor of Applied Ecology who was one of the authors of the bread/baker study, said, “There was an essence of the baker in the starter the baker made, and that was conveyed in the bread.” My grandmother’s essence was nothing less than unconditional love. I swallowed it with her pancakes, her chocolate cake, her jams and jellies. She loved me through adolescent storms and adult choices she didn’t understand. A body knows when it’s loved.
Arline has loved teaching. I know because she has spent hours preparing for class, meeting with struggling students, delighting when students thrive. She develops relationships with students so strong that she can, when they’re not stepping up, gently call them out and call them back in — and then, usually, they step up. She creates classroom environments in which students of all kinds support and learn from each other: heritage speakers, first-time Spanish learners; young students, returning students; high school students, professionals; neurodivergent and neurotypical students; home-schooled and public-schooled and private-schooled students. I have heard stories about them all, and the common thread is that she cares deeply for their learning.
Now Arline is retiring and turning her attention to other pursuits. She wants to travel. She may learn to play guitar or speak French. She is baking. Last night she brought me a slice of warm spelt bread, melting butter.
As her starter bubbles on the counter — will you give it a name, Arline? — I honor her years of commitment to education. Her knowledge of pedagogy, her skill in the classroom, her passion for language and learning. She has made an incredible difference in many lives. And, like the essence of her in every bite of bread, some of her has gone out into the world with her students. They are out there living their lives, different people for having studied with her. And, in some way, stronger. Because students know when they are loved.