If you asked me three months ago, in a pre-quarantine life, what my coping strategies would look like come the quasi-apocalypse, I would have lied so hard. “If this is really and truly it,” I joked in the blessed early days, “I’m shaving my head, getting approximately one million stick-and-poke tattoos, and riding a motorcycle into the dying light of the anthropocene in a blaze of glory.”
What a whopper.
Here’s what actually happened: my city went on lockdown, and I started flossing my teeth every day and Googling sourdough starter tutorials. It turns out I wasn’t about to go down blazing at all. I was going down with stellar gum health and full of carbs. And the worst part is, I couldn’t even leave it at that; I then had to go and get sappy about it.
For those of you who haven’t been on Instagram in a solid eight weeks and have therefore been spared from knowing what sourdough starter is all about, it’s essentially a way of leavening homemade bread and baked goods without store-bought yeast. In these dire times, with the whole world seemingly pivoting to baking as a way to relieve their pandemic anxiety, it’s sort of become the thing to do. For an actual explanation of the process of making sourdough, I highly recommend this incredible Twitter thread or literally any content Claire Saffitz has ever produced on the topic because admittedly, this essay is extremely light on the actual mechanics of bread-making.
And for those of you who don’t know what attachment theory is, (I hate to be the one to have to ruin your life, but) it’s a framework for unpacking how we form intimate bonds and struggle — or don’t! — to rely on the people we are in relationship with. It’s caught on in a lot of queer spaces, largely I think because we tend to be great at overthinking things, but also because for so much of history our very survival has depended on a radical reshaping of kinship and familial bonds in the face of a not insignificant amount of personal and systemic trauma.
So here, without further ado, is a short list of lessons that working with sourdough has taught me about intimacy, care, and attachment in the eye of the proverbial COVID-19 shitstorm.
1. Care is inherently collaborative.
I’m not going to mince words here: procuring and tending to a sourdough starter is fucked up. See, starters are basically just a little tub of flour and water you leave out on your countertop indefinitely until it eventually gets colonized by all the yeast and microbes hanging out in your kitchen. These wild yeasts and microbes eat the flour (I’m not a scientist) and excrete enough gas to make the mixture rise, so you can then use it to leaven bread. Because the yeasts and microbes take a while to move in, starters are tricky to make from scratch and you always want to save a little from each baking project to keep those yeasts alive and vibing. But the wildest thing about them is — you have to feed them?! Like every day. To quote a recent Maclean’s article, “What is a sourdough starter if not a small squishy god that lives in your kitchen and provides food in return for sacrifices of flour and water?”
And it’s an extremely reciprocal relationship. Everyone on earth has tiny universes of bacteria that live on their skin. According to a study discussed in the sourdough episode of Gastropod, the bacteria on the hands of sourdough bakers was nearly 50 percent lactobacillus, one of the main bacterias found in sourdough starter. On the hands of someone who doesn’t make sourdough, the same bacteria is roughly two to four percent. So not only is your starter highly responsive to your kitchen space, the microbes in the air, and the weather on any given day, but if you work with it often enough it also becomes a part of your literal actual skin.
If there’s one thing I think COVID-19 has impressed upon all of us, it’s our interconnectivity. Turns out, all of those mundane everyday points of human contact actually made us feel… human? In 2012’s Attached, authors Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller are quick to reassure readers that our need for connection is innate: people need people. “Attachment principles teach us that most people are only as needy as their unmet needs,” Levine and Heller write, casually dropping the best quote of the whole book a cool 20 pages in. “The more effectively dependent people are on one another, the more sourdough porn we can all start posting to Instagram.”*
2. Your love language is allowed to be weird as hell.
The issue, when you start experimenting with sourdough, is that you’re rarely great at it right away. And this means you inevitably end up with a lot of bread. Too much bread for your three roommates and certainly too much bread for you. And so you start texting nearby friends vaguely threatening messages like: Double batch this week. I had to try out the new flour. I’m picking up a Bulk Barn order tomorrow at noon and could swing by yours first. (No question mark. There are never any question marks. Only bread.)
The basic premise of attachment theory, as laid out by Levine and Heller, is that there are three primary ways we respond to building intimacy in relationships: anxious, avoidant, and secure. (You can take any number of internet quizzes to help you discover where you land, but as queer writers like Clementine Morrigan have pointed out, most resources on attachment theory are based off of a fairly narrow understanding of relationships that presumes heterosexuality and monogamy.) There’s not necessarily a wrong way to experience attachment, just incompatible ways. So, for instance, someone who is anxiously attached and therefore mildly (extremely) preoccupied with whether or not people they are in relationship with reciprocate their feelings is going to experience dating or befriending someone with an avoidant attachment style as their own personal version of hell — and vice versa. I’ve historically tended to fall into the anxiously attached camp, and so have spent the last few years surrounding myself with humans who understand and reciprocate my need for flurries of astrology memes, unholy levels of emoji usage, and the frequent, pointblank declarations of adoration that are how I tend to love.
Unfortunately, a lot of those tactics feel laughably inferior in the face of a global health crisis. I spent the first few weeks of quarantine floundering for a way to care for my pals that would be practical but also feel loud enough for the scale of what our lives had become. And I somehow settled on bread. It’s one less thing to carry home from the grocery store or have delivered. It’s versatile. It’s extremely full of carbs. And it turns out those same microbial farts that produce a leavening effect are super great for your gut health, so a solid win for everyone who experiences their apocalyptic ennui as digestive troubles.
There’s a heart-breaking line in a recent New Yorker article about queer baking traditions that states, “There’s something to be said about the role of queer bakers: we often end up providing comfort to those who may not have given it to us.” The impulse to feed people we love is one that’s hopelessly entangled with our own relationships to food, our family histories, and (you saw this one coming a mile away) our messy experiences of attachment and love. Something about a still-warm loaf of bread cuts through a lot of the fog and confusion of quarantine, all of the ways we are trying and failing at loving each other enough right now, to say in the simplest way possible: let me care.
It turns out the real apocalypse was the friends we fed along the way.
3. It’s okay to be needy.
Say what you want about sourdough, it’s pretty damn unapologetic about being the most time-consuming, inefficient, and cult-like way of making bread in the year 2020. Once I got into a solid rhythm of feeding my starter and baking off loaves every few days, I tried to adjust the ratio of flour and water I was “feeding” her so I only had to do a single morning feed, with absolutely zero luck. Short of sticking her in the fridge for half the day, my starter wants a prompt top up every twelve hours and if she doesn’t get one she will deflate and sulk about it.
So she gets fed every twelve hours.
On a 2018 episode of the Secret Feminist Agenda podcast, host Hannah McGregor and Emily Hoven, who is quite literally writing her PhD dissertation on sourdough (!), discuss the decidedly anti-capitalist logics of the process:
EMILY: So now I’ve learned that you just have to kind of hang out and really attend to it. And just know that it’s going to be different every day and you just have to be okay with that.
HANNAH: Which is all horrifying. It’s so horrifying, that unpredictability, right? That like, that willingness to sort of embrace something. So we were talking sort of before we started recording about the fundamental predictability of like, Robin Hood brand all purpose flour and Fleischmann’s Quick Rise Yeast. And like, when I have made things with yeast in the past, that is what I have made. And they are because they are industrially produced to have a particular, a deeply predictable reaction time. They fall within these logics, these logics that — I mean, at risk of being a bit of a broken record — they’re deeply capitalist logics of systematized predictability and industrialization and mass production that are all about, you know, things that need to be responsive on particular kinds of terms, right? If you’re going to mass produce a thing, it needs to be predictable and always work in the same way.
In Attached, Levin and Heller make the suggestion that having a pet is great practice for secure attachments, because we love them and assume they love us back no matter how unpredictably or irrationally they behave. Not only that, but actively reminding ourselves of such secure attachments are key to shifting an anxious or avoidant attachment style towards one that is more secure. “Perhaps one of the most intriguing findings in adult attachment research is that attachment styles are stable but plastic,” write Levine and Heller. “We can tap into our attitudes toward our sourdough starters as a secure resource within us — we don’t assume our starters are doing things purposefully to hurt us, we don’t hold grudges even whenever they blow the top off the yogurt container where they live for the third day in a fucking row, and we stick by them no matter what.”*
Sourdough doesn’t have to make sense or feel easy for us to love in order for us to love it. Having a real, wildly unpredictable human need for care and attention is, to quote McGregor, horrifying. Like, am I proud of the fact that I have been taking too long, too hot showers and openly weeping because it’s the closest I’ve gotten to being physically intimate with another human being in months? Absolutely not, pal! But here we are, doing the best we can and occasionally baking bread about it.
*Only loosely paraphrased.