Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Life in the Kitchen
distributed 4/5/02 - ©2002

There, in the back of the refrigerator --- that strange blob --- IT'S ALIVE!

No, not the blob of slowly dissolving lettuce. And not the fuzzy cheese, either. I'm talking about that plastic container with the off-white, soupy, bubbly stuff in it.

And I sure hope it is alive, because this is the weekend when I need to take it out, stir it, feed it, use some, and put the rest back to keep growing.

At least twice a month, I need to care for my little pot of sourdough starter, that glob of living yeast that enlivens homemade breads with its distinctive flavor. If it sits too long, it will die. I've been keeping it going since Christmas, and I hope to make those regular encounters with bread dough a long tradition.

Making bread is a wonderfully physical, sensuous and creative process. And the uniqueness taste and texture of those loaves certainly makes store-bought bread seem bland. Even with those attractive incentives, though, baking can be a low priority in a busy schedule. I appreciate the need to feed and tend my sourdough starter, because it ensures that I carve out the time for baking on a regular basis.

One of the other reasons that I enjoy making sourdough bread is the vivid reminder that it provides of how human life is entwined with the infinite variety of other life on Earth. The goop that I nurture in the refrigerator is so clearly alive that it forces me into an awareness of our dependence on living processes.

The dry yeast that sits in a jar is alive, too. And there is a different kind of wonder when I see it bubble into activity after a long dormancy. But dry yeast feels like more of a commodity to me. I buy it, use it, and get more when I run out. I don't get that ongoing relationship of keeping the leaven alive.

Yeast is amazing stuff. I found out this week that yeast is a kind of fungus. (I'm not sure I wanted to know that. And now you know it, too. Think mushrooms, instead of athlete's foot.)

When yeast gets going in a lump of bread dough, it releases enzymes that break down sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The CO2 bubbles that are generated are what cause the bread to rise. The alcohol evaporates during the baking process.

Other kinds of yeast perform similar tricks. Beer and wine are made through the fermenting activity of brewer's yeast that converts sugars into alcohol and gas.

Yeast is important in the Bible as both reality and image. Passover is the feast of unleavened bread, because the rush to leave Egypt didn't allow time for the slow rising of a yeast bread. And the Passover celebration each year calls for the discarding of all the old leaven. In 1 Corinthians, Paul uses the imagery of "a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough," and picks up, too, on the Passover theme of discarding the old: "let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth."

But how does that work? Until modern times, all yeast was sourdough. It didn't come in jars. If you throw out the leaven at Passover, where does the new yeast come from?

It turns out that yeast is all around us. Put out an uncovered bowl of bread dough, and the natural yeast that drifts with the breeze will settle and start to work. The inert lump of flour and water will come to life. It may take a while, but it will happen. And the same for a container of grape juice. It is not hard to make wine. The trick is to keep the juice from fermenting. (Now making good wine is tricky!)

The Biblical writers didn't know about the details of microscopic particles of yeasty fungus, and the wonders of enzymes. Those are scientific findings of the last 150 years. But people through the ages certainly have known of the inherent tendency to life and change that fills our world, that enlivens both dough and juice.

Bread and wine are central, recurring symbols of the Christian faith. They were the daily food of the common folk. They are the ceremonial foods of Passover and Sabbath. And both bread and wine come into being through the amazing functioning of yeast.

Put aside the modern understanding of chemical processes. Bread dough and grape juice are two things that do not spoil, but rather come to life on their own to be richer than their original ingredients.

Throw out all the old leaven. In a few days, bread dough will start to rise again, all by itself. And a saved piece of that leaven will provide a starter for other batches of dough.

The stuff bubbling in my fridge draws me back into the wonders of our life-giving world. It reminds me of the mysteries of the microscopic forces that fill the air. It teaches me of the ways that core pieces of our culture, and essential processes for our food and drink, are gifts of nature.

Rich sourdough bread, fresh from the oven. What a marvelous way to be reminded of our place in the complex web of life!


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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