Eric Pallant’s Sourdough Culture, from Agate Publishing, releases Tue., Sept. 14, and explores the history of sourdough with an eye towards the experiences of women and the working class in the Middle East, Europe, and North America.
With chapters separated by historical and contemporary bread recipes, Pallant — a professor of environmental science and sustainability at Allegheny College in Meadville — digs into research from historians, archaeologists, and microbiologists and kneads together stories of survival, labor, greed, and connectivity, showing how sourdough brings us together both at the dinner table and on the microbial level.
“It's this interplay of my personal experience with doing research and finding out, for example, real professionals in archaeology, real professionals in history, and real professional bakers’ experiences are and then going back and seeing how that informed my personal experience in my kitchen,” Pallant says. “It's a discovery that I and anybody who makes sourdough bread, or eats sourdough bread, is part of a 6,000 year history of Western civilization. And that was just nice to discover I belong to.”
Pallant is also a two-time Fulbright Scholar and amateur baker. His fascination with sourdough, as well as his book, begin with the sourdough starter he received in 1988 from a colleague who claimed the starter has its roots in 1893 in Cripple Creek, Colorado, during the gold rush.
Sourdough starters are a stew of yeast and bacteria kept alive with regular meals of water and flour. They can be split and shared, allowing multiple people to care for different iterations of the same starter, as many did during the sourdough fad earlier in the pandemic. Maybe it’s a broader trend among sourdough bakers, or maybe it’s the tendency of academics to socialize with one another, but the people who once cared for the Cripple Creek starter are overwhelmingly academics going back to the 1970s.
Pallant rejects the great man approach to history and instead focuses on the people throughout time and place who grow and harvest grain, who grind it into flour and sweat through the night in front of blistering hot ovens, who have to care for and feed children and families. Religion, governance, and industry shape and are shaped by bread culture, and Pallant tracks the effects of monopolies on baking ovens and grain, industrialization and exclusionary patenting on working class people, and unaffordable sustenance on women who would go on to lead riots.
As Pallant reaches Cripple Creek moving forward and backwards in time, he dispels the myth of the self-reliant, individualist American farmer and miner. The book winds down with competing theories of sourdough microbiomes and a reflection on how sourdough brings us together, down to an increased percentage of yeast on the hands of sourdough bakers and the similarities between a baker’s sourdough culture and the microbiome on the baker’s hands.
“It’s like people with dogs who look like their dogs. And that's really what's going on here. It's like we have these pet sourdough starters. And we really are infected with them. And so that neither one of us can live without each other,” Pallant says. “The starter doesn't live unless we take care of it. And in some ways we don't live unless we get sourdough bread.”
Pallant deftly covers a wide breadth of time and place in Sourdough Culture, interweaving experts’ research with his own travels, research, and experiments — including an attempt to make bread entirely by hand, from planting and harvesting grain to kneading and baking the dough. While he slows down for tangents about the discourse on sourdough throughout history, including Sylvester Graham’s anti-masturbatory campaign and his related support of homemade sourdough, the pace of the book remains engaging and easy to follow.
For the uninitiated in the world of bread baking, it might be difficult to differentiate mentions of wild yeast found in sourdough starters and the single-strain yeasts that are mass produced and found in most commercial bread. Both, after all, are yeast, but Pallant consistently provides enough context to understand which he is talking about, and he makes it clear that the mass production of yeast is a recent and drastic turn away from how people have made bread through most of history.
Throughout, Pallant maintains a conversational tone, taking time to slow down and explain concepts, contexts, and processes that might not be immediately understood by readers. Dry humor pervades the book, from groan-inducing puns to witty asides to the inclusion of a chores list in a medieval bread recipe to stay true to the spirit of the era, making the book enjoyable not only for the knowledge it imparts but also for the occasional chuckles it induced.
Readers who would like to become part of the Cripple Creek sourdough starter tradition can purchase a dehydrated sample of the starter from Pallant’s website and be connected with people around the world baking with the same starter. To learn more about the book and author and to connect with other bread lovers, people can also attend the free, or pay-what-you-can, virtual book launch at White Whale Bookstore Tue., Sept. 14, at 7 p.m.
“One of the, I think, great fundamental joys in life is the simultaneous consumption of fresh bread, and sharing of refreshment,” Pallant says. “If you share a sourdough starter, you've also shared that ability to share love with other people.”