Personal Thoughts on Food, Community, My Mother, and My "Mother"

This week marked the International Women’s Day of 2017, an annual date recognizing and celebrating the contributions of women across the world. It is also an opportunity to call attention to the inequalities that women around the globe face every day. I had drafted up a whole lengthy post on the challenges women face, but after rereading it several times, I decided I wasn’t adding anything to the already-large body of work that’s been done by people much more attuned to the statistical data than I.

Instead, I want to talk a little more about women, food and community and about how important and empowering food can be and has been to me.

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I first started actively thinking about this topic a couple of years ago when I read this great New York Times article on the women working together in North Carolina to start a food movement there. The idea of a sisterhood in food really resonated with me because it’s a concept that the women in my family have really cultivated over the years. Food is always, always a part of those relationships for me in a healthy, loving way and so cooking for someone is one of the ways I know how to show love best.

This is my mom, Joan, also known as my mum because we are ethnically British and somehow this UK term has stuck (along with a great love of puns) despite the fact that that side of the family has been on North American soil for over 150 years.

Joan is awesome. Joan also started me in the kitchen young – She’d pull up a chair to the kitchen counter starting from the time I turned three and I would “help” her bake cookies or make dinner. This created extra work for her no doubt, but it made me feel comfortable in the kitchen from as early a time as I can remember. I cannot recall a time that I was ever afraid of using a knife or an oven thanks to Joan. (I also got my love of sugar cookies, chocolate and vegetables from her.) From a very young age, my mum made sure that homemade food was a source of joy and family and community.

I started cooking more in college and in the few years afterwards, where I’d make basic things for my roommates, friends, and Greg, getting slightly more experimental with flavors and techniques. Layer cakes and scallops, “Chinese” chicken salad, homemade chicken parm. Flavors I’d love since childhood, with perhaps something a bit more interesting added, where my go-to meals. Cooking, especially for and with friends, and was one of the things I most looked forward to on the weekends. Nevertheless, it was still a hobby and nothing more. I had “serious” work to do.

Then, about four years ago, I moved to New York City to be with Greg. I. hated. it. I had worked in solid policy roles – in DC and in MA – for five years but I was having trouble getting anyone to return my calls. One person met with me for two hours and promised me all kinds of work – and then did some professional version of “ghosting” on me (don’t think for a second I’ve forgotten his name.)  I was getting kind of desperate and depressed and we needed some money, so I applied for a job in the Specialty Department at Whole Foods. I showed up for the interview in a suit; everyone else was in jeans. After the interview—which was a lot about customer service, though not quite the kind I had been doing as a lobbyist—I went home and cried. And then I got the job. So I put on my new gray and brown uniform, complete with rubber anti-slip covers for my shoes, and I showed up. Here’s the visual for you because I have no pride.

And you know what? I liked it. I was good at it. And there was community there that I sorely lacked in NYC. And I wasn’t at a desk all day. It was great! Shortly thereafter I was promoted to Buyer, which I liked even more. And my confidence, which had taken a dive in my last job, started to pick up again working on something I loved with people I really liked. Despite the low “status” role I had taken, I enjoyed connecting people with food.

When we moved to North Carolina so Greg could go back to school, I knew that I had to stay in food and I ended up working for UNC, on a research program that working with community organizations to improve low income people’s access to fruits and vegetables. And while the work was more heavily focused on research, there was again a great community of dozens of (mostly) women, all devoting their careers – and a lot of personal effort –  to making better food for more readily available for everyone, regardless of race, income, socioeconomic status, or location.

Now that we’re back in Boston (permanently, yay!) I’ve once again found community in food. My writing gigs have introduced me to incredible women doing interesting projects in food across New England. I’m also doing more previously mentioned work for Milk Street, which has opened up a whole new range of flavors and techniques and has encouraged me to think about food in different ways. The community there—again, mostly women—is dedicated, interesting and incredibly enthusiastic about the role that food plays in community.

And so I’ve come back to the idea of food as a beacon of community and empowerment. My mother has been so integral to that idea for me that I wanted to give her her due in this weeks’ recipe. The logical thing to do, of course, would be to make one of her delicious recipes. Unfortunately for her, I decided to take the more pungent route and make a Mother Sourdough Starter.

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Sourdough starters (also known as mothers) are leavening alternatives to commercial yeast. Many people like Michael Pollan claim that sourdoughs are much better for your digestion and the absence of fermentation is possibly one reason more people have trouble processing gluten. They also produce unbelievable breads with a ton of flavor, so I’ve been itching for a while now to get one up and running so I can play with making good bread again.

There are loads of recipes for sourdough starters on the internet – a quick search gives you hundreds. (Here is a good one.) But they all seem to have two things in common:

  1. Flour
  2. Water

Yep, that’s it. You mix them together in a ratio of about 1:1 and let it sit in a warm-ish spot. As the natural yeasts on the flour and in the air start to “eat” the flour, you get fermentation. Every so often you throw out (or use) some of the starter, and then you feed the mix with more flour and water and grows some more. The more you feed it, the stronger it gets. Some people call for cabbage, juice, grapes, or apple peel to speed up the fermentation process, but I opted out of the fancy stuff and just stuck to 4 oz. of flour and 5 oz. of filtered Brita water (no chlorine.)

I opted for sorghum flour (as opposed to some other gluten free flour) for three reasons, although time will tell if these are good ones or not.

  1. Sorghum’s carb/fat/protein ratio is pretty similar to wheat flour.
  2. Sorghum has a nice nutty, earthy flavor that I like.
  3. Sorghum, unlike other gluten free flours, is cheap and therefore it is not terribly expensive to feed your little sludge.

So far the mixture looks (and smells) like it’s working. It’s got a very sour, yeasty scent and is starting to bubble a bit after 24 hours and one feeding. But, this is a work in progress – these take about a week to get to full strength—so I’ll be updating over the course of the next week or so. In the meantime, here are some pictures of the sludge to satiate your curiosity and tide you over until you can get out of work.

Have a happy weekend! Feed yourselves good food and do so in good company.

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