Sourdough: A Novel

51lUUj3WwAL._AC_US218_    Robin Sloan’s Sourdough had me craving for bread as I read the adventurous tale of a young computer geek turned baker.

Although the dough itself is the main character in the novel, Lois Clary expedites its coming of age.  The dough grows from a lump in a crock owned by two undocumented cooks with a take-out business who leave town quickly, to a starring role in a futuristic farmer’s market of experimental foods.  Along the way, Computer Lois finds her calling and is able to use her expertise programming industrial robot arms to streamline the process of baking loaves of bread.

Most of the story is tantalizingly fun, but some conflict is created by the challenge between eating for pleasure and feeding the masses.  It’s Alice Waters vs the scientists, home-grown tomatoes vs nutritious Slurry.  The ending gets a little wild – as yeasty dough can get if left unattended, as Sloan tries to accommodate old world with new age in a strange marriage of breadcrumbs.

This is a book for all the senses: the yeasty smell of the starter dough percolating in its crock; the sounds of the background music motivating the sourdough starter as it whistles and pops through the night; the taste of soft bread in a crispy crust smothered in butter with a sprinkling of salt; the sight of the strange markings on the baked crust, possibly channeling the Madonna on a potato chip; and, finally the squeeze of the dough kneaded into the final heft of a crusty loaf.  You will need some good bread nearby to eat as you read, preferably one with character.

My favorite scene was Lois teaching the robot arm to crack an egg.  Cracking an egg, one-handed, is no easy feat.  Julia Child made it look simple, but have you ever tried it?  One of my favorite elements of satire is the idea of losing weight eating only bread (Oprah, take note – no bad carbs here).  The story spoofs the modern and the conventional – a Lois Club for women named Lois, the nutritive gel replacing real food, the strangely isolating workplace environment, the identify of the mysterious benefactor.

Sourdough, like the bread, has more heft than first appears.  Sloan has filled it with mysterious and satisfying ingredients; let your senses fill up while you read and enjoy.  I plan to bake some bread today.

Related:

A friend was listening to the book on Audible while I was reading it on my iPhone.  When she described how the author incorporated the sounds of the starter dough as it morphed as well as the baker’s music into the reading of the book, it made me want to listen to it.  We also started sharing bread recipes.  I’ve included one of my favorites – here.

Advertisements

A Welcoming Life – The M.F.K. Fisher Scrapbook

Before reading Ashley Warlick’s new biographical novel of M.F.K. Fisher in The Arrangement, I needed to know more about Fisher – more than a quick google search.  51c96z1df6l-_sx258_bo1204203200_  Dominique Gioia’s combination of prose and pictures in A Welcoming Life: The M.F.K. Fisher Scrapbook provided an easy entree to the author’s complicated life and prolific work.

Composed as though it were a family album, the one hundred ten pages offer captioned photographs of Fisher, marking her life from a young beauty to the old woman who died in her “Last House” in California.  Gioia inserts pages of prose, transitioning Fisher from young girl to bride and mother, to author and finally grande dame among the elite of food writers.

It’s impossible to think of Fisher without associating her with France, and Gioia dedicates a number of pages to Fisher’s epiphany when she moved from the United States to Dijon, France as a young bride with her first husband, Al, and in Aix-en-Provence where she relocated with her two daughters. Later she was a guest at the Provence home of Julia Child.

Although not as comprehensive as Joan Reardon’s biography of M.F.K. Fisher – Poet of the Appetites: The Lives and Loves of M.F.K. Fisher, the Fisher Scrapbook condenses Fisher’s complicated life into a quick overview, leaving the reader wanting more.  Laura Shapiro in reviewing Reardon’s biography for the New York Times called  Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher “a lifelong series of contradictions.”

To capture a moment in Fisher’s life in The Arrangement, Warlick admittedly read all she could find about the author.  Pictures in The Scrapbook document Mary Frances’s life with Al and her love affair with Dillwyn Parrish (Tim) – the focus of Warlick’s The Arrangement.

Discovering more about Fisher can be contagious and satisfying.  I found Fisher’s The Art of Eating in an electronic version from my local library, and delightedly scanned through pages of many of the books mentioned in The ScrapbookAn Alphabet for Gourmets (A is for dining Alone; G is for Gluttony…), Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Wolf, and of course her 1943 memoir, The Gastronomical Me:

“People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking?..They ask it accusingly…The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry…It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.  So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it…”

I have Reardon’s Celebrating the Pleasure of the Table yet to read, with her combination of Mary Frances, Julia Child, and Alice Waters waiting for me in France.  And Gioia’s The Measure of Her Powers: An M.F.K. Fisher Reader is on my stack of books; Ruth Reichl’s introduction promises to be entertaining and Gioia has included many of Fisher’s journal articles published between books.

Fisher’s first novel – The Theoretical Foot written in 1939 – was recently discovered and published.  In his comparison of Fisher’s novel to Warlick’s recent novel The Arrangement, Corby Kummer in the New York Times  called The Arrangement, “a proficient, earnest and livelier book than Fisher’s.”  I may have to place my exploration of M.F.K. Fisher’s real life on hold and divert back to historical fiction in Warlick’s novel.

But first, I plan to follow Fisher’s advice and bake some bread…images-1

“…there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation…that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread…” from The Art of Eating