Sloan uses food as the centerpiece of a tricky but intoxicating exchange about authenticity and ownership, and about taking and sharing: What, exactly, is culture? And how should society best appreciate it? It’s no coincidence that Beoreg refers to his sourdough starter in the biological sense: as culture, a collection of cells that must be cultivated to thrive. The starter has survived decades in the brothers’ caring hands—it’s used to make a sourdough bread that’s plated as a side dish to their spicy soup, a fiery broth that, seemingly magically, burns sickness and apathy from its eater. The starter’s survival now depends on a former standout computer-science student from the Midwest.
At a loss, Lois first turns to the places people usually run to these days when they have questions: the internet, and books. Initially, her attempts are well-meaning, but sloppy. After digesting a few cryptic lessons (“Sourdough bread begins with sourdough starter, which is not merely living but seething”), she dives into baking. But without the proper training (or oven, for that matter) Lois ends up with as much dough on the floor as she does in edible form.
Realizing that she needs a deeper understanding of both the starter and its history, Lois seeks a better guide. She asks Beoreg for advice via email, while sharing tales of her early experiences with the starter. In return, the chef tells her stories of where his people—the Mazg, a fictional colony of island dwellers, now living throughout Europe—originated, and how the sourdough starter came to be. But while Beoreg shares his thoughts generously, it’s Lois who must decide what lessons will get folded into her baking process.
Sloan illustrates, through the simple act of sending emails, how technology has accelerated the rate at which people can share personal histories and ideas and, by extension, culture. Boundaries are erased as even the most cherished memories turn into data on a computer (photo albums replaced by Instagram feeds, record collections replaced by Spotify subscriptions), making it possible for everything to be easily remixed and reshared on the internet—stripped of much of its context.
As Lois incorporates her research, and Beoreg’s advice, into her new hobby, questions creep into view about to whom, exactly, the starter now belongs. To Lois, it is both gift and burden, and she is invigorated by her growing knowledge and how much she still doesn’t know. “For me, the novice, the miracle was intact,” she thinks. “And I felt compelled by some force—new to me, thrillingly implacable—to share.”
Sourdough refrains from definitively answering those questions: When your cultural guide is a message board, what’s lost in translation? And how is that different from lessons you may glean from a cracked and faded restaurant menu from 1979 (mysteriously labeled, of course, “A Feast for the Unrequited”)? Beoreg, for his part, tries to teach Lois how to care for the starter, but she soon learns that even with the right tools—a scale, bench knife, bread blade, and baking stone—inexperience leads to a gloopy mess of dough when the mix is just a bit off.