The Fascinating Riddle of a Sourdough Starter

Robin Sloan’s second novel about a baker’s secret weapon makes the case for culture as a kind of humane technology.

A woman kneads bread

“At General Dexterity, I was contributing to an effort to make repetitive labor obsolete,” laments Lois Clary, a software engineer at a San Francisco–based robotics company. At home, she recovers from the job with the help of calls to her parents in Michigan, who exist “locked in the frame of a video chat window,” and with meals of spicy soup and sourdough bread. She orders those from an odd, unlicensed Clement Street restaurant whose immigrant proprietors, the baker Beoreg and his brother Chaiman, lovingly call her their “number one eater.”

Lois’s relationship with this particular food establishment sets off a chain reaction in Sourdough, Robin Sloan’s follow-up to his best-selling debut Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and one of the more cogent novels this year on the fertile tensions that exist between culture and technology. When the brothers are forced to leave the country due to expiring visas, Beoreg asks Lois to take care of his sourdough starter—to feed it and nurture it. She intends to honor his wish, but has no idea how; her subsequent forays underscore the fact that in the world of Sourdough, the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, or technology, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, applies equally to baking as to computers.

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.

Sourdough is similarly open-ended and insightful about culture’s fraught relationship with technology. The novel refutes the idea that technology is about machines replacing living beings, and culture merely a product to be reproduced at scale. Rather, Lois begins to see her sourdough starter and its fickle biomes as a kind of technology, which in turn unlocks a new mode of thinking: What once was a problem to be solved by the brute force of computers is now a more human equation with a missing value.

Lois, meanwhile, notices that at a company like General Dexterity, technology’s success is measured by the number of jobs it eliminates rather than by the community it cultivates. This, coincidentally, is the central theme of Sloan’s 2015 essay for The Atlantic, “Why I Quit Ordering From Uber-for-Food Start-Ups,” in which he decries “the Amazon move: absolute obfuscation of labor and logistics behind a friendly buy button.” That line could sum up the forces that hum in the background of Sourdough: Humans work around the clock to create machines that are smarter, sleeker, and more efficient, only to have that efficiency sold back to them as convenience. The displaced workforce is ignored as long as the product can be presented via a benevolent interface to the consumer.

Soon, the novel supposes, handmade food—like sourdough bread—will be crafted by artificial intelligence. Lois’s actions hint at this future: She tries to use a robotic arm to bake bread from a remixed version of the sourdough starter. She sells her bread at the Marrow Fair, a secret market for foodies interested in unorthodox cuisines and food-making techniques. No one there knows of Beoreg or the Mazg people. No one cares to ask—they’re busy being wowed by the slickness of the automation and the sweetness of the bread.

Lois’s other life—writing code for robotic arms intended to “remake the conditions of human labor,” as its CEO claimed—had her plugging away at the company’s goal to end repetitive work by transferring those tasks to robots through machine learning. As a baker, it’s not long before Lois registers that her new goal is the exact opposite: to solve the same problem constantly, if for no other reason than that the end product is always consumed. “Thus, the problem was ongoing,” she says. “Thus, the problem was perhaps the point.”

The code in this software engineer’s life is slowly replaced by people, books, and experiences, because she realizes that sometimes removing code is more powerful than adding it. The time spent with others—sharing stories and knowledge without any expectation of a return—is what actually develops her culture. What Sloan captures best in all this is the idea that when food unites people around a table, differences fade away. In part, the book suggests, that’s because there’s a value in food that comes from a visible effort not obscured by the convenience of a computer; it’s work that reveals a grander responsibility shared between giver and receiver.

If in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Sloan suggested that books hold the secrets and lessons of a culture, in Sourdough, he decides books serve as maps, while food carries the everlasting stories. “I have come to believe that food is history of the deepest kind. Everything we eat tells a tale of ingenuity and creation, domination and injustice—and does so more vividly than any other artifact,” proclaims Horace Portacio, the Marrow Fair’s riddle-slinging, delightfully self-serious librarian. With such pronouncements, Sourdough reveals Sloan’s shifting perspective on literature—narratives exist to be shared, consumed, replenished. “It’s just a story,” Beoreg writes matter-of-factly in one of his last emails to Lois, “There’s another one.”