A Fresh Start, an Essay by Ellen Airgood

I really do it as much for the company of the sourdough starter—a very low maintenance pet—tending it and turning it into something…

I stare out my window at drizzling sleet. The world appears in monochrome: sky and snow-covered ground seep into each other, oaks and maples sketch lines that convey no message. I have a faint headache and the youngish day feels interminable, like the last 20 miles of a long journey.

A chickadee arrives at the suet and I lean forward, willing myself to be interested, but the faint tck-tck of its beak on the frozen fat is overfamiliar. It soon flits away and my shoulders slump. I’m bored and boring, as dull as a bargain-bin knife.

“How wonderful!” people say when they hear where I live, on an inland lake near Superior. “So peaceful. It must be a great way to write—inspirational.”

“Mmmm,” I tend to say. “Yes. It is. Or, it can be.”

Today it’s just lonesome and dreary. My husband is gone for a long visit to his mother downstate and the dog has gone with him. Time and the wet air weigh heavy, and every task I can think of seems either pointless in its fussiness—picture frames to dust and drawers to organize—or too difficult to tackle. Writing is beyond me.

I turn away from the window, wander to the opposite side of the house, but there’s nothing to occupy me there either. I finally jam my boots on and shuffle down the drive to the mailbox, which is empty. I’d like to take a walk but the road—the whole world, probably—is covered in ice from the drizzle, like the spray ice that sinks ships. I trudge back up the drive. Back inside I open a book and soon close it with a sigh. I switch the television on and quickly off again. Hoist my knitting and then drop it. The blank feeling, that sinking ice, builds and builds.

At last I stalk to the kitchen and stare into the fridge. There’s a half gallon of milk and a pound of butter. Two dozen eggs and a pan of vegetable soup that’s irritating in its bland healthfulness. A bottle of ketchup, annoyingly numerous jars of hot sauces and mustards, and a tub of yogurt. I shut the door. Then at a spark of memory, open it again.

There in the back is the sourdough starter I began late in the fall. I coax it to the front, sling it onto the counter like a lifebuoy cast from one of those ships sunk by spray ice. The contents look cold and dead but maybe not. Maybe the creatures that live in this blob—wild yeasts and friendly bacteria I lured out of the cabin’s air back in October with a trap made of flour and water—are only hibernating, like a turtle gone slow in winter mud.

I lean down and sniff. The blob smells of bread and apples and—wine?—a little. I carry the jar close to the wood stove and build it a cushion to perch on, hoping its inhabitant will soon sit up and take nourishment. I bustle back to the kitchen to rustle up some flour and warm water to tempt it with. I stir them in gently, then settle close by on the couch to keep watch.

The fire crackles red-orange behind the mica and the sleet pelting against the window seems now like a bracing challenge rather than a deadening curtain. I pick up my knitting. Hours swift past, winding in and out of the sourdough’s progress, which I check frequently, like loops of yarn.

I think I see a bubble late in the evening. By bedtime I’m sure. By morning there’s froth, and by the next morning there is so much to do. Leaven to mix, dough to knead and rise and knead again, “waste” to use up in brownies, pans to grease and dust with corn meal, ovens to heat, loaves to bake until golden brown and crusty, for indeed, the miracle I had hoped for in my vigil has come to pass. The inert dough has come to life, pulling me along with it.

Ellen Airgood writes from Grand Marais, where she owns West Bay Diner & Delicatessen with her husband. She is the author of South of Superior, The Education of Ivy Blake and Prairie Evers.