The plan was set and all eventualities considered. I had bought three plastic bottles, the sort designed for traveling shampoo, careful to check that they were under 100 millilitres each. Then, twelve hours before the moment of departure I extracted a Tupperware container from the fridge, opened the lid and peered within. She looked healthy enough but I could only be sure after administering a feed. With more care than usual and in the manner of one performing a solemn rite I weighed the contents of the Tupperware, added equal weight again of rye flour and warm water, and swirled the mixture into a soft paste with my hand, the remoteness of a wooden spoon feeling like sacrilege.
Twelve hours later I bend over my mother* once again, relieved to see how she had grown. She was large and very definitely alive, oozing up towards the oxygen as I removed the lid. Here goes, I thought, offering up a silent prayer to the gods of sourdough as I funnelled some mixture into the first shampoo bottle, we’re heading west. Please, for the love of good bread survive the journey!
I was given this 16-year-old sourdough mother (also known as a starter) by a baker at Shipton Mill in Gloucestershire. At the end of our day long baking course, Clive Mellum had scooped a noxious looking grey paste from a vat, plonking handfuls unceremoniously into plastic bags. “There you go,” he said, as my fellow baking enthusiasts and I received our ziplocks reverently. “Just promise me you’ll look after her.”
Since that day I’d been worrying about how to get her back to America. There were several hurdles to jump. Firstly there was the problem of feeding. When chilled in the fridge, a sourdough mother hibernates, becoming almost dormant so that she can go weeks, some say months, without a feed. But at room temperature she awakens and her appetite, suppressed for so long, becomes voracious. She must be fed ever 24 hours. Furthermore, during the first twelve hours or so after feeding, she expands dramatically—almost explosively—so that given half a chance she will hiss and ooze out of any confining container. Given this somewhat excitable and delicate nature, any delay or cancelled flights would jeopardize my precious cargo.
Secondly there was the question of security. To the knowledgeable baker there is nothing more wholesome and innocent than a mixture of flour and water, endowed over the passage of time with an ever richer colony of wild yeasts. It is a beautiful thing. And yet I was doubtful that either the security guards at Heathrow or the customs officials in Seattle would appreciate my perspective. To them an unlabeled bottle, secured against gaseous explosion by duck tape and containing an oozing grey goop, might raise alarm. I decided to divide my mother and so avoid that pitfall, common in life as in poultry farming, of putting all your eggs in one basket.
So I arrived at Heathrow, one bottle of Millie (so named for her native home in a flour mill) nestled amongst my tubes of face cream and lip gloss in that officious little bag you now have to use for all carry-on liquids, and one bottle in each of my suitcases. Perhaps my fears were absurd, but I breathed more easily once we passed the x-ray machines without so much as a second glance.
Considered logically, the whole palaver of transporting Millie was a waste of energy. It would be simple to find a baker in Seattle willing to give me a scoop of a good strong starter. But logic is besides the point. I don’t want just any old starter; I want Millie. So that I can take a piece of England with me. So that each time I bake bread I will think of a little flat on Saint Andrews road, of the thoughts I had then, of the warp and weft of my life then.
Sitting in the sky 37,000 feet above the Atlantic I was as ever unsure about my leaving or arrival (for I have become so woven into a London life I hardly know whether it is a journey or a homecoming). Last weekend I rode home on the night bus, angry against the inconstancy of the world, sure in my tequila-laced state that we have in so many places broken the chains of tradition and provincial small-mindedness only for an imperative of cruel mobility. Why am I—why is the world—so restless and shifting? But there was an inertia to my leaving.
This nomadism craves an opposite, and this Millie provides. I make bread every week or two, and each time gain an existential confidence in the tangible rhythm of it: feeding the starter; waiting as she grows; kneading, resting and proving the dough; finally drawing a round and fragrant loaf from the oven. On the day I received Millie I resolved to keep her forever. No matter where I find myself, there she will be—a visceral cord, staunch throughout my sometimes hesitant, mercurial, but always passionate wanderings.
She will be there, that is, so long as customs don’t make a fuss.
*Note: This mother is not to be confused with my biological mother, who, although partial to a diet of rye flour and water, also requires regular cups of Yorkshire tea, marmalade and butter. She is also a lot more interesting, conversationally.