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January 30, 2023

Oort Cloud Oddities: Yeast

By Alexandra Queen

I am afraid. I live my life in terror, never knowing when the end will come. My kitchen has become the scene for a drama straight out of Lovecraft or Poe, and it is all because of yeast.

Yeast is no ingredient. It's alive. Sure, when you first get into baking, all you see are innocuous little packets of granules -- dry and gently slumbering "kitchen helpers". But once you delve into serious bread baking, you must begin to understand the true nature of the beast. I mean yeast. And by that, I am referring to yeast starter.

Starter is the animal alive and caged. Once you make a batch, you have to feed it, water it, take it out of the fridge and exercise it at least once a week. It eats. It grows. It knows what we're doing. And sometimes, it tries to strike back.

Wine-makers can trace strains of yeast, their quirks, their habits, all the way back to when and where the individual strain (though not yeast in general) first developed a relationship with Mankind. Yeast batches are like little civilizations. Some are agreeable to sacrificing a few million citizens occasionally so that their way of life might go on. Some of them aren't. Furthermore, I believe that just as the yeast passes down these agreements from one microbial generation to the next, they assume that we pass down the agreements in the same way.

I am a lousy cook, but I seemed to have inherited some goodwill from my grandmother, who was a famous maker of breads in her time. Unlike the generally revolting results of my kitchen efforts, my yeast breads used to come out spectacular fluffy, golden marvels. I could understand it if I had ever paid attention to her baking techniques, but at the word "kitchen", I have always run the other way. I don't think my success with breads had anything to do with talent -- I think it was part of a genetic treaty the yeast assumed I knew something about.

But then I tried making a new batch of yeast starter. That's when all diplomatic relations completely broke down.

Expecting a cheerful, busy colony filled with industrious workers and brave little volunteers, I was shocked at what I saw the first morning. Surly clots of organisms, muttering darkly under a thick but listless foam. Cold hostility and the feeling of billions of tiny eyes watching me as I moved through the kitchen. Even when I fed and watered it, the starter muttered darkly as it absorbed my offering. This batch of yeast was not okay with the bargain of food and care in exchange for an occasional tithe of its population. This was angry yeast. I began to fear that it would try to do something preemptive, and I was right. One morning when I looked in on it, I found that it had arranged an alliance with molds.

Panicked, I went to a friend who used to be a professional gourmet chef.

"It's turned against you," Lydia told me, the flare of a match illuminating her face as she lit a cigarette. "You've got to get rid of it."

"The whole colony?" I asked, appalled at the thought of the loss of an entire mini-civilization.

"Wake up, kid, they're brewing biological weapons. It's either you or them." She took a draw on the cigarette, a grim, far-off look in her eye. "I've been through this before. You recall the Friendship Breads of the 70's and 80's?"

"Excuse me?" I asked, bewildered.

"Of course not, you were just a kid. They called it 'Amish Friendship Bread'. People would give each other loaves of bread and little plastic baggies of the starter." She gave a derisive snort, haunting memories evident in her face. "Little plastic baggies of death was more like it." Her eyes bored holes in me as she returned to the present. "Kill the starter, Alex. End it now."

I waited until nightfall, when I thought it was sleeping. I kept the blinds drawn as I poured the entire batch down the garbage disposal. "No one will know," I told myself as I watched the angry microbes swirl away. "I'll start a new batch. Take better care of it. Everything will turn out okay."

I've only had the nerve to bake one batch of bread since that fateful evening.

It came out a sunken, lumpy mess.

They know.

Comments and yeast appeasement strategies to Alex.Queen@gmail.com.

This article first appeared in the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin.

Article © Alexandra Queen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-01-30
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