Photo: Dana Hutchinson (Wikimedia Commons)

The "sourdough bro" and Marx: lockdown lessons in trying and failing to make bread

If we didn't have to work, what would we do? For many of us—as the pandemic has revealed—it's cooking
May 7, 2020

Cooking has taken two different paths since the pandemic began, depending on how much free time each of us has. The first group favour speed and efficiency: those working at home but with a hungry child to look after, those who don’t have access to certain ingredients, those who are caring for others in the community. The second group only have time, seemingly endless time; their attention has turned to those long-term projects put on the backburner because there weren’t enough hours in the day.

So let’s talk about the type of man—and it is, almost exclusively, men—who have decided to make sourdough. He’s always thought this bread lark is easier than everyone thinks it is, and now is finally the time to consult that thick Tartine tome and start brushing up on hydration and gluten formation. He’s sourced a starter that can trace its lineage back to 19th-century Naples. He has started to call it “Diane.” He calls his finished loaf his “son.” He’s baked five loaves so far and each one has been completely inedible.

The “sourdough bro” has been much maligned, but let me be clear. All of this—the novices making sourdough, preserving their own fruits, fermenting vegetables, shaping gnocchi, annoying their partners while they make a mess and muck up and start from scratch—is an unqualified good. The “sourdough bro” is answering something that each one of us who is now stuck at home has to look deep within ourselves to answer. If we didn’t have to work, if we had the leisure time unafforded to us by the daily machinations of capitalism, what would we do? For many of us, that is cooking.

Over a century ago, Marx already had some pertinent words on the subject. He compartmentalised time into two categories: the realm of necessity (labour) and the realm of freedom (leisure, self-care, self-betterment), and theorised how the two feed into each other; how by having more leisure time our work would also be transformed. Never has the “realm of necessity” contracted so dramatically for so many—for a vast swath of the population it is now feeding themselves and avoiding the virus. The “realm of freedom,” meanwhile, is very much constricted to what it is possible to do at home, and for many of us, more specifically, to the manual: a chance to try a spot of DIY, illustrating and embroidering, learning an instrument, baking, kneading pasta dough, chopping, stuffing, peeling.

Cooking, while undoubtedly enjoyable, is very much a form of manual labour, rooted in servitude and the drudgery of the domestic. Many of us will discover the effort that goes into the meals that we’ve unthinkingly consumed at restaurants: the unseen, endless preparation and repetition that occurs beforehand, from the commis chefs, to the dishwashers and kitchen porters. Even before that, we are finding out the value of each component of the food chain: the manual labour of those who deliver our meals, who stack our produce, whose hands till the earth and grow our vegetables, those we fly in to pick them, who catch our fish and rear animals destined for our plates.

The sourdough bro is easy to mock as a middle-class affectation, but this is only because we’ve somehow conspired to codify the desire for good food as “middle class” when most of the professions involved in the food chain—bakers, butchers, farmers, even chefs—were traditionally and mainly still are working class.

By mocking even the simple act of baking as some kind of yeast-based class warfare, it only contributes to a tiered food system where one group has access to quality ingredients and the tools to use them, and pushes another into reliance on mass produced food and ready meals, policing who should and should not have access to pleasure.

Trying and failing to make sourdough not only empowers us with knowledge, putting our health and pleasure into our own hands, it blurs that line between the realms of necessity and freedom. The joy and meaning that people can take from making their own food, and more crucially, the time to fail at it, is a luxury gifted to us by the pandemic. Should that not be accessible to everyone, even after this?

As your boyfriend sends a proud picture of his sixth sourdough attempt to the group chat and attends to Diane, you think yes, it probably should.