Bread, Not Baseball, Is America's Favorite Pastime

The kitchen took the place of the ballpark as an avenue of entertainment and comfort in the face of a pandemic.

Sourdough loaves on a cutting board
Photo: Courtesy of Sourdough Inn

Months of lockdown inspired a frenzy of baking in households, and the item of choice was the much maligned, carb villain — bread. As shortages evidenced themselves on grocery store shelves, bakers (novice and experienced alike) turned to something that only required some basic ingredients already in the pantry.

A simple starter, fed and grown, can be shared with neighbors, given names like Kat Kinsman's intrepid Bernard named after Bernard Clayton, and yield beautiful boules and batands of glorious bread. The sourdough craze took over Instagram and Twitter with #sourdough, live IG stories from Bryan Ford, and feeds filled with at-home bread-making. But if you think America's discovery of bread during the early days of stay-at-home orders was a novel breakthrough, you're a few centuries off.

Bread Has Been Around a Long Time

During the 1848 gold rush in California, miners — who were called "sourdoughs" — carried starters for easy bartering and sound nourishment. Many slept with them to keep the bitter cold from killing the precious slurries. This is why San Francisco is considered the cradle of sourdough, with shops like Boudin Bakery still baking it over 166 years later.

"In 1849, Isidore Boudin struck gold with four simple ingredients: flour, water, salt, and mother dough. Today, we still bake our sourdough fresh every day using the same mother dough cultivated from a gold miner's sourdough starter," the Boudin Bakery website states.

Bread is one of those foods we share a love for globally. It finds its roots in Ancient Egypt, according to wall paintings depicting baking leavened bread, and the oldest loaf was discovered in Switzerland dating 3500 BCE.

There is a communal aspect to sourdough bread that brought it back with force in 2020. Starters are often passed down generationally through families, or traded around circles of friends and colleagues. Every loaf starts with a piece of somebody else's story.

Like books, sourdough starters have their own library in Belgium, Puratos, where the collection of 125 mothers, fermented mixtures of flour and water used to provide rise and flavor, can be studied and read about by future generations. The library's curator, Dr. Karl De Smedt, travels the world collecting starter specimens, archiving and storing them, and tracing their roots. The sourdough, like the volumes on a library shelf, tell us the story of humanity from obvious migrations to blending of flours to cultural markers. One starter he collected contained the same wild yeast as one from Mexico and Switzerland with the only commonality being they were created by women.

Similar to the possibilities of DNA tracing websites like Ancestry, the library offers a "Quest for Sourdough" option where a baker can register their starter, a little about your background, and where you are located. As the site claims, "...you're literally putting your sourdough on the map," and exploring your connection to other cultures through bread.

Baseball, Like Bread, Has a Deep History

Often coined America's national pastime, Baseball also has a storied past. In the 18th century, games were played in different parts of the country, but it was not until September of 1845 that the game we know today was christened.

The New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club — the brainchild of volunteer firefighter and bank clerk Alexander Joy Cartwright — established a set of rules that are still at the heart of baseball today. In 1846, the Knickerbockers played a team of cricket players on a diamond-shaped infield, with foul lines and strikeout rules that still hold in baseball parks across America from little league to the majors. This game sparked a passion, and a practice of turning to baseball for entertainment, as well as solace during the nation's dark times.

"In World War II, more than 500 major leaguers — and 37 Hall of Famers — served in the armed forces... At the same time, though, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued what is now known as the "Green Light Letter" to encourage play to continue. He deemed the game a necessary morale booster during the difficult times," the National Baseball Hall of Fame website reads.

As a former softball mom, I have watched A League of Their Own more times than I can count. Lori Petty on the mound digging deep to hurl the last strike, crying and sweating with the teams staring fiercely, knowing in your gut the game is in the balance is a moment every pitcher experiences, including my daughter. The All-American Girls Professional League, created to compensate for major league players away at war, offered a vision of what women could do and inspired many young girls to pursue more than what society offered. Women played baseball with as much tenacity and passion as their male counterparts. It was an empowering time that added to our American story.

The Rise of Civil Rights and Sourdough

As commercially viable yeast became more available in the 20th century, the labor of creating and feeding a bread starter fell out of favor. Americans opted for the ease of a ready-bought yeast products rather than committing to the rigorous every three- to four-hour nourishing ritual required of traditional sourdoughs.

A fixture of the 1920s, white bread was symbolic of an America moving towards more industrialization and uniformity in food production. Fewer families were making artisan, home-baked bread. They began opting for inexpensive loaves that bore little resemblance in taste or structure to the loaves that nourished miners less than a decade earlier.

The 1960s brought humble bread baked at home back to the table. A time of turbulence in American history, the call for Civil Rights filled the streets and airwaves. Bread, like baseball, became a part of the national conversation.

"The counterculture movement 'took up white bread as an emblem of everything that was wrong with America. It was plastic, corporate, stale.' Eating handmade...bread became an edible act of rebellion, a way of challenging The Man," Aaron Bobrow-Strain told NPR.

Baseball was another avenue of challenging the status quo. Jackie Robinson and his rise in Major League Baseball were emblematic of the Civil Rights struggles to come. Robinson took the field in 1947 and brought down the accepted segregation of players based on race. He went on to be the first Black player to win the MVP award, the first inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the first baseball player of any color to have his likeness on a U.S. postage stamp.

Hank Aaron added to the groundbreaking work to integrate baseball in the late 1950s through the early 1970s. Aaron became symbolic of America's progress towards equal rights, on the field and off.

Baseball and Bread Heal a Country

As much as bread and baseball have served as symbols of protest, growth, and a changing nation, bread and baseball are also looked to for their comforting presence in times of sorrow. Seven weeks after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch of Game 3 of the World Series in New York City. It was a sign of the nation's strength and commitment to healing.

After the bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon, the Red Sox brought home a World Series win to show the city's power to persevere. Then, in 2017 as Hurricane Harvey ravaged Houston, the Astros won their first-ever World Series and united a city. Americans have showed through baseball, we could overcome.

2020 brought a new enemy to the country, COVID-19 disease. The virus swept through states, leaving a wake of job loss, economic insecurity, food scarcity, and death. Baseball was not the salve this time. Baseball, a game of fans tightly packed into stadiums, sharing hotdogs, and cheering on the home team with foam fingers, lost its ability to heal and comfort in the face of the pandemic. But bread stepped in.

"Every second I spend with my hands in dough means I'm not scrolling through Twitter seeking out bad news. Every molecule of my house that smells better because something is baking makes my life marginally better and reminds me of the life that exists beyond my walls," wrote Kat Kinsman for sister brand Food & Wine.

Yeast was an item in hot demand early on, as panicked shoppers cleared out grocery store shelves. But the beauty of sourdough, perhaps the reason it rose above, is because it does not require commercial yeast. All you need is a starter, a simple mixture of flour and water that combined with microbes from its environment, produces bacteria and yeast that aid in leavening. The slurry is a living organism to feed and care for, a boon in a time of isolation and depression. The Journal of Positive Psychology published a study in 2016 that showed olfactory sense-heightening activities, like baking bread from scratch, produced feelings of happiness and creativity, the perfect balm for a pandemic-exhausted soul.

sourdough bread slice on a plate with butter
Courtesy of Sourdough Inn

A Rediscovered Pastime for This Generation

With eerie prescience, in August of 2019 Seamus Blackley, one of the co-creators of Xbox brought back to life a sourdough starter made from yeast scrapings from shards of Ancient Egyptian pottery. As a heavy traveler, Blackley found he needed some help taking care of his starter.

Enter The Sourdough Inn where you can "check-in" your starter and for $15 per week have it fed and tended while you are away. Started by Mathias Jakobsen, an Internet Entrepreneur, the Brooklyn abode is a, "hotel for your sourdough, helping busy Brooklyn hipsters stay connected with the authentic bread experience."

You can also purchase starters or take "training and rehabilitation" courses to learn how to bring yours back to healthy, yeasty goodness. Blackley, a self-professed bread nerd, baked sourdough along with the rest of America during lockdown, "...most recently following a recipe that came, in part, from hieroglyphs."

In a year when people craved comfort, it is not hard to see the appeal of bread. Even as shelves have begun to fill again, bread still holds our attention.

There was the short-lived banana bread phase (which incidentally finds its roots in The Great Depression, as a way to use up spoiling bananas), the brief babka nod and lately, focaccia baked with myriad ingredients.

But, we still come back to sourdough. It is comforting. It takes care and attention that appeals to those still stuck at home missing family and friends. And, Bryan Ford's book, New World Sourdough, just dropped to remind us how to make a sourdough starter, as well as other innovative baked bread ideas like bananas foster sourdough or plantain sourdough from start to finish. His book, which went from proposal to manuscript to publication in six months is truly a tangible emblem of 2020's home-baking craze.

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