Like the leaves
I have somewhat contradictory fears: I’m afraid of not getting enough sleep and, on the other hand, of sleeping too late. While it seems perfectly alright to bow out of an evening early, I’m terrified of missing morning: the sweet slowness in my limbs, the ritual first meal of the day, the clanging and buzzing of the street as it begins to wake. In college I’d sometimes sneak away to bed at 9 or 9:30, feeling smart and smug and sensible, as though I were putting an entire paycheck into savings rather than spending it. But I’m softening with age: these days sleep comes closer to midnight, and morning isn’t welcome until eight. I’ve even been known to find ample reasons to stay up past bedtime and lie around the next day. I’m so grown up.
But this morning I’m tired. I woke again to a fog that covered the city, and the trees outside my apartment are turning crimson, then amber, then brittle yellow against the gray air. Today I feel like the leaves. Soon I’ll drag myself out for a long walk. Solvitur ambulando, as the Romans used to say: the solution comes through walking.
Last night brought chocolate cake and a new twist in the future of my kitchen. It came in the form of a Mason jar half-full of foamy sourdough starter, complete with a lid that reads, “Feeeeeed me!” Margot, who is constantly crafting and creating various things from plaster and wax and latex and wood glue and wheat and loads of butter, has given me a bit of her sourdough starter. She also presented me with a collection of recipes from the hilariously hokey Sourdough Jack’s Cookery, which comes with photos of Jack himself in a suede vest and cowboy hat, gazing lovingly at his sourdough sponge.
Seven of us sat around the big round table for a dinner of grilled salmon and offerings from the family garden: purple potatoes dug only minutes before boiling, cherry tomatoes and cucumbers tossed with feta and vinaigrette, and stubby ears of yellow corn. We then wreaked havoc on a still-warm sourdough chocolate cake, complete with its moat of improvised (and remarkably tasty) chocolate glaze made from a giant Hershey’s Kiss melted with milk and butter.
And to cap off the evening, we bundled up against the fall night—I, in Margot’s fleece jacket, proved that red and purple do go together—and went to a cyclocross race to watch men in tight outfits hop over little hurdles with their bikes on their shoulders. Other highlights of the evening included Nicho’s dog Index, with intelligent eyes and an excellent name; Kate’s corduroy pants with stars on the seat; and my feigned fear of Kate’s fabulously muscular legs, ready to spring like coiled pythons from the aforementioned corduroy pants.
I came home, marveled at the jar of sourdough starter for a moment or two, and then, possessed by the sort of sweet-and-sour melancholia that comes only after midnight, I stayed up until 2am, writing. Two years ago, when I last spent summer at home in Oklahoma, my father—who I’ve called “Burg” for as long as I can remember—and I talked often of baking bread together. I like to think he was a sourdough starter kind of guy, maybe Sourdough Jack in a photographer’s vest and baseball cap. But we didn’t know then that the summer would be his last, and we let ourselves be distracted by peaches, tomatoes, pesto, and candy-sweet white corn.
Last Sunday, September 26, marked two years since the day Burg was diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer of the kidney. It had already metastasized to his spinal column and his bony pelvis, femurs, skull, and tibia. It took him down fast, viciously. October 7, 2002 was the last day he walked, taking tentative steps with my brothers down the hospital hallway. He died only two months later, on December 7.
I’ve stayed up too late, and this morning I’m tired.
But the solution comes through walking, I tell myself, and so I go.
Margot’s Sourdough Chocolate Cake
Adapted from Sourdough Jack’s Cookery
1 cup thick sourdough starter
1 cup sugar
½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 cup milk (evaporated preferred, but even regular old skim works fine), at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp ground cinnamon
3 oz semi-sweet chocolate, melted and cooled
½ tsp salt
1 ½ tsp baking soda
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
Leave a cup of starter out overnight.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cream sugar and butter until fluffy, then beat in eggs one at a time. Stir in starter, milk, vanilla, cinnamon, and melted chocolate. Beat with electric mixer (or recruit a strong man with a whisk, such as Margot’s boyfriend Todd) for two minutes. Blend salt and soda together and sprinkle over batter. Fold in gently. Fold in flour until batter is smooth. Pour into buttered and floured pan (either a standard Bundt pan or an 8-inch round pan, or experiment).
Bake until cake springs back when pressed lightly and a cake tester comes out clean, 35-60 minutes, depending on the type of pan you use. Cool and frost, or sprinkle with powdered sugar. Then eat, as with other things, aggressively.