Friday Food Fiction — Sourdough

Cover of Sourdough by Robin Sloan

Sourdough
Robin Sloan
MCD Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017

It might be too early to call it, being only February and all, but Sourdough is already a contender for my top fiction pick of the year.

This work of Magical Realism (a genre that combines fact with magical elements) is subtle enough on the weirdness that I often found myself looking things up to see if they were true. Does sourdough “sing” while it is rising? Does it emit light or sparkle? (Hey, you never know with yeast and gas.) Is there really such a thing as a Lois club?

Here’s the deets: Lois Clary moves from Michigan to San Francisco where she takes a job at a tech start-up programming robotic arms. Her co-workers often sleep at work and eat a nutritive gel called Slurry instead of real food. One night while at home she orders soup and a sandwich from a not-especially-legal restaurant run out of someone’s apartment and gets hooked on their amazing sourdough bread. When the owners have to leave the country because of visa issues, they show up at her door with their crock of sourdough starter (because she has become their best customer) and give her a quick lesson on how to care for it and make bread.

From there she starts baking, first for herself, then for friends and co-workers, then the cafeteria at her office, where the chef encourages her to apply for one of the local San Francisco farmers’ markets. She doesn’t get into the main market system but is offered a spot in a new underground market (literally – it’s housed in an old missile bunker) where all the vendors are creating food with some combination of old school tradition and current technology. Lois borrows one of the robotic arms from her work to help her knead the bread with the promise that she will teach/code it to break eggs, as this is one of the hurdles for robotic arms in the food prep industry.

It gets even weirder than this by the end of the book, but Sloan does an amazing job of keeping all the elements together while creating a work that asks more questions than it ultimately answers. There’s the whole dichotomy of old skills and traditional ingredients up against technology – once the robotic arms can be used in industrial-scale bakeries, hundreds of people will lose their jobs. There’s also an Alice Waters-esque character, who even owns a restaurant in Berkeley that matches Chez Panisse in description, who represents the old foodways and traditions while the market Lois takes part in has a mandate to help find solutions to feed people en masse.

Throughout all of this is the relationship between Lois and the sourdough. Sloan integrates the food writing part of his work seamlessly with the rest of the story, which can be a huge problem for many writers trying to incorporate food writing into fiction. His descriptions of the sourdough as it rises and sings, as it takes on a personality, becomes depressed, and goes to battle against King Arthur (the flour, not the guy from the round table), are not only charming and engaging but mouthwatering. I dare you to read this book and not want to crack into a boule of fresh sourdough bread and slather it with butter.

Sloan goes beyond a fun story about bread. Sourdough takes on questions about philosophy, technology, tradition, ethics, history, and relationships of many types.

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