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I Always Travel with My Mother

Jeri Gottlieb - April 2014

What’s a good son or daughter baker to do with “mom” when she must be taken out of the nurturing confines of the bakery? Jeri Gottlieb comes up with a starter kit of pitfalls and inadvertent adventures bakers are best to avoid when out and about with their mother.

Traveling with mothers can be tricky business. As companions, they can be seriously high-maintenance, rigidly scheduled, potentially explosive, temperamental, and even possibly just a little bit, well, stinky. But if you’re a serious bread baker, you wouldn’t dream of leaving behind the very essence of your craft—your mother, your levain, your starter, or whatever your term of endearment. When you hit the road to showcase your talents and share the goodness that springs from the love and care you give her every day, she comes along for the ride, making mischief at every turn.

Portrait of Mother
By way of introduction, here’s a very brief look at dear mama. A mother is another name for a bread baker’s homemade starter, which is the leavening agent used to give bread its lovely rise, its textured crumb and chew, and its flavor. Used instead of either commercial dry or fresh cake yeast, it’s a combination of flour and water that has been allowed to cultivate the wild yeasts and bacteria already present in the air and on the flour itself. Sometimes fruits such as grapes are also in the mix to provide additional sugars to that of the starch in flour, which are needed by both the yeast (a fungus called Saccharomyces exiguus) and bacteria (Lactobacillus) to flourish. This duo feed on the sugars, which in turn yield both carbon dioxide gas and alcohol as a by-product in a biologic process called fermentation. The fermenting bacteria, specifically, also yield lactic and acetic acids. Unlike commercial yeast (a distant cousin), wild yeast does well in just such an acidic environment; thus, the yeast and the bacteria are able to thrive in a symbiotic relationship, ferment in harmony, and give rise to an environment of alcohols and acids that lend the distinct flavor of hearth breads.

A mother offers unique properties that reflect geography (true San Francisco sourdough can only be made there because of the indigenous yeast and bacteria specific to the area) as well as a baker’s signature recipe and method of caring for her. Unlike a poolish or sponge, only a portion of the mother is used when making dough, the rest held back as a base for more starter. It’s “fed” flour and water to keep the yeast and bacteria thriving and active. Additionally, the ambient temperature, as well as that of the water used, managed for optimal fermentation. Mothers are kept well, fed daily and on schedule, in proper balance, often for years. And they’re also best left as homebodies, snuggling into a comfortable bakery rather than adrift on the open road.

Give Them an Inch
Rachel Crampsey, head baker/owner of Montclair Bread Company in Montclair, New Jersey, and designer of artisan breads for major retailers like Wegmans and Target, graduated from The Culinary Institute of America, where she headed intending to become a wedding cake baker like her grandmother. That plan was upended when, during her very first module, she was introduced to bread baking. The unit was brief—three weeks, with a mere three weekends where the class’ starter needed tending. In other words, three chances to be the honored student chosen to take it home to care for it. Lucky Rachel. Her instructor reviewed the protocol—when to feed it, how much flour to add, the temperature of the water to use—including all the elements to consider, save one. A meticulous student, she followed the directions exactly. All was in order. Dare she forget it for class, she placed it on the floor by the front door as a precaution. As Crampsey puts it, the next morning she awoke to “a pond of sourdough starter” on her light blue, high-pile carpet. Regardless, she proceeded to scrape it up to salvage for class. (Priorities!) “I’m still friendly with the landlord, and he swears he’s still finding bits ground into the rug.” Turns out, she didn’t have air conditioning, and the unbridled heat had gotten to her mother.

Since then, Crampsey has traveled extensively with her starter, feeding it on schedule in airport bathrooms, in airplane bathrooms. Her first year competing in America’s Best Raisin Bread Contest, the hotel maid casually threw out the stinky, heaving beast. Year Two of the competition, she got smarter about the whole thing, feeding it just before she left on the trip and dousing it with cold water (ah-hah!) to keep it dormant and happy. This container of starter went into another, bigger, container, then into a bag, then into another bag, then into a suitcase. That year, there was only a small spill, and she even got a nice little note from the Transportation Security Administration saying they’d had a bit of a look-see in her bag. (Crampsey now holds the TSA responsible for the leak, and not her damn fine packing job.)

Flight Risk
Lionel Vatinet of La Farm Bakery in Cary, North Carolina, a master baker of the French guild Les Compagnons du Devoir, and a renowned consultant of bakeries and baking programs worldwide, also had a bit of a learning curve when it came to traveling with his starter. On a trip from San Francisco to Florida, he made a rookie mistake, packing his starter like he would his underwear—in a suitcase with his clothes. Good news! He was able to salvage the exploded starter from said clothes and use as needed. Lesson learned, he began toting his starter in his carry-on, when it was legal to do so. Turns out that had its perils as well. While he was able to keep explosions at bay, he did manage to get some unwanted attention and make few friends when he burped the containers to release the accumulating gas, emitting a noxious smell, which, to a baker, may signal a host of beautiful, crusty boules to come, but is truly cruel luck for his seatmates.

Kindly, Vatinet amended his methods once more. By now, that pesky three-ounce limit on liquids in airplane carry-ons was in place, so en route to consult at a large-scale bakery in New Zealand, hauling a too-large container of starter, he was forced to make refinements. Undeterred, he headed to the restroom to implement Plan B. Whipping out some flour (never leave home without it!), he mixed it with a tiny amount of his starter and a touch of water. He ditched the rest, pocketed the contraband, and kept mum through security and customs. Succès!

Mama’s Boy
Zachary Golper, now executive chef of Bien Cuit in New York City, took his mother to Las Vegas. What a son! Golper went to the Paris Hotel for an interview with pastry chef Jean Claude Canestrier, where he would have 36 hours to prepare 16 items in hopes of landing the job as head baker at the new M Resort. He packed some of the starter he was using at Bakery Nouveau in Seattle, with the admirable intention of ensuring his goods have the characteristics he preferred, and not wanting to pinch what they had on hand at the hotel. He packed up two quart containers of the stuff, adding flour the night before to stiffen it for the journey, then put it into his luggage with his tools, chef’s jacket, and clothes. When he landed, he discovered not only had Homeland Security taken an interest in his bag and its contents, apparently cracking open the plastic containers of starter with prongs, but the starter had grown wildly in the desert heat, making its way onto every tool and piece of clothing in the suitcase. Not only that, the 36 hour countdown had begun, so he needed every bit. He scraped what he could salvage into the hotel’s ice bucket, managing to gather up just enough to get baking.

Flash-forward, all is well, if not perfect, and he’s at the interview thinking his experience had given him quite a conversation starter. “Jean Claude is like a three-star general of pastry,” says Golper. “His response was, ‘But, of course. What did you think would happen?’” While Golper’s “a funny thing happened on the way to the Paris” opener may have fallen flat and his poor mother been bruised and battered during her hot journey, Golper nailed the interview and got the job, and now credits his success at Bien Cuit with what he learned on the job under Canestrier.

Johann Willar, a third-generation bread baker from northern France and head baker at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colorado, has been baking bread since his teens. He has had the same mother since 1999, made from fermented apricots, and it yields four different starters for him. When he needs to travel by plane with a bit, he dries it out, employing an ingenious plan involving heat from the oven light bulb for an epic 12 hours and some handy Ziploc bags. And, just in case something goes horribly wrong in his bakery, he keeps a back-up amount in the freezer. Willar is prepared. Except for that time in 2005 when he was working at The Ritz-Carlton Palm Springs in Florida, and Hurricane Wilma hit; he and everyone on the island were evacuated. Then he had to just roll with it.

Expecting to be out of work for a few days, Willar packed up some fresh starter in a cooler and took it home with him, where it stayed for two months. He had no electricity, therefore no air-conditioning or hope of refrigeration, and no water. He nicked a 50-pound bag of flour from the bakery and bought bottled water to feed it, keeping it in the laundry room where it was warm, and perhaps safe from his wife, who was displeased, shall we say, with the starter making itself quite merry in her Category 3 hurricane-beleaguered home, kicking out a pungent aroma of fermentation and alcohol and growing wildly in 100 degree heat. “I spent more time with that starter than with my family,” says Willar. It survived. And, happily, so did Willar’s marriage.

Mother Jones
Once, a long time ago, Jim Lahey, a bread culture activist of sorts and founder of New York City’s Sullivan Street Bakery, says he suffered under the delusion that the starter he needed with him for demonstrations hither and yon was the one he already had. So he toted it in old-school Mason jars in cars (where it exploded) and even onto airplanes (where it exploded). This was, of course, before the liquid carry-on ban, which turned out to be quite a boon for Lahey, who could now rest easy knowing he’d not reach absent-mindedly into his bag and retrieve a goo-covered cell phone, as had happened. After these restrictions were put in place, he switched to plastic containers, albeit grabbing whatever was at hand, including breast milk containers, the tube-like kind, as someone (we’ll say a wife) must have been nursing. Now, he says, bringing any more than a mere “thumbnail size quantity of a stiff starter” is for suckers.

OK, he didn’t say the “sucker” part, but he might as well have, because he’s got the process sorted. You can also FedEx it. Which he does, when he knows he’ll be landlocked, away from any sort of bread civilization—a situation he’s working on changing.

A Friend’s Mother
Jonathan Stevens of Hungry Ghost Bread in Northampton, Massachusetts, and a two-time James Beard Award semi-finalist, loves the story his family friend, a serious home baker, tells about the time in 1979 he left to go to grad school, giving his mother away to a kindly fellow bread baker. He returned a year later and decided to see if he could retrieve a bit of the starter to begin baking again. It was then he learned its disastrous fate.

“She told me that the very day I had turned the starter over to her loving care, it had been destroyed. She had placed it (unbelted!) on the back seat of her Volkswagen 1600 and, with one quick stop, the container tipped over. By the time she arrived home, the goo had dripped down behind the seat cushion and was happily baking in the heat of the Volkswagon’s air-cooled engine. For the next couple of weeks, the car smelled of burnt toast.”

Most tragically, his mother was gone for good.

Despite the sacrifices she requires, the work—worry, the nurturing, and the attention—bakers will unquestioningly hit the open road with their mothers in tow, lovingly caring for them along the way. Perhaps it’s because she gives as good as she gets.

Jeri Gottlieb is a recovering bakery owner from New Jersey who enjoys writing about food almost as much as eating it.