A fig. A failure. A long wait.

Figs

Fig season is officially over in my corner of California which is why, at the Farmer’s Market on Saturday, I bought the very last box of tender, tiny-seeded Black Mission jewels from my favorite farmer.

It was now, or wait until next year, to create the perfect loaf of fresh Fig Sourdough.

A few weeks back I’d seen an entirely new type of fig bread at a Parisian bakery. It sat on a pedestal, just out of reach, behind the front counter glass scrawled with purple marker: Fig Sourdough. The loaf, sliced open, was the mesmerizing deep brownish-purple of sweet fig jam. I’ve eaten fig bread many times, but it’s always been a golden-brown loaf, flecked with bits of dried fruit and, usually, walnuts. I didn’t buy the bakery loaf.  I’m a baker and wanted the challenge of creating this new, beautifully colored bread on my own.

Undaunted by the lack of recipes for such a thing – every single baking website recipe calls for dried figs, and every photo looks like the fig-flecked golden-brown loaf I knew so well – I plunged into invention mode.

I added half a jar of fig jam to the initial flour, starter, and water mixture, assuming this would create my desired deep purple hue. It didn’t. I added the rest of the jam jar and waited for yeasty bubbles to rise, signaling the dough was healthy despite this new ingredient. Bread baking is an art, yes, but more than other types of baking, it’s a science. I tempted flour, yeast and water chemistry by interrupting it with jam.

The starter mix rose, although it didn’t develop the color I was hoping for.

Kneading

I chopped Farmer Sean’s last box of figs and added these to the fully floured dough and proceeded to knead. This too did nothing to imbue the loaf with rich purple. I convinced myself that some sort of kitchen alchemy would happen during the rising process.

Something did indeed happen eight hours later when I tried to transfer the dough from its rising bowl to the baking stone.

Bad dough

The rise and fall of my dream was so complete I couldn’t help but laugh and send photos to the bakers in my bread circle, the same ones I’d casually texted that morning about creating a recipe for a new kind of bread, the friends who were all awaiting my baking secrets. What happened? Oh no! Should you add more yeast? More flour? What went wrong?

Sometimes I confuse bread making with trying to leaven world peace through community, or metaphor. I had already set out plates on my table, one for each of my walking distance neighbors who I planned to surprise with hot, fresh slices of this new kind of bread that I’d invented after imagining such a loaf might exist. The butter would be pooled to perfection in the time it would take to step from my house to theirs with this triumph.

You can’t always trust the old recipes, I’d say. You have to be willing to make mistakes, I’d laugh. You have to go out into the world to see and try new things.

Perhaps it was those three empty plates on the table, or my dogged belief that I could still make something resembling the bread I’d seen, or maybe I just wanted to keep #procrastibaking rather than write, but I was undaunted by the sticky flatness before me. Buoyed by the purple beginning to tinge the dough, I convinced myself I was a thirty-minute, 450-degree bake away from a Fig Sourdough that actually bore the color of its namesake.

I kneaded in another cup of flour and slid the dough into a flat dish with sides. For good measure I smeared more fig jam on top, sprinkled it with grated parmesan cheese, added chopped walnuts and drizzled it all with a blend of ground fresh chili paste and honey. What my loaf lacked in height and typical bread perfection, and it would make up for in flavor and creativity.

While waiting, I revisited the photo of my bread inspiration.

Fig Sourdough

Surely, you immediately see what I did not. Yes, I guess there is also such a thing as Chocolate Sourdough. I’m guessing it’s a deep rich color. And that golden brown loaf on the right? Mmmm, you tell me.

I think it’s a fantasy Fig Sourdough I’m after when I write. This unicorn of breads beckons in the form of books I admire and the possibility that the writers I surround myself with will help unlock its recipe. I imagine a world where we all share bread and ideas respectfully with one another, and I write this world into existence. If I imagine it, others can too.

I’m writing these next eight weeks with a small group of students and I’ll confess we might all be trying to create fantasy bread. We want to make something amazing that we’ve always dreamed existed, maybe even thought we once saw or read, but it feels just out of reach at the moment.

We’re persisting. We’re failing. We’re succeeding, kneading, needing to keep on. I have every faith that fig season will return with us still here, awaiting new fruit with open palms, and older, wiser eyes.

With floured palms,
Catherine

This is one attempt at the first assignment for the Composing Self course I’m teaching this fall. If you’re interested more in bread success than failure, I’ll be linking to some of my favorite bakers on the Write Now page in a few days. Come back for a visit. Stay for the crumbs.

To answer, “What are you reading?”

I’ve been reading quite a bit about bread, sourdough specifically because I can’t stop baking. Every afternoon, I pull out a hand-kneaded boule or baguette from the oven. Sure, I eat some, but there’s always more to share with a circle of neighbors. We swap our plenties: Bread for garden coffee grounds. Gardenias for granola. Lemons for lavender stalks, slender and fragrant. I don’t require the barter, but my friends are like that.

Bread

This new baking habit reminds me of one of my favorite Ursula K. Le Guin quotes from The Lathe of Heaven.

Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone; it has to be made, like bread, remade all the time, made new.

Ursula K. Le Guin, or UKL as she was known, died earlier this year which prompted me to visit much of her writing that I’d missed, beginning with her blog. This is from her final post:

Once I sang freedom, freedom,
sweet as a mockingbird.
But I have learned Real Politics.
No freedom for our children
in the world of the sayso.
Only the listening.
The silence all around the sayso.
The never stopping listening.
So I will listen
to women and our children
and powerless men,
my people. And I will honor only
my people, the powerless.

What are you reading?

Friends always ask when I drop off the bread, or pick up sun warm blueberries. A response like “Ursula K. Le Guin’s blog” is true, but the question really means What book are you reading that you can share when you’re finished? I tend to group books. One fiction with one nonfiction. One poetry collection with one memoir.

This month my nonfiction read is Valeria Luiselli‘s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions. It’s a slim book that recounts Luiselli’s experience working as an interpreter in New York City’s federal immigration court. She works with unaccompanied minors seeking asylum.

“Why did you come to the United States?” That’s the first question on the intake questionnaire for unaccompanied child migrants. The questionnaire is used in the federal immigration court in New York City where I started working as a volunteer interpreter in 2015. My talks there is a simple one: I interview children, following the intake questionnaire, and then translate their stories from Spanish to English.

But nothing is ever that simple…The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end…

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NPR had this to say about Tell Me How it Ends:

These days, the whole world, including our politics, is being shaped by migration. Few people explore the nuances of this reality more skillfully than Valeria Luiselli, a strikingly gifted 33-year-old Mexican writer who knows the migratory experience first-hand. . . . Luiselli takes us inside the grand dream of migration, offering the valuable reminder that exceedingly few immigrants abandon their past and brave death to come to America for dark or nasty reasons. They come as an expression of hope.

By some odd kismet, I followed up Valeria Luiselli’s book with Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate. This novel, which spent more than six months on the New York Times best seller list, is inspired by true events of the kidnapping and trafficking of poor children who were subsequently placed in wealthy homes through closed adoption by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society between the 1920s and 1950s.

For me, the how and why of it, the underpinnings of blackmail, falsified records, and political corruption, while shocking, weren’t most important story. The most important stories were the ones told in smaller voices, or never told at all –– the stories of the children, of their experiences, of their legacy, of their struggle not only to survive and adapt, but to reclaim their lives and their identities. What was it like, I wondered, to be taken from everything you knew, with no explanation or understanding of what was happening… – LISA WINGATE

How hard is it, really, to imagine someone with power would willingly separate a child from her mother?

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I can’t save every child. But I can make and remake love for the world to be spread by waft of warmth and sustenance. Story by story. We have enough stones.

-Catherine