Sourdough Bread and the Cult of Convenience
I didn’t need another thing to take care of. Life was already too busy. I could barely keep up with my daily to-do list as it was.
That’s what I told myself as I contemplated (for the umpteenth time) making a sourdough starter. A sourdough starter is a living thing, and functions much like a house plant: it requires daily tending and feeding, and must be watched for signs of health and wholeness. Friends who have embraced their sourdough journeys often upload pictures of gorgeous brown loaves to Instagram, including Michael Pollan who posts photos of his own (and others’) crusty homemade artisan bread on his Twitter profile.
But if today brought a sourdough starter, tomorrow would bring homemade yogurt and kombucha, I told myself. If I started down this path, my life would soon be overrun by the tedious tending of fermented and homemade things.
Is that possibility really so bad? Why does tending a sourdough starter seem so annoying? Pondering this question, I realized it had little to do with the ritual itself—which only takes five minutes—and everything to do with that lingering, underlying sense that it was inconvenient and that there were “other (more important) things I should be doing.”
I was thinking about all this as I read Tim Wu’s Sunday article in The New York Times about the “Tyranny of Convenience.” As Wu writes, in America today, the supremacy of convenience has reshaped our lives in monumental ways:
Convenience has the ability to make other options unthinkable. Once you have used a washing machine, laundering clothes by hand seems irrational, even if it might be cheaper. After you have experienced streaming television, waiting to see a show at a prescribed hour seems silly, even a little undignified. To resist convenience — not to own a cellphone, not to use Google — has come to require a special kind of dedication that is often taken for eccentricity, if not fanaticism.
… But we err in presuming convenience is always good, for it has a complex relationship with other ideals that we hold dear. Though understood and promoted as an instrument of liberation, convenience has a dark side. With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life. Created to free us, it can become a constraint on what we are willing to do, and thus in a subtle way it can enslave us.
Our fetish for ease seems to stem from promises fed to us during and after the Industrial Revolution. Prior to the rise of mechanization, manual labor and back-breaking chores were daily realities. Vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, canned food—all these things promised to free us from our bondage to the quotidian. “By saving time and eliminating drudgery, [convenience] would create the possibility of leisure,” writes Wu. “And with leisure would come the possibility of devoting time to learning, hobbies or whatever else might really matter to us. Convenience would make available to the general population the kind of freedom for self-cultivation once available only to the aristocracy. In this way convenience would also be the great leveler.”
But as technology sought to free us from more and more of the tasks that otherwise “chained” us to reality and diligence, liberation itself became ever more illusory. Our mediums of emancipation became founts of distraction. In the vacuum created by convenience, we turned to the television and the internet. Now, when the conveyer belt of ease breaks down—when our washer and dryer stop working, or our internet is down, for instance—we find that convenience has actually enslaved us. Without machines to do our laundry or keep us company, we’re at a loss.
Thus can our craving for convenience easily deceive us, luring us into a false sense of freedom, distracting us from the things that make us better human beings. We so easily forget that sometimes—often—the best things in life take hard work. Playing a musical instrument, learning a sport, tending a garden, building a table: all these things are difficult. But they’re also good—for our souls, minds, and bodies.
“Today’s cult of convenience fails to acknowledge that difficulty is a constitutive feature of human experience,” Wu writes. “Convenience is all destination and no journey. But climbing a mountain is different from taking the tram to the top, even if you end up at the same place. We are becoming people who care mainly or only about outcomes. We are at risk of making most of our life experiences a series of trolley rides.”
As Alexander Langlands puts it in his new book Cræft, “We’re increasingly constrained by computers and a pixelated abridgement of reality that serves only to make us blind to the truly infinite complexity of the nature world. Most critically, our physical movements have been almost entirely removed as a factor in our own existence. Now all we seem to do is press buttons.”
Which brings me back to sourdough starter. There’s a reason I wanted to add this ritual to my daily routine: it’s a creative act that saves money, serves my family, and creates a thing of beauty. It’s healthier than store-bought bread, and making it is a discipline with scientific and culinary properties that are fascinating and complex. It’s a craft that, in our convenience-driven culture, could all too easily go extinct.
But I’m also drawn to sourdough because I’ve learned that the best parts of my life are without a doubt the most “inconvenient”: they require time, focused attention, and loving care. All the things that bind me to place—the toddler running around, the Irish Setter begging me to play fetch with him, the myriads of house plants needing watering, the little seedlings waiting to be planted in our vegetable garden—are also the things that light up my life, bringing vibrancy and joy and meaning to every day. I’m proud of them, eager for them to flourish and remain healthy and vibrant.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we must admit that we are also “inconvenient” beings: anxious for time and affection and comfort, eager to be loved and focused on. It is an act of deep hypocrisy to treat the world around us as something that we ourselves are loath to be: easily consumed, quickly disposed of.
In a consumer culture, we’ve forgotten what it means to create—and we’ve forgotten just how liberating and rewarding the act of creation is. It is time-consuming and difficult to sew a quilt, plant a tree in the backyard, or bring a meal to a family in need. But creative and manual experiences allow virtue, beauty, and sustainability to flourish in our daily lives. Every moment—no matter how inconvenient or time-consuming—is worth it. We just have to change our focus: from ease to meaning, and from entertainment to joy.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and the Washington Times, among others.