Breadder Burque Chapter IV: A Starter Named “Tribble”

For those of you not raised on the original Star Trek, i.e. “over 50,” a bit of background. “The Trouble with Tribbles” is a famous episode wherein these furry, lovable, gentle creatures (the Tribbles) who reproduce copiously, over-populate like rabbits and take over huge areas of the Starship Enterprise.

Admittedly, I had to go to Wikipedia to jog my memory of the Tribbles episode, and now that I’ve recalled the details it seems rather apropos to a blog entry: 1) during a global pandemic and 2) about the heavy responsibility of a sourdough starter. Day Four of social distancing, and suddenly everything seems relevant, even a 53-year-old cheesy Star Trek episode.

The Tribbles, according to Dr. McCoy’s (Bones!) dialogue, only serve two purposes: To eat and to reproduce. And they do. I would like to post this copyright protected picture of William Shatner as Captain Kirk surrounded by the fuzzy fellows, but I don’t need to get sued on top of everything else, so we’ll just link to the picture here.

Back to our friends, the baking-related Tribbles: When you feed your sourdough starter, and she reacts, there is a huge sense of accomplishment, especially when you are stranded in this odd space-time continuum called Corona Virus. Not much else gets accomplished.

For instance, I spent hours trying to productively delete three years-worth of email, but MacMail hung up at message 8,480 and refused to move. Failure. I then tried to email a client about a project, and that client did no respond. I was then forced to start cleaning out my closet—I got as far as the first pair of fat jeans, when I became overwhelmed with decisions I just could not make (donate the fat jeans? What about these high heels I haven’t worn in four years?).

And so, feeding my sourdough starter which dutifully bubbles, grows, and reproduces is a calming exercise. Her name is Tribble.

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The bubbles reveal relentless reproduction

Yes, people name their sourdough starters. At baking school back in January, there was a woman from Portugal on an extended U.S. road trip (where is she now??) who had transported her starter with her so she could keep feeding it. Some people feed their starters every day. Some feed them weekly (that’s me).

Some let them sit around for a month. But once you start feeding them, you realize that you have to throw some out, or make pancakes with the leftovers, or do something, otherwise your refrigerator will be full of little jars of starter and you’ll have enough to make bread for the neighborhood, or maybe even the whole town, which would be a great distraction, if you happen to have a commercial grade oven, mixer, and pans. Which I don’t.

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Tribble looking more “Alien” than “Star Trek”

This is the trouble with the Tribble. Every week I have to throw part of her out. In the trash. There is always a moment of hesitation before I use my silicone spatula to scrape all but 100 grams of Tribble into the trash can (not the sink/disposal, though, because Tribble is sticky and glutinous and among the things I learned at baking school was just how angry you can make a French baker and your plumbing if you discard dough in the bakery sink. Oh, non, non, non, non!).

Like if I kept that starter, what would I do with it? I already have two jars—one stiff and one liquid, that require weekly attention. Stephane, the aforementioned French baker who taught our class, warned us: “Do not become a slave to your levain,” he said, clicking his tongue against his teeth. Non, non, non.

Yet, I am already a slave to Tribble, because she makes me feel accomplished. Weird as that sounds, when she bubbles up so nicely and then, as the day wears on, I can measure her progress with the tick marks on my container, I can smell her ripening, and because I have practiced quite a bit lately, I know exactly that moment when she’s ready to use. Tribble makes me feel as if my life isn’t being completely wasted right now. I did something. I made something.

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Room to grow

There’s probably a side story here that’s more personal, more compelling. My mother, who died a little more than a year ago, was not a baker, but she was, in 21st Century vernacular, a maker. I still receive her This Old House magazines. When she moved to her oldsters apartment, we brought along a slab of wood that she intended to turn into a dining table. My mother:

  • Sculpted, first in stone, then in clay and wax. She
  • Painted watercolors (a fairly recent endeavor)
  • At the age of 90 made a skinny bathroom shelving unit for her new very small apartment.
  • Helped craft sets for theatrical productions and volunteered on jobsites for Habitat for Humanity for 20 years.

More than anything, my mother made herself. She was a relentless doer. I think my mother wanted to feel that sense of accomplishment, too. When a piece of sculpture came out of the forge, she had made something. She had left her mark. One of the most heartbreaking moments of cleaning out her apartment after her death was throwing away some unfinished wax sculptures—pieces of bodies, rough and unshaped.

I relive a bit of that heartbreaking scene every time I put some of Tribble in the trash. Now that I think about it, “Tribble” is actually a poor name choice of name. She doesn’t just eat and reproduce, and she’s not an alien. I built her, and I want to leave a mark.

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Wholewheat Sourdough, 3.19.20


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