Dr Strangebug-19 or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Microbe

Since the start of 2020, we have learned so much about not sharing germs. Every shop and office entrance offers a cornucopia of bug-kill juice, in liquid, gel and disposable wipe format. We carry masks in every jacket pocket and spares in the glovebox, and compliment strangers on their choice of fancy reusable mask design – mouldable nose wires and exotic fabric choices are especially valued. In the name of non-infection, we stopped children going to school (kid goal!) and presenting recorder recitals (adult goal!).

And yet, it was during this time that I sought out a thriving mass of microbes from an afflicted friend and decided that it needed to be part of my life.

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I usually fancy myself as a bit of an anti-hero of Cool. This is a brand of snobbery which I find to be almost as taxing as keeping up with the trends. I haven’t owned a television set for 15 years[1]. My long-time resistance to smartphones in favour of a basic Nokia candybar, for example, cost me more in convenience than I care to admit; my resistance to Facebook membership has cost me ‘friends’, about which I care somewhat less.

So, when GroupThink 2020 caused everyone to bulk-buy toilet paper, my initial reaction was to temporarily resist the temptation and hatch a plan to drip dry on ones and shower on twos. While everyone else panic-purchased dried macaroni and spaghetti, I attempted a risoni recipe. When others panicked about job security and global financial depression, I went ahead a quit a reliable but joyless job (which decision admittedly has more consequences).

With my ear to the uncool underground, I also noticed that homemade sourdough had become a bit trendy, which annoyed me because I had been interested in adding this to my geek skills for a while. A good friend, Sourdough Sensei, has been sharing complicated tips on sourdough making for years, but lives too far away – and on the other side of strict biosecurity borders – to share any lessons or starter with me. Another good friend, Soughdough Sempai, lives similarly far away, and hadn’t really sold me on the practice due to her occasional panic about achieving in sourdough the same culinary perfection she brings to everything else. Yet another amazing foodie friend, Sourdough Senior, who cooks far better than I can ever dream to, attended a sourdough cooking course, acquired a starter as part of the attendance fee, then promptly committed soury-cide when she got the jar home.

With my life already to the brim with reasons to feel anxious, I was admittedly nervous about the added responsibility of a kitchen-dwelling Tamagotchi. But, while feeling a bit like 2020 had stolen my idea, I simultaneously found out that my kids’ friend’s grandma had successfully acquired a jar of vigorous microbes from a work colleague, who had previously acquired a jar from a relative, who previously acquired it from a second cousin’s next-door neighbour[2].  I asked for a jar of germs to call my own.

I asked for a jar of germs to call my own.

It turns out that sourdough is far less complicated that it has been marketed as – I guess bakeries need to maintain the mystique to justify charging 9 bucks a loaf. After a few mediocre loaves at the outset, I realised that best results came from forgetting everything I know about yeasted dough making and approaching it with a yoghurt-making mentality. Also, to apply a parenting mentality to the jar of starter and pay not so much attention that you wreck it with overfeeding and manipulation (‘helicopter dough’?) but not so little that it results in neglect. The point for me is that I need to worry less about things that don’t really have consequences. Sourdough clearly isn’t one of them.

There is another long-winded moral that could be inappropriately attempted here about humanity’s social and evolutionary symbiosis with micro-cellular lifeforms and what that means in the context of the pandemic, but frankly the pandemic is too fresh (unlike my deliciously sour breakfast carbs – tasteless?) to turn into anything that doesn’t feel overly contrived and blinded by the absolute privilege of living in a low-transmission area. At today’s count, more than 2 million lives have been lost globally, and this number will continue to climb tragically and with unequal distribution linked to non-medical factors like nationality, postcode and race.

That, and I feel obliged to remind you that viruses are arguably not ‘lifeforms’, since they lack their own mitochondria; nor are they cellular. They are very small, so their microscopic description is correct. See? Uncoolness restored.

If you want to make some stressless sourdough, I have put my super-simplified method here.

Stay safe, keep your mask on, and wash your filthy hands.

[1] Netflix is a completely legitimate loophole.

[2] I don’t know if any of this is true, but the point is to imagine the kind of criss-crossing transmission lines you would typically see in a sexual health awareness brochure at your GP’s office. Shout out to the Katering Show @ 4:30.

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