Articles / Honoring Memory and Seeking Renewal in the Kitchen


Honoring Memory and Seeking Renewal in the Kitchen

Published March 23, 2023

As the world wrestles with coming back to life—and my Mom’s birthday nears—”My Mother, My Starter” has new meaning

Photos: Kylie Jo Cagle, Kerri Conan

In the fall of 2019, before corona spikes, yeast shortages, and elbow hugs, my Mom died. Mark and I were already working on Bittman Bread, though we didn’t know it yet. And like many people raw with sadness, I processed my grief with cooking and writing.

Everything has changed for everyone since then—not just me. So we thought this piece from a few years ago might resonate with readers who are remembering loved ones and lost time while trying to embrace hope and bring whatever we can back to life.

Before popping the top to take a whiff, I stood lit by the open refrigerator and turned the cold jar in my hands. I’d just returned home from two months at Mom’s bedside, helpless to keep her alive. And now my starter and I are weepy globs, a shadow of our bubbly selves, oozing the strong smell of alcohol.

I’ll save you, I whispered, letting the wet rye suck me under like quicksand.

Starter after seven weeks of neglect. Photo: Kerri Conan

In the Anna Rae Conan slideshow that orbits my head, she made sourdough bread when I was little, but it’s hard to be sure. She cooked, sewed, fixed, crafted, and grew everything. Papier-mâché. Ceramics. Candles. Decoupage ashtrays. Nude drawings and etchings. Macramé sculptures. Wire figures. Paintings in oil, acrylic, pastel, and watercolor. Barbie clothes that matched our outfits, down to pearl buttons and velvet trim. Ski pants for the whole family. Two fancy dresses for my Junior Miss farce. She hung wallpaper, laid flooring, tiled bathrooms, antiqued old furniture, and grew plumeria, cantaloupes, string beans, and broccoli. Her cornflake-crusted baked chicken was so crisp that as you chewed you could hear crackling behind your eardrums.

My heart says to simply feed the starter; I wait for a reply from Mom, that voice.

Only gardening and cooking — OK, and an underutilized knack for papier-mâché — rubbed off on me. I can do anything, though; A.R. taught me that. She was a teacher all right. Thousands of kids passed through her junior high classrooms during their peach fuzz years. Thinking of the influence she had on all these lives — people who don’t know she’s gone yet carry a piece of her with them — sparks another round of tears. Where would I carry my nugget of her?

Less water is what the starter needs to rebound, or so is the consensus among the online and collegial sources rallied for consultation. Beyond that, the only other agreement is frequent feedings during triage. But I can’t muster visitation that often; my raw grief is penance enough.

Catholic Friday in our 1960s kitchen: Milk-poached sole. Cracked Dungeness with homemade mayo and cocktail sauces. Frocia, usually made with spinach or leftover noodles. Breaded eggplant baked in sour cream and mozzarella. When Sissy and I ate cheesy tuna loaf or begged for fish sticks, she’d make herself a sardine sandwich. (I make the same choice now.) Spaghetti with garlic, Parmesan, dried herbs, and olive oil she called “alla ghierga.” A little help with the reference, please, someone? It’s spelled phonetically here, her voice dictating to me clear and bright.

Midnight Mass. Kid’s jingles. Christmas carols. Acapella anything. Blues and jazz standards spun as lullabies. Karaoke. Piano bars. Evening practice at her grand. She and Dad picked up a real bargain at a repossession warehouse in San Francisco; reach out if you know someone — we’re desperate to find her beloved instrument a new home.

Photo: Kerri Conan

My heart says to simply feed the starter; I wait for a reply from Mom, that voice. How could I ignore one drop? I manage, though, holding back 125 grams, a little more than usual. I lather and scrub the remaining death from the jar to give what I reserved, the mother I’ve nurtured for more than a year, a chance at survival. Then I stir in equal parts water and rye. Damn what anyone says about too much water.

The one who hatched me loved eggs. Deviled. Coconut macaroons. Crème brûlée. Rice custard. In the nest. Hard boiled until the pot accidentally went dry and they exploded all over the kitchen. Pickled. Sliced with a special tool that may have been her mother’s. After she couldn’t use the stove anymore, she scrambled eggs perfectly with cheese using a ceramic mug in the microwave, watching and stirring like a hawk.

Decades ago, Dad wooed clients with Mom’s renditions of restaurant dishes, like tableside Caesar, palm-size spinach-ricotta tortelloni, and braciola tied meticulously with thread. Or maybe a grill-load of shish kebabs was on the menu, or New Joe’s Special — a skillet of chopped beef, eggs, and spinach. (We ate a lot of eggs and spinach when I was little.) Whatever the main, dessert was either coffee-pecan pie or a sugar-crusted domed cinnamon cake with warm lemon curd sauce. Lord, I’ve got to find that recipe.

Cocktail parties. Pigs in the blanket, fondue, bacon-wrapped mushrooms and olives, fried-and-sauced meatballs, briny crab dip, giardiniera with slightly overcooked vegetables. Artichoke spread. Biscotti, rum balls, Russian tea cakes, and pralines. A.R. set an elegant table — including napkin rings she fashioned from gold-leafed plaster of Paris — or a functional buffet with warming trays and chafing dishes. Dad ran the HiFi and bar while Mom replenished hors d’oeuvres. She entertained calmly, wearing full makeup and an updo, in maxi dresses sewn in the wee hours of the previous evening.

My job was to polish the silver. You’re just supposed to let it oxidize now.

Maybe I should expose the starter to absorb whatever’s left of the yeast swirling around my kitchen. I decide to let the jar sit open for 19 hours to jumpstart salvation fermentation. I frequently stick my face up close for signs of breathing. I got you, mama. I got you.

Anna Rae Conan’s hands. Photo courtesy Kerri Conan

Next morning, no visible action, but the starter smells yeasty, not so boozy. Hope prompts more consulting. I cherry-pick advice — as Mom would have — and decide to keep 100 grams of life-support starter and add 100 grams of rye flour and 50 grams of water, then wait and see another day before giving up. Has anyone seen my corkscrew?

I woke up early, this round now clocking in at 21 hours at room temperature. It smells good enough to taste. I dip in a finger and notice some bounce but no bubbles. Plenty dry, though. Bastard advice online. I pull out 110 grams, match it with water, and stir the slurry until smooth; then add the same in rye flour. Now I’m checking my mother frequently.

In a couple of hours, bubbles. I make a gorgeous loaf and return to the usual weekly feeding-and-baking protocol. Thank you for not dying, I say, this time out loud, relieved to hear my mother answer.