The stuff of life

Robyn Gilmour ponders our complex relationship with a hidden microbial world


Without wishing to tempt fate, hindsight has been interesting to apply to the lockdown era. Perhaps I’m naive in thinking our days indoors are behind us, but I’m practicing not being a pessimist. First, it was banana bread; the country watched bananas grow black and boozy, so they could be mashed into a batter, and baked into a cake we can justify eating for breakfast. My guess is that around loaf three or four, people started thinking about how lunch used to be when schools, offices and canteens were a part of our daily lives. From this was born the second phase of lockdown life; sourdough. How strange that a yeast culture took up so much space in our kitchens, bubbling away in an old bolognese jar while the inhabitants of the house moved around it, checking in every couple of hours on the progress of expansion and decline, counting the bubbles, wiping down the outside when the mother grew suddenly strong. 

It was a new smell; produced by unique cultures of yeast and bacteria, and changing intermittently depending on what we fed it; sometimes it evoked yogurt, at other times the stone of a peach left in a lunchbox over the weekend, or the bar of a pub that’s in need of a soapy scrub. The scent of yeast in action has often struck me as astringent, but always in a way that suggests a savoury sweetness; it alludes to decay but all the while the source is so clearly living and breathing. What a marvel that we spent so much time tending to this microbe; sometimes I suspect we were in it not so much for the bread as for the opportunity to be perplexed by its existence. This is how we spent our time between episodes of Tiger King, between job applications, hangovers, and news channels; bread is what we held onto in the midst of a global pandemic. 

How strange that a yeast culture took up so much space in our kitchens

Of course, there were far more eventful non-events for us to take comfort in – the occasional walk with a friend around local parks, the knock of kind neighbours who stopped to chat through open windows – but these were mere hours in days that never ended, grew legs, became months in which our whole selves and psyches were colonised by what I have come to think of as the ‘between’ times. I suffered with these between times, my concentration waned and grew dull, my interests began to strike even me as insignificant and boring; what an utter failure of the ego. 

It was grim, but started to make sense after, in my endless scrolling, I stumbled across a Ted Talk by Esther Parel, a psychotherapist whose work I’d been interested in for some time. She was asked by the interviewer what advice she would give to people trying to regulate stress effectively while in lockdown, and one particular part of her response struck me as notably true; she said that we live in a time where there is “a constant and extreme emphasis on safety… [therefore] we avoid the spaces where we can experience happenstance, chance encounters, mystery, surprise; all those elements of eros that create a sense of aliveness”. 

“Something that helps with stress,” she continues, “is to create a space for eros, there’s a reason why at this moment people are seeing plants grow and seeing bread rise, creating things, making things out of nothing – because when you see life emerge in front of you, or something change in front of you, it functions as an antidote to deadness and to stress”. 

This idea struck me as interesting, most obviously because it spoke to the phenomenon of lockdown baking projects, but perhaps more importantly because it reminded me of a striking novel I’d read in the year before COVID took hold of the world. Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature reads like a diary, and chronicles the author’s cultivation of a garden around their cottage, situated in the harsh landscape of Dungeness. The author’s episodic installments, often of just 200 words, detail what plants had been pruned that day, what herbs harvested, and what friends they’d recently been out for dinner with, all while they lived with, and were eventually overcome by, AIDS. Upon my initial reading, I remember being somewhat panic stricken by the author’s careful planting of rosemary, even as illness and epidemic loomed overhead. At first it seemed a resigned and helpless act, the existential equivalent of tearing up a beer coaster, or softening Blu Tac you’ve no intention of hanging anything with, but I must say I think differently now, and see cultivation as a lifeline – a ritual essential to survival.

I see cultivation as a lifeline – a ritual essential to survival

Unfortunately, my lockdown abode was (and remains) a small flat with a concrete yard, overshadowed by a theatre that blocks out all sunshine. However, it was following in Jarman’s footsteps that I began to think about what could grow in my small, dark kitchen – bacteria and fungus seemed the obvious answer, and so I started fermenting. It was at this time that I began to think about food differently; how it functioned in our lives under lockdown, and why it hadn’t fulfilled those same roles for us in the before-times, in spite of the fact that we’ve consumed food since birth. 

Fermentation struck me as a particularly interesting and multifaceted manifestation of eros; not only because, like the sourdough example, the process caused its physical components to change visibly and notably, but also because fermented foods have notable health benefits, and quite often are fermented simply to make food taste better. In my mind, this took growth beyond just an antidote to deadness, and made it additionally, in the context of fermentation, a recipe for pleasure, joy, indulgence and taste. 

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