Salt-Rising Bread

by Anne Whitehouse

From ruined valleys wound by rivers
lined by riprap and slag,
whose steep banks overgrown with vines
are like jungles in summer heat,
where the stench and dust and dirt
are in the air one breathes,
and from higher up in the hills and hollows
where the roads are few and poor
and strewn with boulders,
and people stay put for hundreds of years—
from these tight-knit communities
and hard-to-reach places
came this miracle bread
raised without yeast.

A pinch of table salt,
saleratus, or baking soda
added to a bit of cornmeal,
milk, and flour; or a couple
of sliced potatoes, a teaspoon of sugar;
or lentil or chick pea flours
starts the rising.
Once a baker used tree bark,
and it turned out all right.

A mystery in the wild microbes
makes the starter foam and gives it flavor,
turning something smelling rotten
into something so delicious
that dying men and women
recall it with nostalgia.

A fickle fermentation
that doesn’t always work;
moods and weathers alter it.
The starter can’t be left too long
or used too soon,
the baker ever-watchful
for the window of time
to add warm water and flour
to make a sponge
and wait for it to foam again.
Add more warm water and more flour
to knead a dough, shape into loaves,
set till light, and bake in an oven.

Yeasted sourdough starters
grow at room temperature
and can be kept alive for years.
Raised by the release of carbon dioxide,
sourdough is light and airy,
with a crackly crust.
Raised by the release of hydrogen gas,
salt-rising bread has a close, dense crumb,
a white color, thin crust, and flat top.
Its starter needs warmth to ferment
and must be used immediately.

The best way to eat it is toasted with butter,
the food of memory in its simplicity,
this smell and taste redeemed from the past.