Food is life. Food can also be a joy. Sourdough, by Robin Sloan, tells us a story about the tension between those who seek maximum efficiency and strip the joy out of life and those who seek to find the best expressions of food that feeds the body and the soul. This sounds very serious and existential, especially considering how delightfully silly it is as protagonist Lois Clary deals with a strangely powerful sourdough starter and bleeding edge Silicon Valley firms. In the audiobook version I had, the reader tells the tale in a lively narration that I enjoyed very much.
Lois Clary is a new comer to San Francisco when she takes a job as a programmer for robot arms. The company’s objective is to make manual labor obsolete for people by training robot arms to do all kinds of work. The work is stressful and all consuming and Lois suffers physically after long hours at the office. She even starts eating slurry, a nutritive gel that her co-workers consume, in the hope that it will make her feel better. One day, a menu arrives advertising a spicy soup with sourdough bread. The double spicy combo is so good, so just what Lois needed, that she falls in love with it. So much so, that it’s a blow when the men who make and deliver her double spicy and bread have to leave the United States.
On the day that the men leave San Francisco, one of them gifts Lois with a crock of the starter used to make the bread she loves. Lois is not a baker but she becomes one so that she can use the strange, occasionally humming starter. Her decision to bake leads her on an incredible journey. Events snowball like the reproducing bacteria in her starter. Before she knows it, Lois is baking for her coworkers and for a new, experimental farmers market that also sells coffee roasted with lasers and tube grown barramundi. The plot really kicks off when Lois’ starter starts to behave even more strangely than normal. To say any more would ruin the gleefully whacky ending of this novel.
Each chapter gets a little weirder and a little sillier, but it’s all underpinned by a more serious question about the value of food. Sourdough ultimately argues that food is not just fuel and should be treated with respect. When people seek maximum efficiency in work or in nutrition, they end up stripping those things of their quality and value. The possibly quixotic quest of Lois’ colleagues at the new market want to maintain that value and refine their craft. Thankfully for us readers, this fight goes down with a nice, tangy slice of sourdough.