A City's Obsession With Sourdough Becomes The Stuff of Fiction
Novelist Robin Sloan takes on food culture in San Francisco with wit and sci-fi enthusiasm in 'Sourdough: A Novel.'
October 23, 2017 ● 8 min read
By Rachel Khong | Photo by Justin Kaneps | Collage ChefsFeed
Robin Sloan’s Sourdough defies easy characterization.
It is, at first glance, a novel about food and tech and San Francisco. But that ingredient list does not do justice to the finished dish: a madcap and masterfully balanced take on what it means to be a person who eats food in the world today. Sourdough is Sloan’s second effort, after his first novel, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, which was also set in San Francisco, and involved a 24-hour bookstore where people never seemed to buy any books. It’s that same spirit of curiosity and playfulness that infects his latest effort, too.
In Sourdough, our heroine is Lois Clary, a programmer who works in robotic arms, at a company called General Dexterity. Sloan’s characters are familiar to anyone living in San Francisco: tech colleagues who drink a Soylent-esque “nutritive gel” called Slurry; a Chez Panisse-esque restaurant with many, many Chez Panisse-esque acolytes; microbe-obsessed farmers. One day, Lois orders spicy soup and bread from a restaurant helmed by immigrant brothers, and the food effectively changes her life.
When the brothers leave San Francisco, bestowing onto Lois their precious, handed-down sourdough starter, she bakes bread for the first time, and finds that the bread is a) delicious and b) appears to have faces in it, Virgin-Mary-in-the-grilled-cheese style. One thing leads to another, and she begins to sell her bread at an underground farmers’ market—along with General Dexterity’s robotic arms. That’s just some of what goes on, anyway. Which is all simply to say, Sourdough is a rollicking delight.
I spoke to Sloan over coffee at Highwire Coffee in Oakland, where he now lives, about sourdough, writing, and egg-cracking, which are all more intertwined than you might suspect.
So, why sourdough?
It actually didn’t start with sourdough. It started with wine. I heard a story up at a winery in Boonville. In a voice full of conspiracy, the woman in the tasting room said, “You know, you’re drinking a suitcase clone.” She went on to explain what it was—a really cool story about grapes actually being snipped and smuggled from the old world to the new to establish these vineyards. It was really that little detail—that tiny little story—that sent me into the world of food with secret histories. Food with secrets to reveal.
Eventually, it turned out I was not interested enough in wine to write a whole novel about it. The story of a mysterious grape didn’t work—it was too slow. I was like, Ugh, I’m not into writing this generational tale, season to season, vintage to vintage. So it almost became an equation I had to balance, where I wanted something that was in this world and could connect to all these ideas I was getting obsessed with, about food and eating and where it all comes from—something I knew more about and had a faster tempo. And I had been baking sourdough bread for a long time and had a little starter in a scummy mason jar in my kitchen, so I was like… x = 5! Balancing a puzzle sort of.
When did you start baking sourdough yourself?
I read the Tartine bread book, like however many other jerks, and was very impressed by it. I did not know what sourdough bread was before I read that book; I did not know what sourdough starter was. I attempted to follow the directions, not super successfully. It looked like I killed a creature with goopy glutinous guts and it was everywhere in the kitchen. And the truth is, in all my years of baking sourdough, I only ever achieved B-minus bread at best. It just never looked like it did in the picture and it was stubbornly dense. But it was amazing!
Do you feel like living in the Bay Area got you into food?
Yeah! Sometimes I will flip through the opening chapters of Sourdough and think, This is more directly autobiographical than I intended. Michigan, it’s dark. I grew up with a family that didn’t have a strong cuisine—not that nobody cared about food or they were giving us cans of Pringles for dinner, but it just was a lot of frozen TV dinners, and ordering pizza, and going to Denny’s. It’s not like I came to the Bay Area and it was avocados raining from the sky, [but] I really remember those early years very vividly—working at a TV network was exciting but it was a lot of work and demanding—not knowing how to feed myself.
Really, it was getting through a big world through one door, and for me, that door was my partner of many years, Kathryn. At the time we met I, of course, liked to eat, and enjoyed good food and understood that I was in one of the best places in the world to eat. But at home, I had one pan and one thing of dry pasta. She taught me a lot, goaded me into being better at it. She’s been involved in the world of food in a lot of different ways for a long time, and once you’re in that network, you’re exposed to people running jam companies and cricket flour bakeries and everything.
What was the experience like of publishing a book that’s so food-oriented? Was it fun?
It was fun! I also liked the idea of a food book set in San Francisco, that people would read, assuming perhaps from the title or description that it would be one of those comfortable slightly nostalgic food stories of, like, the girl with the perfect palate who just has to scrape together enough money to open a bakery in the south of France, that sort of a book. Of course, it is not that kind of book. Especially by the end, it gets… weird. And I just love the idea of that kind of reader being surprised by that but also into it.
Was this always also a story about tech?
It definitely was, only because it’s something I experienced so directly. [People are] endlessly fascinated by these strange lives that people have when they work in these companies. I worked at Twitter. That was my last office job, and that was my deepest dip into the real tech world. That’s where I worked with the most intense programmers—which was fun, actually. That was my favorite part of the job, observing these minds at work. I’m a huge nerd for that stuff. For code, the way machines work, and things that happen on screens. But I haven’t worked in that world for a long time.
I will say that tech’s role [in the book] grew in a way that was truly surprising to me. Not in that way like, [in a high, English accent] Oh, my characters, I never know what they’re going to do. I was actually surprised. The robot arms are about labor and work, and what it means to work. And as I went through revisions, that grew and grew and grew. At first, that was the random workplace she inhabited, and then I realized it was an important part of the whole book. This question of: what kind of work should a person do, and how should they accomplish it?
Have you… drunk Soylent?
Do you drink it? Do you absorb it? Yeah, I did. When I decided I was going to put my weird fictional equivalent in the book I was like, I should probably try it. Just to see what it’s like. There’s no reason to try actually subsisting on it. But I did try drinking it consistently for about ten days.
What’s your verdict?
In a way, it would be more interesting if it was disgusting. It’s just so nothing. It’s so bland. To me, it tastes like really damp cereal, like Rice Krispies or something. Here’s the thing though — I get it. Years and years ago, I used to have that feeling: it’s the middle of the day and you put off eating because you just can’t deal with it. That despondency. Which is really sad. When I was that person I would have signed up for Soylent in a second.
I do feel still like that sometimes, but the answer now is an extremely fast omelet. It does the same thing, and it’s good and it’s easy. I just didn’t know how to make an omelet. Everything seemed like so much work.
How do you think that changed for you?
Practice. It seems like a stupidly simple answer, and I think of it in terms of literacy. I can remember the feeling of looking into a well-stocked pantry and thinking, There’s nothing to eat here! And now I can look at it, and say, I see how things go together. I swear it’s like being able to read a language. It’s practice, but not even that much. There were some bad bowls of oatmeal along the way. To not be deterred by the first few disasters—maybe that’s actually the key. Just power through it. Just like writing.
Were you thinking about Chez Panisse when you wrote about Café Candide?
Oh yeah, of course. I’m glad you asked if it was Chez Panisse rather than Alice Waters. Some people have said, Oh, Charlotte Clingstone is your Alice Waters character. Which is not wrong. But I’ve had to take pains to say that actually the restaurant and its mafia are Chez Panisse and its mafia more than that character is Alice Waters. I have not met Alice Waters. But Chez Panisse, even though I’m not part of that world at all, I actually feel weirdly intimately acquainted with. Over the years I have realized that every restaurant that I have loved, like Ramen Shop, came from it. One of the things I wanted to do was recognize its power. It’s a powerful network of businesses.
Where do you like to eat sourdough?
I would say that Acme has become my go to. I used to be a big Josey Baker fan when I lived in the city. But I love how Acme is extremely high quality, but also chill. They’re like, Yeah, we bake a lot of bread for a lot of people! One of the things I like about publishing is the part of it that is mechanical. It’s this artful thing and you obsess over these details. But then books are produced now by enormous machines in really streamlined systems, and what that means is there’s enough for everyone. And there’s something lovely and democratic about that. Books aren’t precious. They’re mechanical, mass-produced artifacts.
Was there, for you, a life-changing restaurant with spicy soup?
Not exactly, but I did have a restaurant in mind. I lived at 10th and Clement for almost two years, just up the street from Green Apple books. Burma Superstar is on that street, which was my introduction to Burmese cuisine, as I’m sure it was for a lot of people. I didn’t even know what to expect. I liked everything there. In particular, a few dishes, chiefly the tea leaf salad. I was obsessed with it. It was that experience of, I didn’t even know what I was missing!
One of Lois’s main struggles is trying to program her mechanical arm to crack an egg with one hand, which turns out is really difficult for a robot to do. Can you crack an egg with one hand?
I have cracked an egg with one hand. Just last night I was like, Let’s see, and I failed.
When I read the book, first I wanted to eat bread, and my second thought was, I should be able to crack an egg with one hand.
I’m sure I had never cracked an egg with one hand before that. And I was like, well how would a person learn? So I went on YouTube. Sure enough: thousands of tutorials. People who are ready to show you how. You gotta have a few spare eggs.
Humans, we learn really fast.