Booking it: ‘Sourdough’ Part I
(Emily Dembinski/Illustrations director)
By Kristin Snyder
Oct. 7, 2020 4:56 p.m.
Kristin Snyder: Welcome back to “Booking It.” As always, I’m Kristin Snyder.
Paige Hua: And I’m Paige Hua. And today we’re joined by Yasmin Madjidi, the fellow lifestyle editor over from the A&E section.
KS: Today, we’re discussing the first half of Robin Sloan’s novel “Sourdough.” “Sourdough” is Sloan’s second book, and this one follows Lois, who works in robotics in San Francisco. She codes basically all day, and it is very well noted that she has a terrible diet. Then her favorite local sandwich shop closes and the owners leave her with the starter for their sourdough bread. And then as she learns to make sourdough, she starts taking it to the farmers market and joins this pretty exclusive club and starts to explore the intersection between food and technology.
PH: To start it off, what were you guys’ thoughts about it? Because I really liked it.
Yasmin Madjidi: It was definitely different than books I’m used to reading, but it was very refreshing. I’ve never read a book that was so concentrated on bread and so concentrated on how to make bread and the exact parts of it. So it’s really an interesting read for me. I’m used to cheesy love stories, so it’s kind of fun to read a book that’s just about an independent person finding out who she is.
PH: Yeah, I thought it was a surprisingly thoughtful narrative about a really simple topic. There are a lot of layers to it as you kept going and as Sloan kept describing the ways you can make sourdough.
KS: I’ve read his other book, “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore,” years ago. According to Goodreads, I gave it four stars in 2014. I don’t remember anything about it, besides, I think, it gets into weird cult stuff near the end. So I am intrigued to see if we get more weird cult stuff in this one.
PH: My very quote from the first half of the book is, “Here’s a thing I believe about people my age. We are the children of Hogwarts and more than anything we just want to be sorted.” And I don’t really know why that struck me so much. I think it’s because I spent an egregious amount of time on “Harry Potter” TikTok these days. But I think I do see a connection where I think so many people view Hogwarts as like an imaginary home. And I think Lois in this book is in many ways trying to find the physical version of that, which maybe is why she finds herself in all of these close-knit clubs of like her name or like these random people at farmers markets who are just like trying to climb the ladders.
KS: We should also preface this since we are talking about “Harry Potter,” I think it is important to note that we do not support J.K. Rowling’s transphobic remarks. Obviously, “Harry Potter” is still very much part of the cultural canon and is coming up in books like this. I think it’s also really interesting, if you take this as a perspective on – kind of similar to the last book, but also not – just how lonely it is to live in a big city and how Lois moves there. She has no family. She has no friends. She goes to work and she goes to sleep and that’s basically it. And then she goes to work and bakes bread. I think this quote shows that kind of like what you’re saying, Paige, that you just try to find places to cling to, to find a community in. At first, for her, it was the bread men, then it became the Loises. And then now we’re being introduced to the – I’m just gonna call them a cult but they’re not a cult – so far it’s just a farmers market.
YM: I think the interesting part of that quote to me was the “we just want to be sorted” part. I mean, although she does kind of like actively try and find her place when she goes and tests out her bread at the different farmers markets. It’s so much easier for us to be placed somewhere we already fit. And so it’s interesting to see her go through and see where she does actually click and fit.
KS: Yeah, it’s a very passive statement. And that’s kind of like what happens, right, throughout the book. How did she find the restaurant again?
PH: It was conveniently placed on her doorstep. It was just an ad.
KS: Yeah. So that was brought to her, essentially, by fate or coincidence or whatever you decide. And the guys just gave her the starter and were like, “You should do something with this.” And then when she was going through and buying the supplies, it mentions multiple times that she just buys whatever is recommended as a “customers also bought” type thing.
PH: And it’s interesting because this book, I just looked it up, was published in 2017, but somehow it feels almost like those issues feel even more relevant now, when you consider all of the news that’s around, selling people’s data and that quote that seems to be floating around where it’s like, “If you’re not paying for something then you’re the thing that’s being sold.” So it’s just interesting where all of Sloan’s ideas in this book are really centered around food and technology, which I would say are sort of like the two empires of the Bay Area. Every time I go to the Bay Area, it’s like, OK, where’s Apple? And then like, where’s the next food store we’re stopping at? I think seeing Lois grappling with that idea also makes the book so much more enjoyable because at first her journey is like really strange, like here are these two men that give her bread starter and you’re like, OK, well, this is really weird. But then you kind of realize it’s not so strange at all, because I feel like these are still issues you grapple with every day where the wanting to kind of enjoy your life and live an enriching one versus sometimes the choices we make because of our careers or money-related financial pressures or whatever that may be. You see Lois grappling with all of those things as well.
YM: This is just like building off what you just mentioned about how the start of the book does seem really weird. And I remember the first couple of chapters where she’s just alone and drinking her weird gel and just working all day, I was so confused by where this book was going to go and where they were going to take the narrative. The intersection is so interesting. I would never put a coder with this weird singing sourdough mixer that comes to life and makes this amazing sourdough. I would never bring them together in my head. But then it makes so much sense for Lois to exist as this Bay Area kind of nerd who just does her own thing and is navigating her city.
KS: I love the scene when she’s going to build her fancy brick oven in the backyard and she drags her neighbor to go buy everything so she can use their car and then she starts constructing it and the neighbor just comes out and is like, “What’s going on here?” And she just sits and watches the fire with her. That’s just Lois I guess. No one questions it, they kind of accept it and like bond over that because the neighbor – Carmen, I think – can get free bread. And if I could get free bread from my neighbors I would be very pleased.
PH: I will build as many brick ovens as you wish outside.
YM: I love how bold she was at that, too. She’s like, “Oh, I have to make bread. I’m making my whole entire oven myself too then.” It’s just such a power move.
PH: And it’s interesting that you say that because I feel like Lois’ first instinct in the first half of the book is to just always make everything herself, whether that’s her food or the weird robotic tech arm that she made for her branding, or whatever happens in the farmers market that we’ve yet to really understand. Which is just, I think, a testament to her character as well.
YM: I really respect how she never doubts herself, too. She’s always like, “Oh, I’ll make this bread and it tastes great. And I have the best breads, so I’m going to go to the farmers market.” And then this arm has never worked before. But she’s like, “No, I’m going to make the arm. Give me the robot and I’ll fix it.” She never doubts her abilities, which is awesome.
KS: Kind of going back to what Paige was saying earlier, I pulled up one of the quotes where they’re talking about one of the emails from Beo, I think. And he’s talking about the Mazg culture, which is fictional. So he’s talking about the three pillars of the Mazg culture and the very first one is food, and so he’s talking about the sourdough starter and the spicy soup that she likes. And on the second one is singing, where his brother makes the music and the sour dough sings. And then a third is reticence and how “there are Mazg neighborhoods in cities all over Europe. But you would never know it, because you’d never have signs or storefronts and you will never, ever see our beautiful script in the street. It’s a shame.” And so I think that kind of ties into what you were saying about how it’s very strange to pair technology and food. But I think within this context that makes sense, because if food is the number one thing in the Mazg culture, it makes sense that food would be the number one part of the Bay Area tech culture, even if they aren’t aware of it. The social dynamics at her workplace are inherently defined by food throughout the novel. Every single culture is being defined by their relationship to food.
PH: And I feel like the tech industry itself is also defined by how it relates to food in this book as well. Because food is the one thing they can’t seem to figure out with their technology either. Because there is the robot arm that just can’t crack the egg. And she’s trying to make the robot try and make sourdough bread. It can’t get the right pressure, I think it was, to knead it and everything. So it’s interesting to see how the food is just so human that it almost just can’t be done through technology.
KS: Well, it’s also interesting, too, because then there’s a scene where she first is approaching them about using one of the arms to crack the egg of this mystery. And so they’re talking about how they’ve tried so many times over and over again but they can never get it right – to the point where they’ve thrown away huge trash bags and multiple trash bags just full of cracked egg shells that the arm has broken. They’re wasting so much money and so many resources and they’re just trying what seems to be the same thing over and over again for this thing that they keep failing at. So it’s kind of how the tech industry will just like do whatever it takes, like fully take over every aspect of society.
YM: That’s kind of freaky to think about in this, like our current context is like everything is online now. Everything is technology. Like, I’ve never stared at my phone and my laptop longer than I have in the past six months.
PH: And the technology aspect of it is so important to the debates happening now. But also, I’ve turned to food and cooking as a break from the internet so many times during quarantine. And that’s basically what Lois is doing in the book where she is just turning to food as an outside source of connection. Even though she does it alone most of the time, it still connects her to the two friends she made in the city.
KS: Have either you guys actually made bread or sourdough bread, more specifically?
PH: I haven’t made sourdough bread, but I’ve made banana bread, which is more cake-like.
KS: There is one part where like it’s the very first piece of bread that she ever made.
PH: Is it that quote about the bread having a face?
KS: Well, that was interesting, too. But there’s one part, “It was perhaps not as perfectly photogenic as the one on the cover of the bread book, but it was … not too bad.”
PH: Yeah, but it’s also like, food is just always food and you can at some point always consume it or fix your mistakes with it as long as it’s not burnt to a crisp. It’s always something where it’s like, “Yeah, it’s not too bad and I made it.” I feel like it’s a little bit elevated knowing that you’re the one that put the work behind the scenes to create whatever dish it is.
YM: Before we actually got to know Lois’ character that well, I was surprised by her reaction to the bread. I thought she would have been so upset that she didn’t perfect it just because of the stereotype of, like the coding people who – like I mean, a code has to be perfect, right, to work otherwise the software won’t run or like the arm won’t work. So I thought that if she had a little mistake in her bread that she wouldn’t have accepted it.
KS: What do you guys think of the faces in the bread?
PH: I have no idea. That part stumped me. I kept thinking about that meme where it’s like someone made a grilled cheese and the face of Jesus came onto it.
KS: That’s from “Glee.” In the episode “Grilled Cheesus,” I’m pretty sure that’s the name of the episode.
PH: Yeah. I kept seeing it in my head. I was like, is this what are you seeing at her sourdough bread, just the face of God looking back at her?
KS: And she, much like Finn in “Glee,” starts praying to it. That would have been a twist I didn’t see coming, actually.
PH: That is so true. I don’t even know. I have zero interpretation of it. I just accepted it. I feel like we see things in our food a lot anyway.
KS: It just adds to the whole mystery and like ethereal-ness surrounding the bread. There’s the starter that just sings and then there’s the fact that it smells like bananas, even though it seemingly has no banana product in it.
PH: Yeah. I was wondering about that too. Banana is so interesting. Shouldn’t it smell like yeast.
KS: If we’re taking the bread as a distinct feature like the Mazg culture, they’re a very separate thing than normal society. Like you view Lois’ life and then you view Beo’s life, which is constantly moving around and they ran a kitchen out of their apartment and things like that.
PH: Very strange, but also what a hustle to run a kitchen out of your apartment. I like the first half of the book a lot and I’m really excited to see where the second half goes, and if it gets even crazier and weirder. I want to see her succeed and stuff. And especially how Sloan plans on kind of reconciling the two industries of food and technology, because I feel like that’s where a lot of the buildup is leading, and Lois will find a way to complete that arm and put it into her shop or brand or whatever it may be.
KS: Either the arm is going to actually be portrayed as a good thing or the end of civilization and humanized culture.
YM: I’m almost hoping that the arm fails and she just realizes that making bread is just such a human thing to do. That’s what I’m hoping for.
PH: It’s like there’s the “Terminator” end to it or there’s the cottagecore end to it where she just retreats into a forest and makes bread. I feel like my only criticism that I could think of for this book was just that the first half was just like a really white space, minus the two men, Beo and Chaiman. That was the only culture point of the book, I feel like, especially just because the tech market is usually such a white male space as well. And then, like farmers markets these days, kind of feel a little bit gentrified and how everyone is basically commercializing everything.
KS: There’s like one part which I thought was kind of – I don’t know how I feel about the section yet and I’m waiting to see if Sloan explores this more in the second half before I am fully judgmental. When he’s talking about how food stores in San Francisco become successful. And so then there’s the quote, “If the storefront is successful, if it assists with the greater aims of gentrification, if is written up in national food and/or lifestyle publications, including ideally The New York Times – the local paper can’t help you here – then you will be permitted to open a larger, more boldly designed flagship along one of the city’s certified cool thoroughfares.” And then it goes on to say, later, “Finally, you’ll sell your company to Starbucks for 19 million dollars. And remember, you begin with a cart at the outermost corner. You begin here in this line.” I think it’s really interesting how it’s bringing up this concept of gentrification, which is always like a huge issue in San Francisco, but it’s not really creating an intersectional perspective of it. It’s very, very white. I think it’s interesting he brings it up but doesn’t seem to take it to the next logical step or delve into it further.
YM: I was thinking about that just with the sourdough starter because it wasn’t even hers. That was the one thing I was like, I forget his brother’s name, but were they just fine with her taking their starter and using it in this farmers market and obviously – well, hopefully, you know, it’s successful. So I kept thinking I hope that those characters come back and kind of claim what was theirs and have some enjoyment in what was theirs.
PH: That’s true. I wonder if they will come back. I feel like Sloan has left a lot to be tied up for the second half of the book.
KS: Thank you for joining us on this episode of “Booking It.” We’ll be back next time with a special episode where we’ll be talking with Daily Bruin quad reporter Maya Harris about “How to be An Antiracist,” “So You Want to Talk About Race” and “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.” Then we’ll finish up “Sourdough” week six and announce our winter quarter read. As always, you can send any questions or comments to [email protected] or tweet @DailyBruinAE.