on bread and blogging

My partner bakes bread every week. He’s no amateur at this kneading and raising business, as he owned a bakery and cafes for quite long time. His bread is made with a sour – the sour is simply wild yeasts in a mix of flour and water – rather than shop-bought yeast. Every sour is different; they can vary in texture, from thin and runny to thick and gluggy, and they have slight differences in taste too. The sour is responsive to the environment; temperature and moisture for example affect the amount and balances of acids that are produced – that’s the sour taste that gives sourdough its name.

Keeping a sour requires a baker to develop a parental attitude. The sour needs to be fed regularly – more flour and water every few days. Bakers call these additions ‘refreshments’ and the sour will die if it doesn’t get them. The sour grows between bakes so that some of it can be removed on baking day, with enough left over to keep the process going. Most serious bakers keep their sours for years, although there is some debate about whether this is good/possible.

Our sour generally sits in a cloth-covered jar on the kitchen counter. Now here’s the thing. The sour is alive. It’s not the same as the mixer or the toaster.  It’s a living thing in my kitchen. Mostly it just goes about its business. I imagine it skulking there next to the coffee maker, quietly eating and expanding.  But as it gets close to feeding time I feel it looking up from under its cloth hat, its gaze fixed and intense – ‘Refresh me now or I die’, I imagine I hear it saying in thick, acid tones.

The sour requires that its human keepers maintain a continued low-level consciousness of its needs. When we go away for the weekend we either have to feed it up beforehand, give to it someone to look after, or put it in the fridge to slow down its digestion and growth. If we go away for more than a few days we usually put it into a coma in the freezer in its plastic cryogenic container. There is always a moment of anxiety about whether it will wake up, and the sour is rather sluggish for a few days after as it recovers. Some additional refreshment is always required post freeze as payback for the unexpected suspension of activity. I am sure that the sour vengefully keeps us wondering whether it will have recovered sufficiently by baking day to provide the appropriate amount of leavening.

I’m telling you about the sour because I tend to think about this blog in a somewhat similar way. The blog isn’t on a counter under a cloth hat, but sitting somewhere on a server. But, like the sour, in order to stay alive the blog requires things of me. The blog, like the sour, needs feeding at very regular intervals.

The blog is always a presence in my life, and never far away from my thinking. As it gets closer to the regular publication dates, I imagine it watching me, tapping out a precise and impatient rap of virtual question marks, waiting an answering response on the keyboard. “Is this the week when you have nothing to say? I always knew that this would happen. I knew you couldn’t keep it up. I knew that you’d let me down eventually.” You see my blog has a kind of inbuilt paranoia, it knows that some time in its future I will be a bad parent and neglect it. It just doesn’t know when.

And I do have to think ahead about the blog’s needs, just as with the sour. I pre-prepare for periods away from my desk. I try to have a few posts for emergencies so that I don’t find myself looking empty-handed at a hungry blog on a portable screen. I dread having nothing to offer it. I’m reluctant to put the blog into a deep-freeze hibernation over summer for fear that once out of the habit of regularly feeding/posting, I’ll find it hard to get back to. I worry that the blog will languish, become a dried husk, a mere archive of its former self, if I don’t keep up with its refreshments.

Refreshing the blog is not as easy as managing the sour and its appetite. Blog post ideas are not available out of a packet and tap as are flour and water. Coming up with each and every post requires some kind of stimulus – a question, a bit of reading, some teaching, a conversation – these spark the blog-thought that turns into the post that will keep the blog going.

That’s how this post happened. I was minded of the way that I thought about the blog when someone recently commented that I’d attributed agency to blogs. Blogs don’t do things in the world, the commenter said, writers do.

I’m afraid I don’t agree with this. While I understand the point being made, it does seem to me that there is some power in the blog itself, some kind of agency and some pull that is exerted on me. And any blog can have a life of its own outside of its origin. Just because a writer wants a blog to do and mean particular things, it doesn’t mean that it will. Unlike the sour which remains captive within its glass jar, the blog is a more mobile and promiscuous object altogether – one able to be moulded and taken up by others who encounter and read it.

All blogs are dependent on their writers of course, but they do also seem to have lives of their own… and appetites.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic blogging, blogging, blogging about blogging and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to on bread and blogging

  1. Pam says:

    Thank you for this! I spend a lot of my time providing editing services for research students and always enjoy your blogs, but over the last few weeks I have also started learning how to make bread (and even thought about starting a blog about my journey) so your blog today was particularly relevant … and helped me learn about both blogs and baking. Thank you.

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  2. Haitham Al-Sheeshany says:

    Thank you Pat. I’d like to describe what you wrote as (generous words).
    I think, too, that blogs have a life of their own. Also, they have these convos with you, their maker/parent/friend (foe?)/and collaborator.

    I started blogging in 2005, in 2008 I took a break from blogging and just immersed in reading/commenting on other blogs. It was hard to find the balance so I picked one stream. Now I am back to blogging but not as extensively as I used to but it feels fine and fruitful.

    Thanks for sharing with us such thoughts, interesting + helpful for sure.

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  3. francesbell says:

    I love this post. I am in the process of moving and tarting up my blog and I am even thinking of giving it a name (I always wanted a sister).
    Quite by chance I came across a comment I made on someone’s blog http://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2011/02/25/attacks-on-connectivism/#comment-1259. I had absolutely no recollection of writing that comment or of comparing a theory to bread dough. I guess we just turn to what’s near us.

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  4. Sue Watling says:

    My blog definitely has agency! Oh how I identify this this ‘….my blog has a kind of inbuilt paranoia, it knows that some time in its future I will be a bad parent and neglect it. It just doesn’t know when.’ Another great post Pat, thank you 🙂

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  7. Irene says:

    Thanks for this. I’m sending the link to my husband as he bakes bread. He would like to make sour dough but isn’t sure he can be a good parent. Knowing you can put the sour in a coma for a while may give him courage to give it a go.

    I agree with you about blogs having agency. In fact, any written material takes on a life of its own when it is read by others as they interpret it in accordance with their own experience. My thesis focuses on this aspect of written communication and the need to balance reification and participation to create shared meaning (see Etienne Wenger, ‘Communities of Practice’, 1999).

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