Care and feeding of Sourdough

When I walked into “Oh, Canada” at Mass MoCA on Saturday, I didn’t know what to expect — but I never thought I would leave with something alive. My kitchen counter is now home, if all goes well, to a growing colony of native North Adams yeast.

If I had no other reason to love this show, I would love it for this. In fact, I have many reasons to love it, and I am glad it will run for a good long time, so I can go back — and talk about it here — one piece at a time. But Eryn Foster’s work stands out. She caught me first by her humor: the forager of wild yeast setting out into the wild in her work boots and jeans. Seen from a yeast’s eye-view, North Adams is a vast wilderness.

Foster walked around the city with a sourdough starter to attract a flavor unique to our mountain and mill-town air. Then she built a bake oven with friends, in a community garden near the museum, and made pizzas with her new starter. And now, anyone who asks at Mass MoCA’s front desk can take home their own half-cup of starter in a jam jar, with simple instructions.

She has also started a forum where people can share what happens to their starters. Mine is sitting in a bowl on my kitchen counter, newly fed with flour and water. It takes a few days, and a few meals, to revive a starter that has spent a few weeks in the fridge. Mine is active now, and I can return it to the fridge for several weeks or give it another feeding and a night to bubble contentedly and then turn some of it into a base for ciabatta.

I’m fascinated. A museum exhibit has taken up residence in my kitchen. And the strongest element of Foster’s work that catches me (beyond imagining what a North Adams native ciabatta loaf will taste like) is the sense of other bakers in other kitchens peering at the soft, bubbling dough in their kitchen bowls and wondering what it will do. Foster is building community.

So is Denise Markonish, curator of the show. Canada is a vast place with a small population. She met hundreds of artists, as she traveled, choosing the more than 100 works in the exhibit. And she told me, when we talked before the snow opened, that these artists live spread out, often in remote places. That remote quality sings in many of the show’s installations. You step behind a curtain, into a dark room, and lighted windmills of plastic bottles turn like empty ferris wheels, with a sound like the wind over a million miles of desert. You look through a minute window into a bare room or a bare road in winter.

Markonish said she wanted the artists she met to meet each other. And Foster has built a hub. If it’s tended as carefully, and fed as often, as a local starter — who knows how it will rise?

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