P: Right, lactic acid fermentation. There are a lot of picklers still around that don’t get that distinction at all. But in my journey into cooking I had the most fun when I got to the microbiology of fermentation, learning that you could cook without any heat using micro-organisms—this is kind of mind-blowing. It’s a totally different kind of cooking—your control is partial, at best. Fermentation is “nature imperfectly mastered,” as one of my teachers put it to me. These cultures, they have a life of their own. In a way, it’s like gardening. I think that’s one of the reasons I responded to it. It engages you in a conversation with nature, with other species. You can’t call all the shots.
R: You’re calling all these microbes to you.
P: Yes, you’re trying to create conditions that will make them happy. There’s so much mystery because they’re invisible. I bake with Chad Robertson in San Francisco, who I think is the best baker in the country. I made a point to shake his hand as many times as I could when I was building my starter. I figured, “I want some of his bugs. He has a fantastic starter.” I could have asked him for it, I suppose, but I was worried that might be a bit too forward, to ask somebody for a little of their starter. I don’t know whether he would have given it to me.
R: That’s an interesting thing.
P: I don’t know what the etiquette is around starters. But most bakers don’t share them. They feel their starter is part of their identity. He is less mystical about his starter than a lot of bakers, though, because he’s lost it a few times and was able to restart it pretty easily.
R: Well, he’s in San Francisco, which is like “ground zero” for those folks.
P: Actually that’s a little bit of a myth. Everybody thought that the reason for San Francisco’s sourdoughs was this one particular microbe that was discovered in the ’70s. Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis is the name it was eventually given .
R: I know it, the first article I ever did, was on “unique San Francisco foods” in, I don’t know, 1977?
P: That’s very soon after this research was done. Since then, however, it’s been found all over the world. It’s in Belgium, it’s in Moscow. Nobody really understands it because it’s not found anywhere except in sourdough starter—their habitat is in sourdough starter and nothing else. They can’t find it on the wheat, they can’t find it on the body. There’s some way they get conveyed from one to the other but they haven’t figured it out yet.
R: Are people working on it?