Telling the Story of Sourdough

Hungry Ghost Bread

By Marykate Smith Despres, Photos by Dominic Perri

It’s not an art,” Jonathan Stevens says of baking bread, rolling his eyes. “It’s a craft.” Stevens has been baking bread for 25 years, 15 at Hungry Ghost Bread in Northampton with partner and co-owner Cheryl Maffei. “Craft is an expression of material and tradition. Art is an expression of the artist. [You need to have] a sense of humility in the face of 10,000 years of bread baking.”

But by that definition, Stevens’ impassioned explanations and interpretations of the process and of bread itself put him somewhere in between artisan and artist, into the realm of storyteller. “There are different ways to understand bread,” says Stevens, the son of a chemist and a psychologist. “Scientifically—that’s just not my thing.”

The story of bread has become, quite literally, ingrained in him, finding its way into song lyrics and poems penned on the back of bread schedules, into the annual Bread Festival puppet-and-brass-band parade through town, into the ways in which he thinks about the history of civilization—from Persephone (the goddess of harvest), to cats in ancient Egypt (whose sacredness came from their ability to guard the grain), to the agricultural industrial revolution—and the ways in which bakeries serve and sustain their communities. Clearly, unscientific does not mean uninformed.

Hungry Ghost breads are sourdough, meaning each loaf begins as a live, fermented culture. Stevens believes that often, a sensitivity to gluten is actually a sensitivity to unfermented gluten. “People need gluten to be fermented,” he says. “The body can’t access the vitamins and minerals [in unfermented wheat]. It can see them, but it can’t access them.”

The crust on a loaf of bread, more specifically, the way the scoring creates sharp ridges and yawning crests, is what Stevens calls “a photograph of perfect fermentation.”

“It’s the last gasp of wild yeast. If you get it right, they die with their arms over their heads,” he says. “It’s a Vesuvian death. You want people buried mid-party.” Stevens dances around to demonstrate, throws his hands over his head and yells, “Yay!”, freezing mid-cheer in mock joy. He’s right—it’s not a scientific explanation. But it certainly makes for a better story.

Hungry Ghost Bread’s 15th annual “Wonder Not!” Bread Festival is on Sunday, September 22, 11am–5pm. The festival is free and includes a giant puppet parade through town with the Expandable Brass Band, wheat planting in the garden, live music, vendors, and lots of bread!

This Loaf for President

This bread does not boast

This bread does not need

A chief of staff

Or a press secretary

Even at its greatest,

This bread will soon get eaten

-or go moldy.

This bread won’t build walls

Drop bombs, sell fighter jets

Or make secret deals with

Shady Russians

This bread cannot lie

This bread will not exaggerate

How many people it fed

-its list of ingredients

Is astonishingly short

This bread will not play golf

Instead of sitting patiently upon your table

This bread is smarter than you think:

It will teach your tongue

About the Fertile Crescent

It will move your mouth

With a song of scythes,

Of broadcasting hands,

of the furrow on the miller’s

hands, and his stones

This bread believes in

universal health care, from the

inside out, a gut feeling

about common sense

and simple decency

This bread has a heel one can chew on

a crust you can sop up sorrows with

wings for the Angel of Victory

over every kind of hunger

Poem reprinted from Jonathan Stevens’ Bread Poems, collected and published by the author in 2019.