The Sunday Magazine·Personal Essay

Sourdough sabbath: an age-old ritual takes on greater meaning during COVID-19

At some point in the past three months, half the world started a bread-baking frenzy — either as something to do that’s good for the body and soul, or to fill the long hours stuck at home, or just because everyone else on Instagram was doing it. Not so for Renée Bondy. Preparing dough and baking bread have long been a contemplative and nearly monastic weekend ritual for her. Here is her essay, Sourdough Sabbath.

‘The day-long process of making sourdough requires adherence to a schedule, much like a monastic horarium’

The day-long process of making sourdough requires strict adherence to a schedule. (Renée Bondy)

Renée Bondy, special to CBC Radio

Weeks ago, when we were first adjusting to the new normal of the pandemic, I was taken aback to see bare shelves in the baking aisle of the local grocery store. It took me a minute, but then it came to me: we're all baking now.

Renée Bondy is an adjunct professor in women’s and gender studies at the University of Windsor. (Submitted by Renée Bondy)

Over the past month or so, journalists and bloggers have weighed in on the baking craze, offering delicious commentary on the unprecedented shortages of flour, yeast and other staples, and providing some sweet ideas for new bakers.

But for me, a baker from way back, it was more than a little frustrating that I couldn't purchase flour, not just in week one, but in week two and week three and still! The shortage was real and I was becoming increasingly desperate. You see, for me, baking bread isn't just a hobby, or even a need — it's a sacred ritual, filled with meaning and nostalgia.

Before I could read a recipe, I was a baker. I spent hours in the kitchen with my French-Canadian mémé as she baked for our large extended family. I learned to make her chewy, molasses, ginger cookies (I'm sure I ate thousands along the way.) And over time, I mastered her flaky pie crust. Even today, there are few things more comforting than the smell of her rich date squares, hot from the oven.

I still bake these old favourites on occasion, but these days my go-to is bread. And Sunday is the day I devote to the task.

Years ago, my Sunday routine was very different. Church, brunch, errands and prepping my Monday classes filled the day.

Now, I keep a sourdough sabbath.

For me, baking bread isn't just a hobby, or even a need — it's a sacred ritual, filled with meaning and nostalgia.- Renée Bondy

The breadmaking process begins at sundown on Saturday, when I take a little flour, water, and a few tablespoons of sourdough starter, stir these together, and leave them to rest on the kitchen counter overnight. Though definitely not a morning person by nature, on Sundays I rise early, sometimes before the sun, to prepare the dough.

For Renée Bondy, the breadmaking process begins at sundown on Saturday. (Renée Bondy)

The leaven I readied the night before is warm and bubbly, and I add the sticky mixture to several cups of flour and some water to form a shaggy dough. Nestled under a tea towel, the dough rests. In a few hours, I add more water and a spoonful of salt. The dough, now quite wet, must be folded and rested, folded and rested, six times in total, at 30-minute intervals. I set a timer and spend the better part of the afternoon tending the dough. As I stretch and fold it, it becomes a bit drier and more elastic, ready to shape into rounds, or boules. I form two loaves, cover them, and set them to rise in the late afternoon sun. Early evening is baking time.

To non-bakers, this might seem like a lot of unnecessary work. It's true, I could buy a tasty loaf of sourdough at the local bakery and save a lot of energy and time. And the bread I bake is not perfect — its rise and texture change with the seasons. But each week when I feed my sourdough starter with a little flour, I think of the friend who gave it to me years ago, and marvel at the fact that bakeries around the world boast starters that are hundreds of years old. From sundown to sundown, week to week, year after year, my sourdough sabbath is a day set apart.

Renée Bondy usually makes two loaves, one to be eaten and one to give away to a neighbour. (Renée Bondy)

I'm hardly the first person to fall under the sourdough spell. Archaeologists have unearthed remains of ancient sourdough, and estimate that the practice of sourdough baking has been around for more than 6,000 years, beginning in Mesopotamia and spreading throughout the Middle East, to Egypt, and across Europe. Monastics became known for their sourdough breads, produced to feed monks and nuns, and to sell for the support of monasteries and convents.

So the day-long process of making sourdough requires adherence to a schedule, much like a monastic horarium. Hour-by-hour, step-by-step, the process unfolds. The ritual of breadmaking is repetitive, but never tedious. Each week, the recipe is the same and the familiar rhythm is satisfying. As I work with the dough, responding to its changes in texture and smell as the hours pass, my patience and attention are rewarded by the loaves' miraculous rise.

As many people have discovered or rediscovered in the past while, the ritual of baking bread is a mindfulness practice like no other.- Renée Bondy

The sourdough sabbath is usually very quiet. I'm sometimes startled by the ping of the kitchen timer. The familiar sounds of baking — the pastry scraper skimming across the countertop, the creak of the oven door — provide happy breaks in the silence. By the time the loaves go into the oven, just past sundown, my stomach growls in anticipation.

I bake two loaves, one to be eaten and one to give away. Usually, the second loaf is delivered warm to a neighbour, and we share a physically distanced visit and a glass of wine before dinner.

To the uninitiated, baking might seem mundane or unnecessary, even self-indulgent. But as many people have discovered or rediscovered in the past while, the ritual of baking bread is a mindfulness practice like no other. Its satisfactions linger in weekday toast and sandwiches, and in the experience of creating sustenance from a few common ingredients. I realize now, more than ever, that those humble bags on the grocery store shelf contain not only flour, but serenity, reflection, wonder, connection, and fulfilment — essential nourishment in times like these.

Renée Bondy is an adjunct professor in women's and gender studies at the University of Windsor. She is a regular contributor to the Canadian feminist magazine Herizons, and Bearings, the online journal of the Collegeville Institute for Cultural and Ecumenical Research.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full essay.

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