Review: Robin Sloan’s “Sourdough”


Robin Sloan

September 5, 2017 | MCD  Books

Literary fiction | Contemporary ficion

Lois Cleary needs something in her life. She doesn’t realize it, but she really does.

She’s a young software engineer, and it should have been obvious to her when she took a job in San Francisco, leaving everything safe and known in Michigan. But she’s lonely in San Francisco, working for the cutting edge robotics company General Dexterity on their robot arms. Her only friends are the few she eats with, or slurps with, consuming a safe, nutritious drink called Slurry.

One night she decides to try food from a neighborhood hole-in-the-wall run by two brothers, and she’s hooked. Every night she orders the double spicy, a soup and sandwich combo that is both spicy and soothing. And the bread. There’s something about that sourdough bread.

When the brothers tell her they have to close up and head back home — in Europe, Lois is devastated. She’s come to love their food AND their steady companionship. As a parting gift, they leave her their sourdough starter. She must keep it alive — feed it, play it music, learn to bake with it.

Lois has never baked, or really even used her kitchen, but she decides she could get used to the microorganisms that make up the culture. So she starts baking bread, and finds it soothing and therapeutic — and she makes some good bread! Soon she builds herself a brick oven in her backyard, and starts selling it to the chef at General Dexterity. She’s convinced to go bigger, and is accepted to a community of foodies bent on fusing technology and foo. So she combines her passion with her career: Lois starts baking with a robot arm as an assistant.

Soon Lois is caught up in her bread, and in a culinary war between tradition and cutting edge ideas. Unsure of what to think, Lois keeps doing what she’s found she loves: baking bread.

Okay, a little background on me. I grew up in a non-culinary family. Food was food, and we had to eat everyday whether we wanted to or not.

As a young adult, I worked in many restaurants, and became a bit more of a foodie. I dated a couple of chefs, and even married the last one I dated. We’re still married. He’s left the food business and now does interesting work in home renovation and construction.

My husband grew up opposite of me: his family was very culinary. His mom loved to cook and experiment, and she handed her love of food onto her children. Two of her three sons went into the culinary world, and my brother-in-law still works in kitchen, doing wonderful stuff in some of the best kitchens.

Through this marriage, I’ve fallen in love with food. I enjoy cooking and baking, although it’s not as vital to me as it was to my mother-in-law. That’s okay. I follow a bit of the culinary world, and understand there is a bit of a debate between the traditional and cutting edge. The best chefs can combine the two.

Because of this bit of background, I LOVED Sourdough. It played on that bit of food geek in my. I felt a kinship to Lois, thrown into a world she didn’t know existed and somehow succeeding and loving it!!!

But, more than that, I gained a deeper understanding of sourdough starters. They are the perfect vehicle for culinary geekiness! After reading Sourdough, I realize sourdough itself the perfect combination of food and science. Come on–microorganisms working to create the perfect dough, which gets baked into wonderful bread?

(Guess what — I just ordered a King Arthur sourdough starter!) 1522_03_04_2016__16_28_48_700

But there is a story in Robin Sloan’s Sourdough as well — and it’s wonderful. There’s a bit of romance, but mostly it’s about a young woman finding herself and learning about real passion. And discovering that doing something you love can provide a living, but you need to hang onto the part you love. If you lose the passion, you lose the magic.

Sourdough is intelligent and entertaining (similar to the bread)! AND it made me want to get in the kitchen and create something magical.

Robin Sloan gives readers the perfect follow up to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. He gives us a great look at San Francisco foodie world, a protagonist working on finding herself, and a pretty much happy ending. The perfect read to put a smile on your face (and maybe on your bread!).


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