How I Saved My Sourdough ‘Mother’ from Hurricane Irma
"It can be challenging for airport security to understand why I’m traveling with a Ziploc bag of fermented dough."
Photo by Alex Swerdloff
There was a lot of anxiety in the days leading up to the storm—it felt like the end of the world was about to come. People were scared. We closed the bakery pretty early to give our employees a chance to prepare both physically and mentally. Many folks flew or drove up north, while others hunkered down and decided to ride it out.
I happened to already have a flight booked out of Miami to visit family the Thursday night before the storm, so I coincidentally had one of the last flights out before they closed Miami International Airport. The airport was insane that night; everyone was on edge, and desperate to evacuate—they even offered $10,000 for people to give up their seats on my fight. Prior to leaving the bakery, we covered all the equipment with tarps in case the roof leaked, sealed the doors and windows with sandbags to prevent flooding, shut the gas, and unplugged electric units.
But a big issue was this: Every day we rely on a piece of wildly fermented dough—it's called the "mother"—to rise hundreds of kilos of dough for some of Miami's finest restaurants, hotels, and markets. That's a lot of responsibility for a piece of dough. When a storm threatens the life of a person, a house, or a business, you're forced to decide what stays and what goes, and in the case the bakery, our sourdough mother is the life force of our bread, so there's no question that she must be protected.
Because I was leaving Miami by airplane, I was only able to take 3.4 ounces of the mother with me in a plastic Ziploc bag. We've only used one mother since opening the bakery in 2012—she's the only one. We also gave a piece of the mother to as many people as possible.
The most stressful part about traveling with a mother is getting through the security at the airport. It can be challenging for airport security to understand why I'm traveling with a Ziploc bag of fermented dough, so I avoid referring to her as my "mother," as that seems to just complicate things more.
The original mother was made on a goat cheese farm in the north of Israel (it's called Goats With the Wind); I smuggled it into the US years ago. I got a bit nostalgic traveling with her once again after all these years, but the stakes were significantly higher this time around. I was pretty overwhelmed with the thought that the entire bakery could be completely destroyed in a single night and all I would have left is this little Ziploc bag of fermented dough.
Traveling with a mother is more about keeping her alive as opposed to keeping her at the right activity level. It's actually quite hard to kill a mother; she can go a few days without being fed or refrigerated and still be nursed back to a viable place with a few feedings. Normally our mother is fed once a day with a combination of white and rye flour. On this trip, she went about 24 hours without being fed or cooled, because I missed my connection in Zurich. So I asked a local bakery (John Baker) for some rye flour—and she perked right up.
When we returned to Miami, we found we had minor roof damage and some flooding, but nothing compared to what I was expecting. Thankfully, we were spared the worst. Next time, I'll make sure I have flood insurance and a commercial generator.
Starting up the engines of a full-production sourdough bakery takes time. Bakers need to get back in town, new ingredients need to be ordered, the mother needs to be built back up to size, etc. We're hoping to get some bread going by the weekend.
In the end, the journey I make with the mother is part of who I am as a traditional craftsman. It gives me great meaning to carry this mother on day to day, year to year, and hopefully, generation to generation.
Zak Stern is the founder and namesake of Zak the Baker, in Miami, Florida.
As told to Alex Swerdloff. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.