Though for many today is St. Patrick’s Day, here at Wordloaf we are marking a different holiday: St. Quarantiny Day. That’s because the Quarantinystarter, the tiny sourdough starter with big ambitions, was born exactly 1 year ago today.
In the early days of this newsletter, it was safe to assume that all of my readers knew all about the Quarantinystarter, since everyone here was working on or with their own version of one. But Wordloaf has come a long way since those days, and there are probably many of you who have no idea what a Quarantinystarter is. And even if you do, you might not know the whole story, since I haven’t told it in full before. In honor of Quarantinystarter’s first birthday, I’m going to tell the tale for the first time in full here.
(By the way, I made the Quarantinystarter a birthday cake—the sourdough gingerbread cake1, pictured above—and I’ll be sharing the recipe with you all in a few days, so keep an eye out for that one in your inboxes. Also also: If you are looking for the most recent version of the tiny-starter-from-scratch recipe, you can find it here.)
A year ago I was a senior editor at Cook’s Illustrated magazine here in Boston. By early March, thanks to COVID-19 lockdowns, the entire America’s Test Kitchen staff had started working from home and the Cook’s Illustrated team had daily Zoom check-ins to discuss the state of our individual recipe and writing projects. One of my colleagues was just beginning work on a new dinner roll recipe, and she mentioned having a hard time finding both flour and yeast at her local supermarkets. (None of us had yet learned the meaning of “supply-chain shortages.”)
As the team “breadhead,” I jokingly suggested that we should make the recipe sourdough instead of yeasted, since that would at least eliminate the need for one hard-to-come by ingredient. But then I realized that the average from-scratch sourdough starter recipe—including the one I’d developed for the magazine itself some 5 years prior—churns through a few pounds of flour start to finish, since you typically “feed” the developing culture once or twice a day with a cup or so of fresh flour. I wondered aloud if you could do the same thing on a micro scale, in order to conserve flour for where it was most important: the loaves themselves.
After the meeting ended, I put the idea to the test by combining 10 grams (about a tablespoon) of flour and 10 grams of water in a mini mason jar. I took the photo above to record the moment, and set the jar somewhere warm to ferment.
By the following day’s meeting, the mixture was bubbly and fragrant, just as I’d hoped. I showed it to the team, but no one other than me seemed all that impressed. Undeterred by their lukewarm response, I posted the photo on my Instagram feed, with a brief description of what I’d done and why, along with a pithy, catchy name and hashtag: the #quarantinystarter. Later that day my post got shared to the Cook’s Illustrated Instagram account (one of the America’s Test Kitchen social media folks is a breadhead herself), and that’s when the experiment really came alive.
Within days, others too started posting images of their own just-hatched tiny starters. After about a week, there were several hundred people participating in the Quarantinystarter “project”; within a month, at least a thousand. After that, I lost count.
People soon began naming their tiny starters. Some of my favorites include The Yeastie Boys, Courtney Loave, Quarantiny Dancer, Quarantiny Turner, Quentin Quarantino, Vincent Vandough, Holly Doughlightly, Otis Breading, Angelina Doughlie, Jar Jar Stinks, Adam Levain, Clint Yeastwood, Carrie Breadshaw, and Bread Astaire. And the list went on.
Unsurprisingly, many tiny starter caregivers had questions needing answers and problems in need of troubleshooting. I did my best to keep up on Instagram, but within a few days, it became increasingly difficult. And as the information (and recipes) I wanted to share began to grow, I decided to start this newsletter, as a clearinghouse for Quarantinystarter information and a place for everyone involved to gather and compare notes. Within a month of its launch, I had nearly 4,000 subscribers. (I don’t know how many of those people had Quarantinystarters of their own, but seeing as that was the sole point of the newsletter in those days, it’s safe to assume that many of them did.)
Meanwhile, a few weeks after my tiny starter—and those of many others—was born, the real test arrived: Would any of us be able to leaven a loaf of bread? The entire experiment would be pointless if none of us were able to make bread using our baby starters. The answer, of course (we wouldn’t be here now otherwise), was yes. People from all over the world soon began posting photos of beautiful loaves, using recipes of their own or the simple one that I shared here (an early iteration of The Loaf). The rest, as they say, is history.
Or sort of. If you were here from the early days, you’ll know that the newsletter went dark a little more than a month after it was launched. Right after that, I moved many of the posts I’d written here to the Cook’s Illustrated website, and hid the remainder. I’ve never really spoken publicly about what happened, mostly because at the time I thought that doing so would risk my employment at ATK. And even after I left, it was such a sore subject that I didn't really feel like talking about it. It’s not all that interesting a story, to be honest, but I can’t really tell the whole Quarantinystarter tale without addressing it at least a little bit.
An email newsletter was without a doubt the most efficient way to deal with the deluge of Quarantinystarter questions and the information I wanted to share about the project. I could quickly churn out regular, detailed, and easy-to-follow posts much more easily than I could on Instagram. When questions came in as comments on posts, it was easy to keep track of and respond to them, and the information I provided would be clearly visible to anyone else who came along looking for similar answers.
I started the newsletter based on efficiency, and never stopped to consider whether it was something I was allowed to do based upon my contract. And not long after I began, we started mirroring many of my posts on the CI website itself, so I assumed everything was above board. But I’d never asked permission, and that was the fatal flaw. I was told it was a violation of the terms of my contract, and that it would likely have to come down.
The way I saw it, I was bringing nothing but good publicity to the company. By that point I’d been interviewed for a story about the Quarantinystarter on our local NPR station, and it had been featured on several national newspapers and on Eater.com. And, more importantly, from the feedback I was getting from participants, it was clear that what I was doing was giving people something more than just a homemade sourdough starter using minimal flour. Take your pick: Distraction, solace, joy, education (more than a few parents and teachers mentioned using the tiny starter as a teaching tool for kids to do), all at a moment when all of us were in an anxious, uncertain place. I saw myself as an ambassador for ATK, out into the world giving people what the company does best—teaching them to cook while making time in the kitchen fun.
I spent a weekend putting together a clippings packet of all the good press and nice comments and emails I’d gotten from readers, with the hope that I could convince someone to make an exception in this case, since there were already so many people subscribed to the newsletter by then. But I never got the chance to show it to anyone. On Monday morning, I was told again it had to be shut down, and I’d have to rebuild the Quarantiny posts for the Cook’s Illustrated website. I did what was asked of me, because I didn’t want to lose my job.
But, in retrospect, that was the beginning of the end of my time there. I’d worked at ATK for 11 years, and loved nearly every minute of it, but it wasn’t the first time I’d wondered if it wasn’t time to move on. I’d grown weary of developing recipes by consensus and having my work exist only within a siloed, paywalled culinary universe. I still believe(d) in the ATK approach to culinary education, its business model, and—most important of all—the excellence of the people behind its recipes, but the work wasn’t for me any longer.
Not that it was an easy move to make, particularly in the middle of a global pandemic. I spent three months lining up possible freelance opportunities, but that wasn’t incentive enough to give up my not-amazing-but-at-least-secure salary. On a whim, I applied for a fellowship from Substack, a once-a-year opportunity I found out about quite by accident one day. The Substack team already knew a little about my situation, since they’d followed the newsletter’s micro-meteoric rise, and helped me to shutter it without having to take it down entirely. In my application I told the story in detail and described what I planned to do if and when was able to relaunch it someday.
And it worked. Out of a thousand or so applications, mine was one of only 10 selected for fellowships. Given that I couldn't accept the (not insubstantial sum of) money and reboot the newsletter without leaving ATK, I had no choice but to take the leap. The rest is history, and here I am.
Six months in, I’m busier than ever with freelance work that is much more aligned with my personal interests (including the recipes I am developing for Cook’s Illustrated as an alum). And I have a growing audience of people who are interested in hearing what I have to say on the subject of bread (namely all of you). Which is not at all somewhere I ever expected to be back when I had the silly, throwaway idea to stir a tiny amount of flour and water together just to see what might happen.
The last year has been a shitty one for all of us, though—even setting aside all the good news in what I just described—I’m well aware that I’ve had it better than many. My family and friends have remained healthy and mostly either employed or at least financially stable, and some of them have even started to get their vaccines.
While much of the career tumult I’ve gone through over the last 12 months has been less than fun, I’m enormously grateful for the opportunities it’s given me and for the place that I’ve landed. I’m grateful to Substack for supporting my move to freelance, and I’m grateful to all my former colleagues at ATK who gave me the platform from which to launch into this space.
Last but not least, I’m grateful to all of you for being here. Whether you have been a Wordloaf reader since the early days of the Quarantinystarter or joined more recently, I thank you for following along with me on this breadventure, I couldn’t do it without you. I can’t wait to see what we all get up to in the years to come.