Every day for two weeks she visited each site, lifted the cheesecloth covers and fed the starters flour and tap water, careful to check the jar on the bridge only when nobody was looking. (She’d petitioned the city for a permit but never heard back.) When it came time to bake the loaves, the Met’s turned out smooth and congenial, born of comfort, “the bread version of table wine,” she says, while Central Park’s was floral and crustier, a little rugged at the edges. The starter from the Brooklyn Bridge produced the most alcohol, which made the bread sweeter, so she added seeds and rye to balance it out. Still, not every locale yielded an intriguing result: When she attempted another starter near the Gowanus Canal, it never took on identity; instead, the resultant bread reminded her of the King Arthur starter kit. (She blamed this, symbiotically, on her lack of a personal connection to the neighborhood.)
To be a baker, Lidgus explains, is to be half control freak, half submissive to fate; to embrace a life of eternal adjustments. There was an element of uncertainty in hanging a jar off the Brooklyn Bridge, in that she would never know the whole story, what cars, birds and people roared, fluttered and shuffled by, or if someone spied the rope and hauled it up to take a peek. A sourdough starter effectively eats the air around us and takes part of us with it; this one, suspended at the heavily trafficked meeting point of two boroughs, had potentially invited the whole world’s microbes in. What — who — was in there, exactly? This was her ode to New York, and New York was chaos. “I like my city messy,” she says.
It’s a common misbelief that terroir is a concept singular to the French, and that no corresponding word exists in other cultures. But the Chinese “fengtu” and the Japanese “fudo” — literally, “wind and soil” — have long been used to define how geography and climate shape the character of both regions and the people who live in them. More intimately, the Korean “son-mat” translates as “the taste of your hands,” attributing the flavor of food to the touch of the person who makes it: almost a microterroir, distinct to each individual. For Lidgus’s New York project, she borrowed a term from the art world, saying, “All sourdough is site-specific” — work that is created in and for one place and would lose meaning if shifted elsewhere.
CHICORY AND CLOVER, dandelion and milkweed, catmint and hawthorn, mulberry and crab apple: This is the feast that awaits the bees of Detroit, where between 60,000 and 70,000 vacant lots, just under a third of the city’s land, brim with blossoms, and perennials like tiger lilies and asters still find their way out of the ground behind abandoned homes. In 2013, the city went broke, declaring the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, with $18 million in debt. Nicole Lindsey, 37, and Timothy Paule, 36, lived through the gutting of public services in their neighborhoods and witnessed how talk of revitalization never seemed to include the voices of people in working-class communities. In 2017, they took matters into their own hands — “We can be our own heroes,” Paule says — and for $340 bought three partial lots in Detroit, a total of 3,500 square feet, where they set up three hives.
Today, through their nonprofit venture, Detroit Hives, Lindsey and Paule have expanded to 13 locations, partnering with local schools and community gardens, and tend more than three million bees. And while bee populations are declining precipitously across the country — each winter of the past decade, American beekeepers have lost between a quarter and half of their colonies — scientists report the opposite here. Where bees in rural areas must often make do with pesticide-strafed monoculture crops, they find abundance in cities whose empty lots, conventionally considered signs of urban blight, teem with undisturbed and luxuriant life. These conditions affect not just the survival of the bees but the taste of their honey, which is “extremely local,” Paule says, and changes by the season. In spring, Detroit’s terroir has notes of mint; in fall, the hives give off the scent of clover and goldenrod.