It’s amazing how big a part of my identity as a New Yorker bread is.
In the summer of 2004, I took a trip to Alaska that low-key changed my life. At the time, my dad flew a small airplane. Most of the time, he was shuttling kids in need of advanced medical care to specialized hospitals around the country, but a few times a year he planned out a big trip to explore a national park. That year, all his efforts went into flying from New York to Alaska along with three other small planes – from North Carolina, Minnesota, and Washington state. It took us about a week to get there, during which we flew over almost all of the Great Lakes, up over western Canada, and through layers of thick smoke from wildfires in Fairbanks. We spent a few weeks in the Kenai Peninsula and did a lot of the typical city-people-go-to-Alaska-activities: riding horses, fishing, rafting. And those parts were very cool. But what really stuck with me from that trip was the people I met, both the ones we were traveling with and the ones we stayed with. Because Alaska is quite rural, most tourists stay in bed and breakfasts and get the opportunity to really talk to locals. And so this trip was my first prolonged exposure to people who weren’t from New York and frankly never wanted to go there. This was also my first real exposure to sourdough, which is an essential part of white Alaskan settler identity (an identity I don’t condone but recognize exists); and digging into the history and experience of sourdough making not only got me to see things from a broader American perspective, but allowed me to start to see myself outside of my world in New York.
New Yorkiness is a very strong locational identity. That’s clear from just about any tv show set in New York, that getting to identify yourself as a New Yorker is a tremendous point of pride, but also something that can happen pretty quickly. This is in contrast to a place like Boston, where you can live for a decade and still not really feel that you belong. New York is, as so many would-be poets have claimed, a state of mind. And in the early 2000s, that state of mind was a sense of superiority over the rest of the country. New York was just better – cleaner water, more cosmopolitan interests, more sophisticated culture, better food that managed to be both healthier and more humble even when it was upscale, and of course, in the wake of 9/11, more resilient people. The politics of that era carved an enormous chasm between New York and the rest of the country as rhetoric really underscored the urban/rural divide and talked of the “American Heartland”. New Yorkers’ feelings were hurt, although we would never admit it. How could we not be American? We were the most American! We defined America! You know what, actually, we’re better than America, because look at all these cool things we have and do! Who was I, as a teenager who had never lived anywhere else, to argue with these claims?
That was the tension point with every non-New Yorker I met for about a decade. All of them told me that one way or another, New York was a rarified place that I was either lucky or cursed to be from. Everyone had a strong opinion about New York and whether good people should live there. And I found this frustrating to the point of offensive. How could they possibly know what New York was like if they had never been there, or only visited Times Square and the Central Park boat pond in peak tourism season? But as I got older, I started to try understanding this perspective from the other side – how could I think New York was the best place to live if I had never lived anywhere else? And that’s kind of the key to a native New Yorker’s identity. We have an intense fear of losing New York, as if that’s the only thing that makes us worthwhile as people. Who will we be if we can’t walk to a bodega?
My trip to Alaska was not necessarily a flattering view of the rest of the country. It was a lot of empty space, and it certainly didn’t make me want to permanently leave the city. But I spent a lot of time talking with the people we had flown there with as well as the couple who was hosting them and helping us organize our activities – a former nurse and a mountain man – and I started to chip away at my impression of what distinguished New Yorkers from everyone else. The guys from North Carolina, two middle-aged brothers who were just there to go fishing, liked to poke fun at me for my weird clothes and green hair. They were clearly terrified of New York and we regarded each other with kind caution. The middle-aged couple from Seattle was exactly the kind of people I had always known and for a few years after the trip kept in close touch with my dad. And then the other father-daughter pair, a girl just a year younger than me from Minnesota and her former Navy pilot father, became our closest companions on the trip. This girl was brave and rambunctious. The couple hosting them was really the one who challenged my expectations. These were smart, deep-thinking people, even if they weren’t intellectuals. They were very patient with a city slicker who got her fishing lined hopelessly tangled and couldn’t keep her horse on the path. They told me about hunting moose and fishing salmon and preserving both for the winter. They reminded me a lot of people I already knew. And they introduced us to a lot of other people, like a mother and daughter who owned a nearby ranch. Meeting other girls my age from suburban Minnesota and rural Alaska gave me a sense of the universal experience if being a teenage girl, even though the circumstances of our lives were quite different.
But there was another couple we stayed with who made a much subtler impact on me. They were quiet and old. They put a lot of Jesus paraphernalia in our room. They had books about the Iditarod and unironically displayed native Alaskan clothing as home decor. And they made sourdough pancakes every day. The pancakes filled the main room with this toasty sour smell that is comforting but also a little odd. They were soft and thinner than pancakes I was used to, and covered in little pockets that soaked up maple syrup like a sponge. I was completely blown away by these pancakes. And so my dad and I asked our host about them and she told me they came from a 100-year-old starter that her ancestors had brought to Alaska when they first came. This sent me down a little research path that was probably my first in food history. It’s a story a lot of people know by now. Prospectors moving west in the second half of the 19th century carried pouches of yeasted dough in their clothes to keep it warm, and every day they would add to it to make their bread and then save a little for the next day. As a result, from San Francisco up the west coast, there is a century-long tradition of sourdough bread making, a history of funky carbs.
When I left Alaska, I had a lot of plans. I made arrangements to go back the next summer to work at the bed and breakfast. I started to have this sense that I could really break away from my surroundings and try something totally new. Unfortunately, I never went, because in June of that year my dad’s plane crashed and he spent the rest of the summer in the hospital. I spent a lot of that time with him. But I also spent that time learning how to make sourdough. I was determined to figure out how to recreate those pancakes, and it took hunting down a self-published sourdough cookbook from an Alaskan like my host to find the right recipe. Sourdough became a little window into the western part of the country for me. It was certainly not a style of bread that New Yorkers were baking at the time – even though many familiar breads, like Jewish Rye and pumpernickel often have a sourdough base, we don’t think of them in the same category. And learning the story of sourdough got me interested in the stories behind other breads. Sourdough also became something of a reminder that I could always go west again. And so I did. When I went off to college, I left for Minnesota and stored my sourdough starter in the freezer until I got back. I met and started dating a guy from Colorado, who I eventually married.
And over those years, I chipped away more and more at the stringency of my New York identity. I stopped buying into the idea that New Yorkers are better, more cultured, or smarter than other Americans. I realized the obvious, that people are just people, no matter where they’re from. I learned to ask more questions of the people I met from other places, to learn more about their experiences so that they would have some incentive to learn more about mine as well. But I was itching to go home. I still felt so out of place with weird expectations like saying hello to random strangers in the street or having to explain the way I talked. I moved back to New York for three years. It was a mixed experience. I felt so much more comfortable there, but I also had a lot of new criticisms of the city. And I realized that there were some things I loved about New York that I could actually find in other places. When my husband and I decided to move to California, I demanded that we live in a walkable area, which was a surprisingly easy requirement to fill. There were a lot of things about New York that I couldn’t stand to be around anymore – the astronomical wealth juxtaposed with literal garbage in the streets was a big one. But also this sense that nothing outside of New York really mattered, or if it did, it was only in other major cities outside of the US. And now my life was so much more connected to the rest of the country and I couldn’t think that way anymore. Since moving to California, I’ve come to appreciate what people would call a slower way of life, but I think is just a lower-stakes approach to work. I still miss New York. I miss my family and friends. I miss Zabar’s and Riverside park and street fairs and Columbia’s campus. I miss taking the train and having endless food options. I miss the garden where my preschool class freed our butterflies. But I don’t miss the sense of being in the center of the universe. I like having a broader perspective and being able to see many more places and people as equal. I’m still a New Yorker at heart, but like my sourdough starter, I know that identity will travel well.