Pre-COVID-19, there was a quasi-black market for sourdough starter. You had to know someone, who knew someone, who was willing to share the spoils of their sourdough "mother", that essential living mass of flour and water that kicks off the process of making the fermented bread from scratch.
In the current health crisis, Xinyi Lim is that someone. As part of her Start the Spread project, the Sydney-born, New York-based chef is mailing sachets of dried sourdough starter around the country as part of her mission to share and connect with at-home bakers in these socially distant times.
"There's definitely been a big uptick in interest in baking and sourdough," says Lim. "This project is about building and maintaining community between physically isolated people." She likens sourdough baking to a form of therapy, a return to the most staple of staple foods, a desire for "sustenance and survival", a long-term project that requires care, patience and time, the latter being in plentiful supply right now. "You come out of this process and you've made this thing. It's rewarding."
In each package, Lim sends two five-gram sachets of dried sourdough starter, which resemble wafer-thin cracker shards; and a booklet that contains a precis of her project ("Despite what you're hearing today, the spread of spores through our population doesn't have to be a dangerous thing," she writes) and a guide to reactivating and maintaining the starter. She doesn't include baking instructions – "I don't pretend to be an expert on baking sourdough bread", she notes in the guide – though she directs readers to her favourite online resources.
The first sachet is for the receiver, the second sachet should ideally be forwarded to another willing baker. Lim hopes to create a map that visually charts the starter's journey across the country. "We see constantly in the news the spread of coronavirus in cities and populations. It would be cool to show the spread of this positive living culture," she says.
To date Lim has mailed out packages to about 50 people, a combination of friends and strangers. The starter is free, though she's asking receivers for a small donation to cover shipping costs. The majority of addresses are in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, though the starter's furthest destination thus far has been the Northern Territory.
The project is inspired by – and done in collaboration with – Bread On Earth, a community-based art project in New York. It's the city which Lim has called home for five years, and based her food and hospitality career, which included stints at Diner, Marlow & Sons and Union Square Hospitality Group, beautiful food-based art installations under her Instagram moniker @megafaunafood, and working with the annual Happy Family Night Market. Her sister's wedding (now postponed) brought her to Sydney for what was meant to be a temporary stay, but Australia's border closure has essentially left Lim stranded in her homeland.
But while she's here, she's doing what she does best – using the power of food to connect people. And the irony of sharing a live bacterial culture, at a time when a more nefarious virus is spreading in the community, is not lost on her. But against the backdrop of our ability to spread illness, she's hoping to shine a light on humanity's ability to also share positivity and meaning. "Without being too cheesy, it's about being able to share this thing together. I get a lot of pleasure out of it."