by Eugenia Vela
“I have come to believe that food is a history of the deepest kind. Everything we eat tells a tale of ingenuity and creation, domination and injustice— and does so more vividly than any other artifact, any other media.”
I love food. I mean: I. LOVE. FOOD. It’s such an interesting way to learn about people and places. It’s also a great way to get to know yourself, to question your preferences and test your boundaries. Food is also incredibly telling of a country’s culture and history; the simple act of eating ends up being an opportunity to experience a culture through taste, texture, and smell. Whenever I eat something for the very first time, the taste becomes ingrained in my memory—not just the food itself, but that whole moment, the place, the music, and the friends that surrounded me. Food also tends to be a source of celebration or comfort, especially seemingly simple foods that remind you of something… good. Of family and warmth and safety.
That is Robin Sloan’s Sourdough: culture, flavor, history, comfort, and life-changing adventure, wrapped up in a charming mystery set in San Francisco. And it all begins with soup and a sandwich.
Lois Clary is stuck in a rut. She comes home late every night to an empty apartment after spending all day working as a software engineer at General Dexterity, one of San Francisco’s biggest tech companies. Stress has taken a toll on her, and the nutritive gel she eats for dinner (wtf?) isn’t helping. One fateful night, Lois finds a mysterious takeout menu stuck to her door. The menu is short and simple: Spicy Soup or a Spicy Sandwich or a Combo (double spicy). The restaurant’s name is written at the top of the menu in big letters: CLEMENT STREET SOUP AND SOURDOUGH. Lois, desperate for change, takes a chance. She calls. She orders the double spicy.
Soon Lois becomes the restaurant’s #1 eater (we’ve all been there, where the takeout guy knows our order by heart, right?).The spicy soup and sandwich revive her; she is happier, more energetic, and relaxed. She becomes familiar with Boereg and Chaiman, the two brothers who run Clement Street Soup and Sourdough. They tell Lois the food with which she’s fallen so deeply in love is the food of the Mazg. Oh, you don’t know who the Mazg are? Yeah, don’t worry about it. You’re going to (eventually) find out about their people’s history and how this delicious, life-altering food came to be. Unfortunately, something comes up and Boereg and Chaiman have to leave the country, fast. They leave their starter in Lois’s hands, hoping she will appreciate it and make some sourdough of her own. Lois is skeptical at first— what?! She doesn’t cook! That’s kinda how one becomes a restaurant’s #1 eater. But she decides to try. It turns out Lois has inherited a magical starter that needs to be tended to in order to thrive. This starter needs music and joy! It wants company! It is… alive.
And so begin the adventures of Lois Clary navigating through San Francisco’s food world, all the while corresponding with Boereg and learning about this peculiar starter and the culture of the Mazg. We meet a club of Loises from around the globe, three-armed robots, and heroic goats. We get to explore an underground market and befriend ambitious foodies looking to change the world with innovative technology (again: robots!). Our heroine grows confident and curious, and you root for her and this beautiful realization that it’s never too late to reinvent yourself. Try something new. EAT GOOD FOOD! Make weird friends.
I loved Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and I’m happy to say its charm and charisma still shine in Sourdough, except we get it through bread instead of books. I appreciated the author giving us a little wink-wink when one of his characters says, “Culture. It meant this— making cheese—before it meant that— art and opera. And before it meant anything, it just meant working the land. That’s a better definition. That’s who we are. Not our music. Our books. Psh, books. They’re all dead. We’re alive.”
As a lover of both food and books, I found myself completely enchanted by Sourdough and its characters. Just one piece of advice? Make sure you have bread handy while you’re reading. And cheese. And wine, that’s probably a smart call. Anyway. I can only hope in an alternate world, Lois Clary finds Nancy Silverton somewhere in California and they team up to make the best bread the world has ever tasted. And that nutritive gel IS NEVER A THING EVER, EVER AGAIN.
Our BookPeople event with Robin Sloan is Thurs, Sept. 14 at 7 PM. We will be joined by the good folks of Edible Austin, who will have plenty of treats to share! Come out and eat with us!