Sourdough, a new novel by Robin Sloan, gets a serious rise out of the Bay Area food world, a fun, fastidious culture that its author clearly knows well. Whereas Sloan’s first book, the best-seller Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, took a loving but quizzical look at San Francisco bibliophiles, his second focuses on a young SF tech worker, Lois Clary, who navigates its complicated food scene.
Clary’s day job sees her sipping a Soylent-like food substitute called Slurry and building robotic arms that could automate kitchens. But a mysterious sourdough starter she’s given by two brothers from her favorite Clement Street restaurant changes her life’s course.
From Sloan’s read on the politics at the Ferry Plaza farmers market to his portrait of Alameda’s warehouses of distilleries and breweries, the book is dead-on — save, of course, for elements like the fictional underground Marrow Fair, where Lois is recruited to sell her bread. For that accurate depiction, the author’s admiration for, and participation in, the local food world must have helped: He and his partner Kathryn Tomajan own an olive orchard in Sunol, California and an olive oil company, Fat Gold, with products coming this fall. Eater spoke with Sloan about the Bay Area, his book, and even creating its fictional recipes.
“The truth is, as recently as five years ago, and certainly seven years ago, I was the way Lois was. They hadn’t started marketing liquid meal replacements to tech people, but if they had, if Soylent had existed in 2010, I would have been a customer, which I’m embarrassed to say now. At the time, the prospect of feeding myself was stressful and a burden. I would tell people my dream of a super power would have been to be able to photosynthesize. That way, I could eat for pleasure, but I wouldn’t have to worry about feeding myself when I started to get hungry. My partner Kathryn Tomajan, she was really my guide and guru into food. She really transformed me... but I’m still not a foodie on her level.”
On the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market
“You can trace the roots of so many longstanding and amazing Bay Area food institutions back to a rickety stall in the far corner of that plaza. That’s an influence on culture and commerce as profound as the venture capital firms that everybody wants to write about in the business press.”
On his character based on Tartine’s Chad Robertson
“If he does ever read [the book], I hope he sees it’s a very affectionate poke in the ribs. Like however countless many others, my basic introduction to baking was his book... The section where Lois is baking for the first time, and looking at these totally beautiful black and white pictures that depict what you’re supposed to be doing, and each step she makes diverges further and further from that, before it devolves into this absolute mess. This murder scene with dough splattered on everything, and somehow there’s dough on the ceiling? That was for sure my first attempt at following Chad Robertson’s steps in the Tartine bread book. [But] truthfully, if I hadn’t encountered that and struggled through the book, this novel would have been about something else.”
On the Inner Richmond
“I lived, for about two years, at 10th avenue just off Clement in a little apartment right near Green Apple Books, my favorite bookstore in the whole world. I would just wander up and down that street all the time, and I would marvel at, as I put it in the early part of the book, ‘the polyglot avenue.’ It’s full of these scraps of everything, including plenty of scripts and languages that, at the time that I moved there, I didn't even recognize. Burmese cuisine was part of the inspiration for the Mazg [the fictional culture of the restaurant behind the mysterious sourdough starter].”
On satirizing Bay Area subcultures
“The Bay Area is just good at subculture, and it has been for a long time. Partially it’s the size, but then you compare it to bigger regions, and there seems to be something different or special. I think it’s deep in the Bay Area’s history. I don’t know why it’s that way, but I do know that I love and appreciate it.
I think I’m doing two things with my novels. Exaggerating, turning the dial up to 11 or 12 and extracting fun and pleasure from that. But then the other thing is I think I’m exporting that to people outside the Bay Area, people who would never think to roll their eyes at these [elements of Bay Area culture] like we do. Some of the questions I get about Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore are, ‘Is San Francisco really like that? Are the bookstores really like that? Is Google really like that?’ And I say, ‘well no, but kind of.’ It’s a way to communicate the very real magic of this place to people who have never been here or don’t know about it.”
On food technology
“A thing I’m trying to do in all my writing, is I smash old stuff together with new stuff. One of the things that I’m trying to do — I hope — is make people realize that the old stuff is also technology. It was invented by someone or a group of people over time. It gave us new abilities or changed the way we live. Think of sourdough starters: Taming microorganisms, and making them your accomplice in feeding your family and friends, that’s a wild technology, when you step back and think about it.
Now the things we think of as the most basic parts of a contemporary kitchen, like a refrigerator, those are new, in the grand scheme of human eating. So, from that perspective, I think it really makes sense for people who are really good at technology and know how to build very agile robot arms want to change the way kitchen works. Maybe in another hundred years, we’ll be like, ‘Well of course grandma has a robot arm helping her in her kitchen, what could be more natural?’”
On creating a recipe for the fictional “double spicy”
“We’re still perfecting it: It’s gotta be super spicy, first of all, Eastern European at its core, with some curve-balls and super umami. It’s got to be bright red. Those are the principles, and what we’ve ended up with so far is something that relies on a lot of pepper, a bunch of different kinds mixed together, but also some dried mushrooms, and I also snuck in a little miso — Kathryn was like, that makes no sense, and I was like, exactly, it’s Mazg.”
Robin Sloan will be appearing at book events for Sourdough in the Bay Area this month and next: September 19, he’ll be at Bookshop in Santa Cruz, then next month he’ll appear at Mrs. Dalloway’s in Berkeley, Bookshop in West Portal, and Kepler’s in Menlo park. More information is available on his website.