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Sourdough as an act of reclamation

Michael Lillegard takes a loaf of sourdough bread from the oven. (Photo by Rolf Hagberg)1 / 2
Michael Lillegard's monk-like quarters. (Photo by Eddy Gilmore)2 / 2

I recently spent a day in the role of assistant baker for Duluth's Best Bread, a business in Lincoln Park. Wholly uninterested in this sort of employment, I agreed to the trial run out of simple curiosity.

While the mouth-watering product certainly is outstanding, how is it that a sourdough fermentation process, handed down generationally for thousands of years, could totally upend a young man's life?

The simple ingredients that go into a traditional sourdough loaf are completely unimpressive. The real feat is accomplished by the wild yeast and lactobacilli (the same probiotic bacteria found in yogurt) unleashed in a symbiotic relationship through co-owner Michael Lillegard's time-tested method of cold fermentation.

He is a farmer, of sorts, engaged in the humble task of husbandry while providing a healthy environment for wild yeast and probiotic bacteria to flourish.

Michael Lillegard, 24, must be the first person on Earth to launch into sourdough as a career choice while grinding out the final months of a master's degree in mathematics. A top student who graduated just last spring, conventional wisdom would have lodged him within a Ph.D. program. A six-figure income was within reach. Comfort. Security. Status.

Like so many of us, Michael didn't wish to spend his life in front of a computer. Unlike most of us, he pulled the plug on his career trajectory before it even started. He found his passion in wild yeast, flour, water and salt.

An exacting perfectionist, Lillegard lives a monk-like existence in the small apartment at the rear of the bakery, where he pursues his craft with a minimum of distractions.

Michael's room is nearly devoid of furniture. The sole display of opulence is the presence of two pillows, arguably one more than necessary. These are placed atop a sleeping bag and a thin camping pad on the floor.

The arrangement confirmed my suspicion that the modest hourly income he paid me was more than he earns himself. Regarding the cost of hiring employees, Michael indicates that the tradeoff is worthwhile. "Otherwise I'm spending too much time alone," he said.

I cannot adequately describe the amount of effort and patience required for producing a superior product like this. My workday was a Monday. Since Michael takes Sunday off, the oven wasn't even fired up. A full 24 hours is required for the yeast and bacteria to do their thing. He employs the cold-fermentation process by refrigerating the batches, which slows down the activity of the yeast and produces a deeper and richer flavor.

I spent the entire day assisting in preparing the dough for the next day's baking needs. Hours and hours. Sore arms. Sticky, wet dough. It's hard to understand why someone would want to do this type of work six days a week.

As part of my compensation package, I demanded a full loaf of Lillegard's European-style sourdough. I shared it with a group of strangers who had read my book as part of their book club. Possessing a hearty crust and a soft and moist interior, everyone gushed over the sourdough's incredible taste and texture. "It's like eating a chunk of heaven," is how one woman described it.

No local culture is complete without local artisans, farmers, brewers, craftsman, etc. There is something impoverishing about deriving 100 percent of one's nutrition from corporations, led by millionaires sitting far away atop globe-spanning empires, whose chief concerns are for the "needs" of shareholders and who consult chemists for variations of flavor and methods of cost-cutting.

People like Michael Lillegard are helping to recover a bit of what we've lost.

Monthly Budgeteer columnist Eddy Gilmore is the author of a newly released book, “The Emancipation of a Buried Man.” Discover more at eddygilmore.com.

Eddy Gilmore

Monthly Budgeteer columnist Eddy Gilmore is a freelance writer, father of twins and husband of one. Connect with Eddy at eddygilmore.com.

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