Before deepfakes and alternative facts, the online world was already telling us fibs. In our series Lies the Internet Told Me, we call ’em all out.
I was having four panic attacks a day. And they were not short. I sat at my secretary desk in my bedroom in a Manhattan apartment my wife and I just moved to, and I did almost nothing while I felt the waves of adrenaline crash around me, my body behaving like the ceiling was caving in, even though everything was, ostensibly, fine.
Except it wasn’t really fine. I’d come out as trans. I’m trans masculine, nonbinary, and I use they/them pronouns. At the time I figured it out, I was an almost 30-year-old adult, situated in a queer community with a gay wife and a family-of-origin that’s gotten used to me being gay for 8 entire Earth years. I was living in one of the most reputationally liberal places in the United States, with affirming work environments to boot. I’d watched friends around me navigate the process of figuring out their gender identity and then communicate it to those around them, effortlessly and effectively with few consequences from those they cared most about. I’d already come out once. I figured, with all my privilege and my practice and my adulty-ness, the second go-round should be quite easy, quite simple.
Turns out that while being trans is really great, coming out as trans is terrible. First of all, I was not good at it. I was unclear, grabbing at straws, trying to figure out the language to describe my experience and failing. Second of all, a lot of people close to me let me down in really big ways — and I had sky-high expectations for them.. I often got treated as though I was lying, but I was speaking about my name and my gender as true as I knew it. I was just trying to figure out how to put my feet back on the ground.
Instead of launching myself into the sun, which my anxiety brain kept assuring me was the only possible solution, I baked.
It wasn’t a new hobby. I’ve actually been baking for quite a while — my mother taught me how to bake, and to her credit, she taught both her children how, not just the one who was supposed to be a girl. My after-school job in my teens was cake decoration for a popular ice cream franchise. I’m not bad at it. I’m not Great British Bake Off level good, either, though I do watch plenty of that particular television extravaganza. It’s pleasant! I learn things from it! I usually throw it on while I’m whipping up something. So one day, while I watched my favorite season (the one with Nancy Britwhistle in it) on repeat for perhaps the seventh time, I tweeted the following thing: “What if every queer on the internet sent me their favorite dessert recipe?”
It wasn’t every queer by any stretch. But it was 17 of them, right to my inbox, and most sent a plethora of recipes that were dessert and not dessert. One in particular read: “Make a sourdough starter. Seriously, do it now … you just need flour and water, and you end up with, like, a living, growing jar of yeast and dough. It’s a five day process, but once you have the starter, you can make all kinds of homemade breads. More of a science project than a recipe, but it always makes me feel slightly more productive and engaged with the world.”
I immediately latched on to this idea — only flour and water! Feeling productive and engaged with the world! A living breathing friend who would actually nourish you! That sounded like a great antidote to the very specific situational depression that accompanies a coming out process! Besides, a sourdough starter — a living colony of yeast cultivated from what naturally occurs in your environment, used to rise and bake bread with that unique sour quality that we all know and love at our favorite sandwich places — had been on my to-do list for ages. Bread was and is one of my favorite things to bake. I clicked the link this wonderful internet stranger sent me and was greeted with the sentence, “Thankfully, making a fresh batch of starter is as easy as stirring together some flour and water and letting it sit.” Glory be, sold.
I even named my starter Horatio. I featured him on my Instagram story, and my friends cheered both of us on.
I stood in my tiny, New York City kitchen at my butcher block that looks out over a lovely view of a white brick wall and other people’s kitchen windows. Everyone in their kitchens looked back at me while pretending to not look back at me. And dutifully I began to follow the directions. I mixed myself up some flour and water and I added the third ingredient: time. I monitored the amount of bubbles on the surface of the strange liquid, excited that I was bringing life to a weird yeast colony that would somehow make coming out as trans feel a tiny bit better. I even named my starter Horatio. I featured him on my Instagram story, and my friends cheered both of us on. Mostly, folks seemed impressed that I was put together enough to handle a sourdough starter. That should’ve been my first clue.
I’d finally gotten to the stage where the starter was supposed to smell delicious, sour and earthy, almost like roasted nuts. Instead, it smelled like an uncapped permanent marker. And where I was supposed to see it rise and fall with the sun and the temperature in my kitchen, with the cycle of feeding it more flour and water, it was simply a slack liquid that moved only when I accidentally hip-checked the butcher block while trying to maneuver around a kitchen so dysfunctionally laid out that suburban guests, with their islands and real storage space and ability to open the dishwasher and the oven at the same time, often ask me if it’s even usable.
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But I was unwilling to throw Horatio into the compost pile. Mostly, because I’d started talking to him. Yes, I’d assigned him pronouns (and really missed an opportunity to call a yeast colony “they/them”) and given him pep talks and said hello every morning while I made my toast and cried about coming out as trans, which was bad! I also had shared him on the internet, and even though my Mars is in Pisces, I’m still a Gemini and unwilling to admit, especially in public, when I’m wrong. Horatio would live to rise a loaf, dammit, if I had anything to say about it.
I became a boy possessed. I researched every way to troubleshoot a problematic sourdough starter imaginable. The upbeat, oft-cis-straight-traditionally-feminine part of the internet insisted it was totally a snap to fix your slacker starter by following these quick and easy tips, all of which I tried:
Feed the starter more often.
Feed the starter less often.
Feed the starter at different times. Stay up late into the night to feed it. Wake up early in the morning to feed it. Who needs sleep when you have a sourdough starter?!
When the starter produces hooch, as in, when the starter eats too quickly and barfs an ugly black-clear liquid that sits like a toad on its surface, pour the hooch out before feeding it again.
When the starter produces hooch, stir the hooch in before feeding it again.
Let the starter rise in the fridge to slow it down, perhaps your kitchen is too warm.
Put the starter in the oven with the light on to give the yeast a warm environment in which to thrive.
Feed it equal parts water and flour.
Feed it more flour than water. Try several complicated weight ratio math problems.
Feed it an apple. Separate Horatio into two and post on social media about how you are racing who can rise a loaf first, Standard Horatio or Apple Horatio. Carefully core the apple so your starter doesn’t become Cyanide Horatio.
And when all else fails, sit on the floor in your kitchen in the dark, visible only by the oven light through the tiny oven window, after all the other adjacent kitchen people have gone to bed and you are left looking only at their nightlights and houseplants and wonder if you’re capable of getting absolutely anything right at all. Even the simplest things are things you fail at.
Like this sourdough starter! Like coming out as trans! Like your gender! People around you are confused about everything you do, and sometimes they’re mean to you! And then this starter! This starter is proof that you are Not Good At Things and maybe, just maybe, you deserve it when people are mean to you! Cry about your sourdough starter on the kitchen floor you haven’t mopped in months because you are Not Good At Things. Beg the sourdough starter.
I might have embellished that last piece of advice a bit.
Perhaps that’s the appeal of baking in trying times — there are stakes. But they are cake stakes
I went to bed that night exhausted and ready to throw in the towel. I also didn’t sleep right away. I lay awake, thinking about all the things I could do to fix my starter and my life. In the land of Great British Bake Off, nothing is ever seriously wrong. The worst thing to ever happen on it was a melted Baked Alaska that got thrown in the bin. Perhaps that’s the appeal of baking in trying times — there are stakes. But they are cake stakes. You can run through an actual concrete list of things to tweak and try, and if none of them work out, well, it’s only a loaf of bread. It’s only a sourdough starter. In the end, there exists only the pressure we put on ourselves.
I realized, in that moment, the queer who emailed me — that person had never actually called the starter “easy.” Sure, the recipe did, but the member of my community didn’t. What was promised was a way to feel productive and connect to the world. It was the rest of the internet — the glossy kitchen photo performance art, the chipper-and-breezy brand of “this is a snap” femininity that I wasn’t even trying for in my own life, the “there is one way to do this and here are the 16 arcane steps to get you there” blogs that claimed expertise I never could. All the rest of that dictated the things that should and shouldn’t be easy. And the idea of ease is absolute horse shit, especially when it comes to the internet, a place comprised only of our highlight reels, curated to make us look good at all the things we try. Perhaps it was OK to struggle, in this and other endeavors. But perhaps that wasn’t even the point. I pictured all the times I used my senses to figure out my next steps; the sensation of starter on my hands as I used my body to make food, how it stuck to my fingers. How it tasted when I dipped my pinky in and let it rest on my tongue. I’d lost sight of my goal in baking and in coming out and living my life — the point isn’t to look or be easy. The point was that there was no one right way to make it. The point was to be present in my body, in my life, in the world.
In the morning, I woke to a grand and glorious risen Horatio who only smelled a little like an uncapped permanent marker.