Prompted by Rebecca Vaughan
On Medium, “Divided State of America” by By Jennifer Ho, in response to Tilt West’s roundtable on The Semiotics of the Stay-At-Home
A proper loaf of sourdough bread takes 22 days and 3 hours to make. Throughout that time, you must be able to keep your ingredients and your kitchen at around 80 degrees. Your kitchen must be free of stenches and have a pleasant terroir. Hopefully you can get distilled water that has not been treated with chlorine or ammonia. You must be able to tend to the dough twice a day and then, for the last 27 hours, almost hourly. You must own a lidded cast iron pot, a scale, and four kinds of flours.
Baking sourdough bread means that you are not merely living in survival mode. Baking sourdough bread means that you have the resources to make food. Baking sourdough bread means that you have an oven and a place to call home. Baking sourdough bread means that you have money to buy the necessary equipment and ingredients. Baking sourdough bread means that you have extra time in your day. Baking sourdough bread means that you are staying at home, sensitive to its conditions, to the season, humidity, weather.
But staying at home is complicated and fraught with meaning. Staying at home means you are lazy. Staying at home means you care about others. Staying at home means you are a white collar worker. Staying at home means you can avoid death. Staying at home means that you are not participating in your town’s protests. Staying at home means you can engage in the pastimes of the bourgeoisie. Staying at home means you will spend longer hours with your abuser. Staying at home means you can support struggling family members. Staying at home means that you can’t earn money to support struggling family members. Staying at home means that you can finally learn how to knit. Staying at home means you can’t go to the bar to find someone to fuck. Staying at home means that you have some time to sleep. Staying at home means you will decrease your carbon emissions. All of this is true.
Essential to the question of how the stay-at-home order has affected you personally are the specifics of where you sit economically, how you identify racially, what level of education you have, and how you care for your body and your emotional well-being. When we each describe how we have experienced the stay-at-home order, we produce meaning. Herein lies my interest in the semiotics of the stay-at-home.
Semiotics is frequently seen as having important anthropological and sociological dimensions. The Italian semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco proposed that every cultural phenomenon may be studied as a form of communication. French philosopher Roland Barthes unpacked the signs and symbols of the current events of his day to reveal cultural values. In one of his essays from the collection, Mythologies, Barthes described how the image of a young Black soldier on the cover of Paris Match magazine in 1955 efficiently communicated ideas about Frenchness, militarism, and ethnic difference. Semiotics assigns meaning and value to imagery. One may also assign meaning and value to the experience of the stay-at-home.
In this roundtable, we will discuss how to bake sourdough bread while we unpack the past six months and the experience of quarantine. We will explore the symbolism of making food that takes time. How do we each frame the experience of this period for ourselves? How do we understand the experiences of others, some of whom are unable to stay home? How do we enjoy the inherent pleasures of the stay-at-home, while also enduring the exasperating challenges? What have we learned to do? What have we unlearned? Have we thought about how we will shape the coming year of quarantine?
1. Maurizio, Leo. https://www.theperfectloaf.com/
2. Caesar, Michael. 1999. Umberto Eco: Philosophy, Semiotics, and the Work of Fiction. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.
3. Barthes, Roland. 1972. Translated by Annette Lavers. Mythologies. London: Paladin.
Suggested Readings and Background Materials
The Perfect Loaf website
Cooked, Michael Pollan’s series on Netflix, with particular attention to the 2016 episode, “Air”
Six Thousand Years of Bread by H.E. Jacob, Skyhorse Publishing
You Don’t Have to Bake Your Own Bread in Quarantine, by Bettina Makalintal, VICE.com
Why People Baked So Much Bread During Quarantine: An Explanation, by Kristin Aiken, HuffPost.com
Rebecca Vaughan was born and raised in Denver, CO and currently resides in Kansas City, MO. She has lived in the Netherlands and Canada. She received a BFA cum laude in sculpture at the University of Colorado, Boulder and completed her MFA at Carnegie Mellon University. Vaughan previously served as the artistic director of PlatteForum, a non-profit which hosts artists-in-residence from all over the world and pairs them with under-resourced youth to create artworks addressing topics of social justice and community. Vaughan has also served as the program director for the Art Students League of Denver, and she was the former chair of fine arts and head of sculpture at the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design. She held a residency as a resource artist at Redline Contemporary Art Center from 2011 to 2013. In 2019, in order to more fully pursue her art career, Vaughan gave up her work in non-profits and moved to Kansas City, where she is a part-time instructor for the Kansas City Art Institute and UMKC. She originally began baking as a hobby, but Vaughan now bakes professionally, supplying sourdough and traditional baguettes to Northwest Missouri restaurants.