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A Writing Prompt #2
The sourdough must die
If it’s alive you can murder it.
Consider how a murder mystery breaks big. Look at The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Each is an unlikely reinvention of the mystery genre. The first cleaves to Sherlock Holmes. The second begins like so much newspaper travel writing, then veers into murder and courtroom drama. Likewise, look at Snow Falling on Cedars as another example of an off-beat way into a mystery and courtroom drama.
My point is that mysteries get stale, and anything that can refresh the genre can go big. Back in the day critics argued that Snow Falling on Cedars was a courtroom drama disguised as historical romance; nonetheless, it was a massive success.
All of this came to mind the other night at dinner. A friend, an avid baker, talked about making an upcoming trip. She’d be gone long enough that she needed to hire a “sitter” for her sourdough starter. I was entranced. For non-bakers, the sourdough starter is a blob of dough in which the perfect combination of microorganisms have formed a stable culture. To make more bread the baker simply pinches a wad from the starter and kneads it into a fresh batch of dough. The starter infects the new dough and creates a loaf of sourdough bread. But to perpetuate the starter you must always “feed” it specific amounts of water, flour, and sugar. If you fail to do so the starter dies.
My friend went on to say that her starter is a prize-winning secret combination of microbial life, and she’s kept it thriving for years. She was so afraid of it dying that she was hiring that professional sitter who’d nurture the blob of starter in her absence.
She went on to say how many families had sourdough starters they’d kept alive for generations. Little blobs of precise microbial life that yielded such excellent results that they were hoarded and guarded decade after decade. Such starters won prizes. Baking empires were based on those small, cloistered lumps of dough.
What if a rival or just an enemy set out to kill someone’s starter?
Consider every angle.
Would this be a one-time “hit”? Or would you hire a sourdough assassin? Could the killer somehow bond with the intended victim and recognize it as a living entity that deserves mercy? Would eating a piece of the resulting bread convert the killer to a savior? Or would this redemption occur AFTER the starter was killed, when the assassin would fully realize what he or she had really done, depriving the world of something so incredible?
Also consider the context. Who would be telling the story? Where would the telling take place? Would you make this an Aaron Sorkin courtroom drama with flashbacks to actual events? Or a death-bed confession like in Amadeus?
Would you have a good-guy sourdough detective? A food forensics analyst? Would this be the foodie equivalent of a procedural such as CSI or The Wire?
Would you build in a villain? A romance? An escalating threat wherein someone is murdering all the best sourdough starters and one must be used as live bait to lure the killer out of hiding. Think Silence of the Lambs but with raw bacteria at stake.
That’s the kind of off-beat reinvention of the murder mystery that can rope in food people as well as mystery people. Apply all the conventions of the genre to a very unlikely victim.