At the end of the nineteenth century, because no one had ever been there, the virtual consensus among geographers was that the North Pole resided in a warm, open sea. One needed only to sail a ship through the ice surrounding it to reach the open ocean. In 1879, Captain George DeLong and a crew of 30-plus sailors set off for the North Pole. At end of the their first year, their ship, having failed to find open water, was instead frozen in place, where they remained out of communication with the rest of the world for three years. Half of their time was in near total darkness and nearly all of their days and nights were below freezing. Finally, sheets of ice crushed and sank the U.S.S. Jeannette. The crew walked and sailed for hundreds of days across ice floes and freezing oceans with hopes of reaching the coldest landmass on earth, the north coast of Siberia. The test of human physical and psychological endurance is simultaneously contemporary and otherworldly. The relationship of European and American men to the environment, native people of the Arctic, to women, and stoicism is history not to be overlooked.
One of the best souvenirs I brought back from the United Kingdom was a rye sourdough starter. I got it from Andrew Whitley in Scotland who back in 1960 obtained a sample when he was studying production of rye bread in the former Soviet Union. The factory he took it from was enormous: more than a million loaves of baked sourdough rye emerged every day. In 1960 America we were changing food to fit into our machinery. American doughs were doped with extensibility agents so they could withstand the spinning arms of huge kneading machines. In contrast, Russian factories — just as vast as America’s — were comprised of hundreds of small bakeries. Women in babushkas made rye breads in small ovens and placed them by the thousands on conveyor belts. The Soviets distributed more than were needed. Thousands of uneaten breads returned to the factory where they were soaked and boiled and returned to the production line. Soaked rye breads were joined by fresh rye flour and rye sourdough to produce new loaves.
Making rye bread is difficult because rye does not have much gluten. That means its dough is terribly slippery and very sticky. It does not rise much, but I learned some rye techniques in Scotland and have been practicing for months. The rectangular loaf in front is 95% rye flour with just a few oats and a little molasses added. It baked in a covered square-sided pan for well over an hour to begin removing some of the moisture. After coming out of the oven a nearly 100 percent rye must sit uneaten for at least a day while additional moisture is released from its interior. The result is a tangy, almost zesty, rye bread that can be sliced more thinly than the piece of cheese you put on top. Moreover, the bread stays fresh for more than a week.
The round loaf with the concentric imprint of the boule where it sat just before baking (it is behind the rye) was made with a white flour starter, rather than the rye starter. It was supplemented with half a dozen mashed, baby potatoes and enough wholemeal rye flour to give the loaf some meatiness.
These baguettes (there were four) also began with the Russian rye starter. I added a cup of buttermilk and then adjusted the ratio of white flour to rye until it was approximately a 50:50 mix. The rye gave it color and taste, the white flour enough gluten for a beautiful rise, and the buttermilk mellowed the crumb to the softness of a ripe peach.
Before Colson Whitehead ever gets to the story of Cora’s attempted escape from enslavement, he sets the stage in Africa. Cora’s grandmother and mother are captured beginning a saga of human beings herded, branded, chained, transported, discarded when insufficiently healthy, and sold like so many pieces of meat. Some are consumed, others are tossed overboard or left to rot. Whitehead’s descriptions of the relationship between white slave owners and the human beings they own is a delicately painted portrait of white men using all their faculties to subdue the humanity of their black workers with rape, torture, and psychological brutality. For this portion of the book alone, the real-life portrayal of slavery in the south, The Underground Railroad should be required reading of all Americans. Whitehead’s description of plantation work for slaves also makes the idea of escape almost logical. The alternatives are equally daunting: staying on the plantation means ceaseless labor, sexual assaults, tongue extractions for speaking up, castrations for being black and male and therefore a threat to white men’s sense of superiority, and beatings so severe that infections beneath missing skin are inevitable. Leaving for the underground railroad, in contrast, means fearing owners so desperate to regain their lost property that dogs trained to shred human tissue and professional slave catchers brandishing chains and iron collars will be sent even into free states to recapture lost goods. Cora’s lifelong sprint for freedom is harrowing, accurate, and the story of an underdog for whom you can’t help but root. Her plight is also an important reminder that in the age of Charlottesville the legacy of slavery has not yet been overcome.