Washington - It all started with an apple.
From an orchard in South Tyrol in Italy's northeast Dolomites region, the apple was seeded with chef Johanna Hellrigl's memories of her Italian family, most of whom still live there.
After considering how to cook with something in her Washington kitchen that helped her feel connected to those roots, Hellrigl made a simple sourdough starter last fall from that apple, which was fermented with water and then mixed with flour.
"I wanted to bring some of Italy back home into my baking," says Hellrigl, 31, formerly the executive chef at Doi Moi.
And then, as Italy began to shut down in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, including the closure of the hotels and restaurants where her siblings, mother and other family members work, Hellrigl began to see how communities would be impacted once the virus inevitably made its way to the United States. So she created a new community, through her sourdough starter, by simply posting on her Instagram account that she would share it with anyone interested. In return, she asked any takers to support initiatives designed to help local restaurant workers who find themselves unemployed.
"I wanted to use my platform to be a helpful citizen," Hellrigl says, "but I admit that I've been surprised by the response."
Since that offer was first posted on March 27, Hellrigl has given away more than 500 containers of sourdough starter and has a waiting list of almost 100. As she fills requests, she leaves the containers on her front porch near Gallaudet University for pickup.
Obi Okolo, 29, was one of the first takers. He already knew Hellrigl because they were both working on a now-postponed project, and he was eager to expand his baking skills during his unexpected downtime. "Everything feels entirely out of control right now," Okolo says. "No one knows what's coming, what's happening or what has happened - but there's this thing, this simple little combination of flour and water, that does its thing all by itself, ready to help provide sustenance. It's almost this reminder on our kitchen counters that the world is still turning."
The batch of starter he began with has already yielded pancakes, bread, doughnuts, pizza and cinnamon rolls. Okolo jokes that his other new hobbies include push-up challenges because he's consuming so many carbs.
Feeling overwhelmed by the global scale of the pandemic, Rebecca Green, a lifestyle blogger who is now home schooling her two kids, ages 11 and 9, jumped at Hellrigl's offer. "Taking care of the starter has helped inform my schedule," says Green, 40. "It bookends the day, because I feed it in the morning when I get up and then feed it again 12 hours later at the end of the day. Somehow, it makes life seem more manageable."
Despite the fact that Green has never met Hellrigl, she finds comfort in the community that has unexpectedly grown through the starter - and has even begun making batches to give away to her own friends. "It's a slower way of building community," says Green, "but it's become something that makes people happy."
It's the slowness of sourdough that attracts many devotees, and now that so many people (but not everybody) have extra time on their hands, the attention it requires may seem less intimidating. "Giving sourdough starter to people is also about giving them advice and instructions and answering questions," says Hellrigl. "You have to use your intuition and common sense. The coolest thing about starter is that it's there for you as long as you feed it - it's no harder than taking care of a plant."
To ease people into using the starter, Hellrigl suggests they begin by making her banana sourdough pancakes - an easy way to use the first batch of discard (the amount of starter removed at each feeding to make room for fresh flour and water) - so Instagram has become populated with photos of sourdough pancakes that began their life with her starter.
Even with so much uncertainty, Hellrigl is appreciating the opportunity to slow down. She grew up in a restaurant family; her late father, Andreas, brought Northern Italian cuisine to Manhattan with his fine dining restaurant Palio in the 1980s. Seeing firsthand the cutthroat nature of the New York restaurant industry initially caused her to turn away from a career in food. Through her starter giveaway, however, she's seeing something unexpected, such as the thank you notes that people leave after picking up their starter, and the support they have shown to local restaurants by purchasing gift cards to use sometime in a lockdown-free future.
"People have written to me about how much this means to them," she says. "In such an ugly time, it's really kind of beautiful."
Okolo has even been texting with someone else who also picked up a batch of the starter. "I barely know this person, but we're nerding out together and sharing our experience," he says.
When jewelry designer Doris Chou Durfee heard about the giveaway, she saw an opportunity to compare Hellrigl's starter with the one her husband, Don, already maintains. With two daughters now doing their high school classes from home, she also saw a chance for her family to explore self-reliance. "Sourdough is a living thing that you can cultivate," says Durfee, 51. "It's a hopeful thing. It teaches us things that can maybe help us be more well-equipped for the future. Now that we have these big unstructured swaths of time that can feel somewhat out of our control, taking care of this starter gives us a way to be nurturing."
While we are forced to be physically distant from one another, Durfee also sees a link between the virus that has separated us and the starter that is bringing us back together. "A starter is, ironically, something that grows, much like a virus," she says. "The difference is that Johanna's starter, as it grows, is spreading positivity. A lot more people are sharing their goodness with the world, even if we never meet each other in person."
As Hellrigl continues to see photos of recipes made with the starter that began its life in an Italian apple orchard - breads, buns and pancakes she laughingly refers to as her "grandchildren" - she is also intently aware of the drastic nature of a pandemic that contributed to the rising interest in baking and led to shortages of flour and yeast.
"I'll always be available to give something to somebody," says Hellrigl, "but someday I hope we're all busy enough that we're not baking bread all the time."