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Meet the Bread Heads at Starter Bread

How two nerds captured Portland’s whole-grains movement in a loaf unlike any other

By Karen Brooks May 25, 2021 Published in the Summer 2021 issue of Portland Monthly

Starter Bread bakers Matt Kedzie and Zena Walas

Image: Michael Novak

Every Monday I haul over to a sleepy street off West Burnside to yank open the world’s ugliest treasure chest, a plastic bin tucked behind a metal gate. Waiting inside: bread wrapped in brown paper and labeled by hand. It’s heavy enough to inspire a few Pumping Iron moves on the spot. But banish all preconceptions.  Starter Bread inspires the kind of deep thoughts usually reserved for Texas barbecue or retiring basketball players. I can’t wait to get it home.

Texture is the star. Outside is a force field of bronze and crunch. It stands in striking contrast to the interior, which verges on the moist edge of hot cereal and custard. Despite the density—there are enough nutrients in here to form a biosphere—it’s surprisingly light and springy. I’ve never encountered anything quite like it. “Fun to chew!” as my friend Peter says. Even Bakeshop owner and grain-flour pioneer Kim Boyce is under the spell. “It’s weird and marvelous,” she says after demolishing a loaf called Barley. “Knock-down, the best bread I’ve ever had.”

See what I mean?   

Like many things in Portland, finding it requires whale-like sonar. Starter Bread uses a weekly “baker’s choice” subscription model, communicating with customers via email. A $40 one-month commitment gets you a weekly loaf, a secret pickup site (or porch delivery, if you live nearby), and an email bulletin that speaks, beautifully and proudly, about the small-scale farmers and cutting-edge research labs behind it. 

The project lives inside of the minds and (licensed) home kitchen of couple Matt Kedzie and Zena Walas. Every week, they slide down the rabbit hole into the Northwest grain shed, fixating on one or two varieties at a time. Be it red fife or rye, the grain of the moment is the planet around which all decisions orbit. The end goal: to fight for local food through the lens of a sourdough porridge bread named after the week’s obsession. Durum. Corn Kasha. And so on.

Each loaf considers its subject in multiple forms. They feed it to their starter until, they note, it “foams at the mouth.” They crack it. They toast it within an inch of its life. They soak it overnight and stir it into a porridge—the secret sauce here. Sometimes it’s sprouted until “it thinks it’s a plant.” The rest is hand-milled into flour, and everything transformed into a bright, funky, sourdough porridge bread, all the better when toasted. What’s most surprising? Starter Bread gets this amazing texture with a floor-model oven from Lowe’s. It tastes like life.

To call this whole-grain bread is like saying Moby Dick is about whales. We’re not talking mere flour choices. Starter Bread aims to find the full expression of a kernel, perhaps unhulled barley from the geeky breeders behind Oregon State University’s Barleyworld project. Recently, Kedzie and Walas were among the first Oregon bakers to use Salish Blue, a nearly unheard of perennial wheat from Washington’s BreadLab.

At Starter Bread texture is the star.

Image: Michael Novak

“This is very simple bread,” Kedzie insists. “In our current universe, what we’re doing is surely radical: sourcing staple foods in the community, transforming them with our hands, sharing them with our neighbors. It’s how we ate before McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Monsanto aimed to feed the world with large-scale agriculture, robots, and Roundup.”   

Turns out, Starter Bread is part of something larger. Portland’s next food frontier is here. Homegrown grains are the new microroasted beans, backed by a growing underground of local-first, “fight the flour” philosophers. Their ranks include the buzzy La Reinita pop-up bakery and the surging Sunday Bread Project pop-up at Scottie’s Pizza Parlor—both one-woman shows. Over at the People’s Farmers Market, Wandering Seeds Bakery is rethinking economic justice with donate-or-trade-what-you-can (if anything) loaves of “pearled, fermented and toasted streaker barley bread.” 

Something good is rising from this grim time. Bread is back, baby, and wholesome baking has never been more intriguing. I am so in.

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