From his office above the Kenyon Bookstore, Jason Bennett, a web applications and integrations specialist at Kenyon, runs his passion project: selling homemade sourdough bread. Bennett has been an employee of the College since 2005, and began baking sourdough in 2018.
Bennett has made about 450 loaves of sourdough since he started, around 400 of which he sold. Although he now works from home due to the pandemic, he still comes into the office on Fridays so people can pick up the loaves they have ordered. He sends his customers an email, they ring the doorbell and then they collect their bread.
A couple who buys from him regularly refers to the bread as “Jason bread,” saying things like “Oh, let’s have some ‘Jason bread’ with our soup tonight.” Another couple requested a loaf before the holidays so they could bring it back to their family in New York City, and a professor’s French au pair once referred to Bennett’s bread as “tasting like home.”
Bennett created his starter — a store of bacterial culture that gets added to every loaf — in 2018 by mixing wheat and water and letting it sit. After a few days, the mixture had bubbled with yeast and lactic acid cultures growing and feeding on the wheat. Now, he keeps this starter in a jar in his fridge, feeding it once a week with water and flour to keep it alive. This sourdough starter takes more work, but Bennett says it “produces different flavors than store-bought yeast does.”
The night before he plans on baking, Bennett sets aside however much starter he will need for his bread to let it warm up for a few hours, and then feeds it with flour before he goes to bed. The next morning he makes the dough with the starter, water, more flour and salt. He lets the dough rise while he’s at work, and controls the temperature so that it is ready at about 5 p.m.
“It’s tough because you have to deal with baking over a whole day, whereas with direct yeasted bread I could start a bread and finish a bread in an evening,” Bennett said. “But the payoff is in the flavor.”
After the dough has risen, Bennett staggers the baking, since his home oven does not have the space to cook all of the loaves at once. “I’m probably baking in the most labor-intensive way because it takes two days and I can only put two loaves in the oven at a time,” he said.
With loaves going for $7 each, Bennett admits he isn’t making a huge profit. He started selling so he would have motivation to keep his sourdough starter alive. However, he has utilized the extra spending money for purchases like buying trees for his yard. “It was a nice tangible conversion of bread to another thing.”
The concrete nature of the work is very appealing to Bennett, especially because his day job doesn’t involve the same kind of hands-on labor. “Sometimes it’s nice to do something very tangible. You start the day with flour and water and so you end the day with loaves and you give them [to] somebody and they give you cash,” he said. “That whole process is very satisfying in a way that knowledge work is not.”