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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Strega Corona and the Magic Sourdough Starter: A COVID-19 Tale for Our Times

Before the pandemic took over our lives, I had decided to create my own sourdough starter. I am aware that by saying this I don’t sound all that different from those people who claim that they were into a band before it was cool. “Dude, I saw Vampire Weekend at The Bell House before any of you guys even knew who they were.” But in my case it’s true, and I have proof. The minute yeast disappeared from grocery stores, I found that I had in my possession some kind of freaky deaky super starter.

Don’t believe me? Here is an actual photograph taken by my friend Junko Yokota after I gave her some of my homemade sourdough starter to raise:

Junko assured me that she’d sung the appropriate spell, but it just kept growing. Perhaps she’d forgotten the three kisses?

That kind of statement is enough to give a woman ideas.

Once a week I let my poor husband off the hook and fill in on helping to homeschool/distance larn our two children. In the morning they do their assignments and meet with their teachers, but in the afternoon school follows our own personal curriculums. My husband likes to create an American history lesson that’s this fascinating combination of nonfiction picture books, The Cartoon History of the United States, Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales, and School House Rock (Cartoon History and School House Rock requiring LOADS of caveats, of course). Science and Video Editing are also taught in the house of Bird. Me? Cooking, gardening, and the occasional writing project. So when Junko said that about the starter in her little pot . . . well . . .

Behold! Our latest project. Something to distract you from the strange temperatures and rampant disease outside your pleasant domicile, eh?

Seriously, the longer this pandemic goes on, the weirder this blog is gonna get. You have been warned.

In a town in Calabria, a long time ago (which probably means it was 2 months ago) there lived an old lady everyone called Strega Corona. Strega Corona (she was pretty easygoing about the whole name thing) had the magic touch. She could fix a glitchy ZOOM meeting, sew a dozen face masks, and find you some Cascade at the grocery store if you needed it.
But Strega Corona was getting old and she needed someone to help her keep her little Victory Garden, so she put up a sign in the town square.
And Big Anthony, who didn’t pay attention (or apparently mind his name either), went to see her. Strega Corona explained his duties and then said, “The one thing you must never do is touch the sourdough starter. It is very touchy. Lotta microbes going on there. I don’t let anyone touch it.” “Oh, si, yes,” said Big Anthony.
One evening when Big Anthony was heading home to binge Tiger King for, like, the 11th time, he saw Strega Corona singing to her sourdough starter.
“How wonderful!” said Big Anthony. “That’s a magic mother for sure!” But too bad for Big Anthony, because he didn’t see Strega Corona blow three kisses to the magic sourdough starter.
The next day when Big Anthony went to the town square, nobody was social distancing well AT ALL and they weren’t even wearing masks! “I’ll show them,” Anthony said to himself. “Someday I will get the magic sourdough starter for myself and then I’ll never have to go grocery shopping again!”
The next day Strega Corona said to Big Anthony, “Anthony, it’s not safe for me to be so close to other people so I am going over the mountain until we’ve flattened the curve a little. Do your chores and, remember, don’t touch the sourdough starter.” “Oh, yes yes, Strega Corona,” said Big Anthony. But inside he was thinking, I am so gonna make a TikTok video out of this.
As soon as Strega Corona was out of sight, Big Anthony went inside and sang. And sure enough, the starter bubbled and belched and began to fill up the pot.
Big Anthony invited everyone to come, one at a time, into the house to take a little of the starter home for themselves. Strega Corona’s pot was so full it was beginning to overflow.
Big Anthony rushed inside and grabbed the pot’s cover, but of course that’s the dead wrong thing to do for a starter if you want it to stop growing. I mean, it gets a lot bigger if you cut off its air supply. That’s just science, folks. So it spilled on the floor of Strega Corona’s house.
“Stop!” yelled Big Anthony. But the starter didn’t stop. It came through the doors and kept right on bubbling. All the people were running ahead of it.
For the record, Strega Corona hadn’t even gotten out of town by this point. Remember, Big Anthony sort of jumped the gun when she left. She was just on the edge of the square and she didn’t have to look twice to know what was happening.
She sang the magic song and blew the three kisses and with a sputter the starter stopped growing. Then the people turned on poor Big Anthony. “Now, wait,” said Strega Nona. “The punishment must fit the crime.” And she took a spoon from a lady standing nearby and held it out to Big Anthony.
“All right, Anthony. You wanted to play with my starter? Do you know how much work this thing is? You have to feed it every day and keep it happy or it makes this weird gray water on top. It’s your baby now. So start stirring!”
Poor, Big Anthony.

For other coronavirus-inspired picture books you may wish to check out the Facebook page of Stefanie Trilling. She covered this book with the title “Corona Nona” which, objectively, is a better title than my own. Ah well.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Travis Jonker says:


  2. Sharon Verbeten says:

    This is magical! Thanks!

  3. Delightful work! I had forgotten this wonderful story. Love the little masks. (And I, too, have a four year old starter!)

  4. Sarah Balint says:

    Too bad Tomie dePaola Has died. He would have loved to see this COVID-centric re-do of his telling of this traditional story. Wonderful! You totally made my day!