Sourdough and Many New Years

2018. Wow. A new year shows up and my life shifts around for some new focus. While I eagerly anticipate the coming sportsmen shows – home of those several-days-long outdoor fantasies – I am just not quite ready to let go of the past.

Consider that I haven’t been fishing or hunting since last year. All my outdoor gear dates back into the last century, and… Well you get the idea. Then there is that treasure which dates back to the century before last.

We just returned from a too-short visit with the last of the Hucklings, in Colorado. When we were making arrangements for our after Christmas celebrations, Edward asked if his sister or mom were planning to make sourdough pancakes, to ensure that 2018 got off to a proper start. It made sense, really, since our sourdough starter has been a regular part of welcoming our family’s new years and has seen a good many others as it lived and grew through parts of three centuries.

Each time I add flour and water to the starter, the mixture grows and expands and behaves much as I imagine it did for the old Alaskan gentleman who brought it to western Washington around a couple turns of a century back. He passed some of the culture on to a young couple there in 1915. He told them he had no idea how long it had been since another old miner handed it off to him. My folks got some of it in 1960, and passed a share on to me in 1965. In turn, there are now crocks of the starter in any number of family and friend homes.

Funny how people get attached to stuff like sourdough. That living culture of natural yeast becomes part of the family. There is, no doubt, an infinite variety of fine old starters ranging from really sour to almost sweet to the nose and tongue. I’ve tried dozens across the U.S. over the decades. (One in Roslyn makes the finest bread you ever munched over a poker game.) I remain pretty smug about mine, which is remarkably mild, with a sourness easily controlled with the clock. Diane makes an outstanding bread with ours, insisting that it is the easiest bread she has ever made. Many odes and essays have been written to celebrate the wonders of sourdough.

I took gallon jugs of sourdough batter to our Colorado elk camps for many years. The poems celebrating those high-country pancakes were creative and joyful – if inappropriate for a family newspaper.

On the premise that every outdoor nut needs a specialty meal and/or food, I have passed parcels of my starter along many times. Over the years any number of homeys have mastered biscuits, bread and pancakes with it, often collecting some pretty interesting literature. One of them, Homey Mark Dunbar, has often recommended Jake O=Shaughnessey=s Sourdough Book. O=Shaughnessey calls the water-flour-starter mixture “ambrosia,” and no sourdough aficionado would argue the point.

As we aficionados hand off our treasured starters, we all warn about allowing for the redoubling of volume as the sourdough yeast culture grows through the ambrosia. Some people get so excited with their new starter that they miss part of the guidance.

In the late 1980s, I passed a crock along to Brad Johnson, editor of the paper for which I was writing the earliest of these “Inside the Outdoors” columns. Brad mixed it up, then left it unattended in his truck on a relatively warm day. Brad’s resulting story, under the headline “The Sourdough that Ate Castle Rock, Colorado,” told of it spreading from his truck, creeping downtown, and clearing the way for a new downtown improvement project. After seeing his truck, I have always pretty much believed Brad’s tale.

In October, 1968, John Jobson, the long-time camping editor for Sports Afield magazine, wrote a column titled “That Wonderful Sourdough.” He suggested making your own starter, with the following simple instructions. Into a gallon crock (a very large glass or ceramic bowl will do, too) put four cups flour, two tablespoons sugar, a tablespoon of vinegar and enough water to make a syrupy batter. Cover it loosely (cheesecloth is good) and keep it warm, not hot. Natural yeast will settle onto the mixture and in ten days or so you will have your own unique starter. Pour off any clear, yellow liquid, add water and flour, and wait as it bubbles and grows. The world is full of recipes for everything from pancakes to cornbread and desserts, just check the library or web, or contact me.

Near Seattle, Jobson (on a movie tour for MGM’s 1933 movie, Eskimo) once picked up huskies, a sled, harness and snowshoes from the rural lakeside cabin of an old Alaskan prospector who had gone on to his reward. As he was leaving, he noticed the old boy’s dry and crusty sourdough jug, at the back of the old wood stove. The auctioneer (with curled lip) scoffed, “Take it!”

With water and flour added, the sourdough in that crusted old pot came alive. It made, Mr. Jobson said, “some of the finest and most toothsome bread I’ve ever eaten.”

I think Jobson would describe Diane’s bread that way, too. I like imagining that the old prospector whose sourdough Jobson rescued was the guy from whom my starter came.

Happy New Year.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized