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Book excerpt: Eric Pallant's 'Sourdough Culture'
As I mentioned in this week’s gift guide, I am a big fan of Sourdough Culture, the new book by Eric Pallant. It’s part history of bread, sourdough, and baking, part detective tale, and part cookbook. Eric is a home baker, a Fulbright Scholar, and the the Christine Scott Nelson Endowed Professor of Environmental Science and Sustainability at Allegheny College.
I first heard Eric discuss the book on an episode of Mark Dyck’s wonderful podcast, Rise Up!—which you should listen to as well—and I knew then that I’d want to read the book and somehow feature it here. I asked Eric if I could share an excerpt, and he sent me a copy of the introduction for you all.
Agate, Eric’s publisher, also sent me two copies of Sourdough Culture to give away to a randomly-selected person and a friend. Head over to this Instagram post if you’d like to get in on the drawing.
If it weren’t for the gentle persistence of my wife, I would avoid most social gatherings. I would have found an excuse not to attend a picnic hosted by Milosz Mamula, director of financial aid at Allegheny College, and his wife, Quimby, and I would have missed my opportunity to begin a relationship with a sourdough starter that has now stretched more than thirty years.
I was a new assistant professor of environmental science at Allegheny College, and the Mamulas had invited us to a get-to-know-the-new-couple summer picnic in their backyard. It was 1988. In the countryside outside Meadville, Pennsylvania, the sun was bright, the sky was cloudless, and their lawn expanded like an endless ocean of green. There were hardwood forests in the valleys.
Susan and I arrived at the Mamulas’ as we often do when approaching gatherings: Susan was smiling and looking forward to an afternoon conversing with people, and I was in quite the opposite state. My heart was beating too quickly, my hands were leaving damp marks on the steering wheel, and my appetite had been displaced by mild nausea.
I do not recall what we had for lunch, but I do remember enjoying the bread that was served and using that fact to break my discomfiture. The bread had oatmeal in it, so in addition to its home- baked warmth and golden crust, there was an overture of comfort about it.
“Hey, this is great bread,” I said, or something equally witty.
“It’s sourdough bread. I just baked it,” Quimby said.
“Oh, I bake bread, but I’ve never used sourdough,” I told her.
“Would you like some of my starter? I can give you some now. Come on in. I have some growing in the kitchen.”
Though none of us knew it at the time, the bread we ate with lunch was baked from a sourdough starter that I would later find out was nearing its one hundredth birthday and had a history I would trace back as far as the gold rush, in Cripple Creek, Colorado, in 1893. It was also the beginning of my love affair with sourdough.
I took the Mamulas’ starter more on impulse than because of any particular ideological commitment or cooking goal. When I was young, my dad made bread. He was a big man, over six feet tall, more than two hundred pounds. His hands were the size of catcher’s mitts. He made eggy brioche with noses that protruded like his and shiny tops like his own bald head. I liked brioche because it was sweet and rich. He made sourdough, too, but because of its overwhelming dissimilarity to the Wonder Bread I had grown up with and preferred, I did not take to it at the time.
There was something magical about Quimby Mamula’s bread that infused me with a spirit to learn how to work with sourdough. I looked at a few recipes but mostly experimented, making a thousand mistakes and accumulating just as many observations. As the first decade of the 2000s neared its end, one day I pulled my sourdough culture from the refrigerator, pausing just before feeding it fresh water and flour. Staring into my bottle of culture, I thought to myself that my Cripple Creek starter had been with me longer than my children, both of whom were then teenagers capable of consuming large quantities of bread. It had outlived multiple computers, numerous cell phones, a toaster, a refrigerator, and a washing machine. It was one of my oldest possessions. And unlike the few things that I had inherited from my grandparents, my sourdough starter was a living heirloom. If I had kept this starter alive for twenty years, and it was alive in the Mamula household before coming to me, how old was it? My need to know more was greater than my fear of cold-calling the Mamulas.
After our picnic, we had not stayed in touch, and Milosz had since retired from Allegheny. To my great relief, within seconds of answering the phone, they recalled our long-ago luncheon and even who gave them the starter. It had belonged to Douglas Steeples, a friend of theirs from when they lived in Indiana, in the 1970s. Steeples had inherited it from his grandmother. Already, I understood our starter to be very old. Finding Douglas Steeples and asking what he could recall was my next step.
At one time, Steeples had been a professor of history at Earlham College. He had retired and was well into his seventies and living in North Carolina when I first reached him. Just as the Mamulas had requested a sample of starter when I called them out of the blue, Steeples asked if he could have a sample returned to him. Both had let their starters die some ten years prior. I packed a jarful into a FedEx box with some ice packs and sent it on its way.
About the starter Steeples could say only one thing with assurance: it didn’t originate with his grandmother. He was confident the starter he gave to the Mamulas was from the Cripple Creek gold rush of 1893. Steeples was not sure exactly how the starter had gotten to him. For more than a year, he and I corresponded as he fed me clues.
I was now the owner of a Gold Rush starter from 1893, a starter with a proud history. After a little research, I learned that sourdough and gold mining were more than metaphorically synonymous. Legend states that gray-bearded, bandy-legged miners protected personal starters at gunpoint. When it got cold at night, they slept with pouches of starter inside their bedclothes to keep their starters from freezing. According to some accounts, living with a sourdough starter next to their skin meant that some miners began to smell like it. (No one has ever written much about what a sourdough starter smelled like after cozying up to an unbathed miner night after night.) By 1898, at the height of the Klondike Gold Rush in Alaska, a miner coming in from the wild for provisions not only smelled like sourdough but also was called a Sourdough. For many years, any loaf of bread I baked was served with a story about a lonely miner in the Rocky Mountains who had once baked with the same sourdough starter I was now using.
Remarkably, it seemed my starter had survived for more than 125 years and had apparently escaped the most common demises: it had not been accidentally baked, contaminated, infected, or ignored. Was it possible to discover the origins of my miner’s starter? Had my miner arrived in the West with a pouch of starter from his mother’s kitchen? Maybe it was even a starter that had been in his family since before they’d arrived in North America from somewhere in Europe. My imagination ran wild, but the seeds of a book—this book—were beginning to germinate. I had studied microbiology as a PhD student and knew I needed to broaden my inquiry: was there any way to know if the bacteria and yeast now living in my refrigerator were descendants of microscopic organisms from more than a century prior? Did it matter if they were?
For the better part of a year, Douglas Steeples tried to recall who, exactly, had given him the starter. He sent me names of former colleagues and students, and I did my best to locate them to ask if they were once sourdough bakers. While I followed Steeples’s leads, I recognized that my investigation would eventually grow cold; sooner or later I would reach a point in history that no one who was still around could remember. In order to deduce how a starter might have first arrived in Cripple Creek, Colorado, I began searching for the origin of bread. My plan was to work forward from that history in the hope that at some point my investigation would intersect with the history of my starter. Beginning with the first known bread makers, I would trace sourdough through millennia until I found at least one viable route that led to Cripple Creek, Colorado.
I wanted to learn who invented bread and who invented sourdough. How did bread come to be the staple upon which so much of Western civilization came to depend? What experiments led scientists to reveal that living species were growing and reproducing inside a sourdough starter? Did gold miners really sleep with sourdough starters inside their clothes? What happened when they rolled over? And why, after six thousand years, have so many people given up on sourdough in favor of bread designed by engineers to exit a factory line with all the reliability and taste of a Model T? My attempt to answer these questions is this book.
The paradox of a sourdough starter is that while each cell responsible for raising a loaf of bread is but a few hours old when it is cooked, the ability of people to harness the microbial power of yeast and bacteria to leaven is as old as civilization itself. I wanted to know who first domesticated the microscopic organisms now slumbering in my refrigerator to reveal the life my starter had lived and, in effect, to learn the culture of my culture. The birth of my sourdough culture, it turns out, was intertwined with the birth of agriculture and earth’s first civilizations.
Reprinted with permission from Sourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making from Ancient to Modern Bakers by Eric Pallant, Agate, September 2021.