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A Sourdough Starter is My Family Heirloom

It's not your family's tradition, so you can break with Alyson Thoner's clan and top sourdough pancakes with syrup and butter.
It's not your family's tradition, so you can break with Alyson Thoner's clan and top sourdough pancakes with syrup and butter. (By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
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By Alyson Thoner
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Maple syrup is strictly prohibited. So are forks and knives. There are, in fact, only two approved ways to eat my family's traditional sourdough pancakes: 1) slathered in butter, dusted with cinnamon and sugar, and rolled up like a spongy piccolo; and 2) folded double over a melted slice of sharp cheddar cheese. I live on the edge of heresy; I like mine with honey and diced fruit. All varieties find their way to your mouth via your fingers.

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To make sourdough pancakes in my family, you mix equal parts unbleached flour and lukewarm water with our heirloom sourdough starter and let it sit overnight, covered, in a warm place, until it's pungently sour and laced with delicate bubbles. They're not for every day. Since they take at least 12 (preferably 24) hours of preparation, they make their appearance mostly on such special occasions as birthdays, sleepovers and Christmas morning before the frenzied pillaging of the tree.

As a little girl, I used to sit on my mother's counter with my knees drawn up under my chin and watch her make the starter. She ran warm water from the kitchen faucet, testing its temperature with her fingertips. When the water seemed right, she poured a few cups into a large bowl. Then she added a mound of flour. She did not measure precisely (as my sister would after culinary training), but instead went by feel, stirring the flour and water together with firm strokes of a wooden spoon until it reached the consistency she had learned from her father.

Next, she pulled her starter from the refrigerator. She always kept it in an old glass spice jar next to the mustard and ketchup. When she popped open the jar, I could see its white, pasty contents, and I could smell its strange, vinegary odor. I always cocked an eyebrow, but she, with unremitting faith, added it to the flour and water and gave everything a few more stirs for good measure. Last, she would put the bowl in the warmest part of the house to let it do what sourdough does.

The mystery fascinated me. I would sneak past my sleeping sister in the middle of the night and peer at the starter as it bubbled and changed. Such plain ingredients, yet my mother would make from it the best food I had ever tasted. What could work such wonders?

When I got too old to sit on the counter, I learned to superintend the sourdough process on my own. I would mix up the starter at night, just as my mother had. In the morning, I would combine the soured flour and water with other basic ingredients -- eggs, sugar, oil, salt and baking soda -- the proportions memorized by my mother's side of the family, though the recipe varies within the clan. We multiply the eggs based on the quantity of flour. My cousins do not. Heated, if friendly, debate arises on the topic.

Getting the recipe right never worried me. I got heart palpitations, though, about whether I would remember to "save out" the starter, or put several tablespoons in the spice jar for future use. Remember, my mother would caution, and the sourdough would live on for another season. Forget, and the starter, a yeast kept in continuous culture for nearly half a century, would die. A moment's carelessness could bring years of tradition to a halt, and I, the sort of cook who walks into the pantry and forgets why she came in, feared that I would one day break the chain.

That chain began in 1961 in the second week of May (on Mother's Day, I learned later). Though I grew up near San Francisco, America's fabled home of sourdough, my family's sourdough came from farther east. When my grandmother went into labor with her third child at a hospital in Aurora, Colo., my grandfather, Marine Corps Maj. John "Jack" Calvin Shaffer, kept himself occupied with a labor of his own. In those hours that brought my mother into the world, Grandpa Jack began the tradition that would run through her childhood and mine: He caught our sourdough yeast.

We don't know exactly how he did it, though a yellow recipe card found in a tin box after his death suggests that he might have scraped yeast from the skin of a piece of ripe fruit. All bread-leavening yeasts are one-celled fungi in the genus Saccharomyces. Most of us know the freeze-dried granules of regular baker's yeast, S. cerevisiae, that come in foil-lined packets in the baking aisle. A second variety lives in the wild, traveling through the air. This wild strain, known as S. exiguus or S. minor, likes to land on grains and fruits. My grandfather probably caught that kind. S. minor travels in company with a variety of bacteria known collectively as Lactobacillus sanfrancisco. The L. sanfrancisco, making acids as it reproduces, can take credit for the "sour" in sourdough.

Now, after domestication by Grandpa Jack, the once-wild yeast inhabits the shelves of family Frigidaires throughout the lower 48. Cold temperatures keep it alive for months at a time, though best results come with frequent use. When restored to warmth, the yeast and bacteria begin to metabolize carbohydrates into ethanol, carbon dioxide and sour acids. It's a strange, smelly process, but for those who love it, it helps us savor the sanctity and strength of home.

I have tested that strength.

When the time came for me to choose a college, I wound up in Washington, D.C., and I brought some starter with me. Now I live, work, play and make the occasional sourdough pancake inside the Beltway, where I'm one drop in an ocean of transients. I never meant for the move to become permanent, but one year flowed into the next, and for seven years I have drifted in a land where it seems no one but me eats sourdough. Without really meaning to distance myself, I became the aunt who hears her nephew's first words garbled through the cellphone. I became the sister missing when others were sprinkling pancakes with cinnamon and sugar from the same chipped china canister. I try to keep connected, but I know that no number of phone calls or e-mails or transcontinental flights can quite compensate for my exile. Our relationships suffer.

Twice since I moved away, I have gone to fetch my sourdough starter from the back of the refrigerator in my San Quentinesque college dorm or my rented apartment, only to unscrew the cap and find the starter black, separated, dead. Each time, I blushed to the roots of my hair. No self-respecting descendant of John Calvin Shaffer would ever let sourdough die of starvation. And yet I had, twice. I had broken a link of that famous chain. It felt symbolic of larger ties I have severed to find my own way in the world.

But some links don't break so easily. With each sourdough death, my mother came to the rescue. She parceled out some of her own precious starter and sent it to me from the Bay Area via priority mail. With recovered joy, I whipped up heaping batches of sourdough and invited my friends and neighbors to eat with me. Mixing up mounds of cinnamon and sugar, slicing cheese and firing up four griddles at once, I heard the batter sizzle and basked in the feeling that I had transported the happiness of home across a continent. I made sure to "save out" some starter for future use, and I even gave some as a wedding present to dear friends.

Every now and then, a new acquaintance looks into the back of my refrigerator and asks if I know that I have something gross living on the back shelf. I do know, and I explain, laughing, about sourdough. The listener's face screws up with doubt as I describe the process. I cannot blame them. To the uninitiated, my sourdough inheritance must seem strange at best and a health hazard at worst, but to me it is the most wondrous alchemy of my childhood: practical, edible magic; my own movable feast.

Alyson Thoner is a freelance writer who lives in Arlington.


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