I clearly am tapping into my Little House on the Prairie days. Back then, on a trip to San Francisco, I found a cookbook, Sourdough Jack’s Cookery by Sourdough Jack Mabee, original copyright 1959. According to the intro of the little book, he spent nearly 20 years in and around Alaska and the American West. It contains lots of anecdotes, old wives tales and recipes about the West and cowboy cooking. Most importantly, enclosed was a packet of official, sourdough yeast. He dedicated the book to his mother, Clara, the same name as my Mom, so how could I resist.
According to Jack, the definition of Sourdough was a Canadian or Alaskan Prospector. This was supposedly derived from the habit of carrying sourdough, a fermented dough used as a leavening for making bread. The practice harks back to ancient times when someone discovered that flour fermented, created bubbles, when it got wet.
Sourdough Jack, states that the dependence on this starter led man to go to great lengths to get, protect and keep the one they had. Frontier men supposedly coined the slang word, hooch from the strong, sour, smelling liquor that rises to the top of a batch of sourdough starter after the fermentation is complete. The yeast was not only used for making bread, but also pancakes, regular cakes, biscuits and bannock (a solid biscuit made in a frypan).
The pancakes were usually made in the size of silver dollars. Jack states, that one story told to a greenhorn was, “you can never fry too many pancakes cause there’s always use for them. If you don’t eat ’em, you kin feed ’em to the dogs, shingle the roof, chink the cabin logs or even use ’em for shoe soles.” Having made many batches of them, I never any left over to experiment with.
San Francisco is famous for their sourdough, but there is a resurgence for eating fermented foods due to its health benefits. “When bread is made the traditional way, the lactic-acid fermentation not only helps to preserve the bread, but also increases the nutrients available for our bodies,” according to Donna Schwenk in her book, Cultured Food for Life.
After reading her book, I dug out my old starter from the back of the frig, which had provided delicious products for several decades. To my disappointment, it had finally died from lack of use. However, I am now the proud owner of a second San Francisco starter and this one I do not plan to neglect.