Sourdough Yarns

Learn about the ‘cultural’ uses of sourdough in pioneer America through these four tall tales.

| May 2019

Photo from Adobe Stock 

There are many tall tales told by pioneers and prospectors. Ruth Hinkle shared the next couple of “sourdough yarns.”

The first tale involved a young man known as “Sourdough Pete,” who traveled to Alaska to seek his fortune sometime around the turn of the century (circa 1900). His grandmother, once a pioneer herself, gave him a crock of yeast starter for hotcakes and bread. With the help of a sack of flour, he always had something to eat, even if he didn’t strike it rich. He shared the starter with friends who, according to legend, often walked miles to renew their starter or obtain a new one. He became known for both his sourdough and his generosity.

Photo from Adobe Stock

Another yarn tells of a 1900 Alaskan prospector who married a Native girl. Together they started a sourdough “pot” and kept it going for a long time. Sadly, his wife died, and then the prospector became ill, but he refused to leave his sourdough. “It’s all I have left of my wife,” he bemoaned. Still, he had to go to the hospital, so he gave the starter to a woman friend to guard — which she did. She continued to use the starter and gave many starts of it to friends and neighbors.

Another interesting tidbit suggests that during the coldest temperatures, prospectors often put their starter to bed with them, under the covers, where body heat helped the starter “survive” the cold night. Sometimes the starter was carried in a bag around the owner’s neck under his shirt, especially on long journeys. Is it any wonder that Alaskan prospectors and old-timers were called “sourdoughs”?

Photo from Adobe Stock

Finally, apparently old trappers often used sourdough when tanning small animal hides. After washing a hide with warm soapy water, a trapper would lay the skin out on a flat board, hair side down. Across the exposed area, he would smear a quantity of sourdough. When the sourdough began to dry, the hide was worked and rubbed, in a circular fashion.

More from Sourdough Biscuits and Pioneer Pies: The Old West Baking Book:

sourdough-biscuits-pioneer-piesHow did pioneers in the Old West do it? Living in the Old West required not only stamina, but innovation. Imagine putting a cake together without fresh supplies, measuring spoons, or a dedicated work area; imagine baking that cake without a thermometer, steady heat, or a timer. Sourdough Biscuits and Pioneer Pies: The Old West Baking Book shares the baking secrets of Native American ranch house cooks, chuck wagon chefs, and wagon train homemakers, with over a hundred Old West recipes — updated and kitchen tested. Classic dutch-oven and cast-iron techniques are also included. Laced among classic baked goods recipes such as Sourdough Biscuits, Apple Brown Betty, and Concord Grape Pie are dozens of anecdotes and fun facts on how our ancestors were so successful with so little.


Reprinted with permission from Sourdough Biscuits and Pioneer Pies: The Old West Baking Book by Gail L. Jenner and published by TwoDot, 2017.



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