Sourdough Yarns

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

| May 2019

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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.

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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”?






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