We will begin a series of sourdough stories wherein we highlight the oral history that accompanies many different sourdough starters. For many, this starter becomes a part of the family. It requires a place to go and be fed when its humans are away; be it a family member, house sitter or a sourdough hotel. Some feel a connection to past generations through the taste, method and baking; breaking bread that was passed down generations, traveled across countries and tested through time.
When Patty Ellis happened upon her mother’s old bread bowl in the cupboard, she was reminded of her family’s history with sourdough bread. She grabbed her mother’s recipe box and found her sourdough notes and, quite literally, restarted the tradition.
Lea: What is it about sourdough that connects you so closely to your family?
Patty: My brother brought my mom some starter from San Francisco. It was her baby. She fed it religiously. We decided that she needed a special bread bowl so all four of us kids chipped in and my older brother bought the bowl. I believe it was a Mason Cash and it was the biggest bowl I had ever seen. I wish it stayed in the family after she passed but that wasn’t to be. Recently, I decided to follow in her footsteps and try my hand at sourdough. I did find her sourdough notes in her recipe file and I have those hanging in my kitchen.
How did you decide to make a sourdough starter?
I had been making Artisan bread for a while and decided to try sourdough. If mom could do it, so could I. I looked up directions on the Internet and started from there. Basic flour and water for my starter, no juices or anything fancy. Lots of feeding (it took me awhile to realize I had to discard some before it took over the house.) I’m pretty happy with the way she turned out.
If mom could do it, so could I.
Does your starter have a name?
I just refer to her as “the Original.” My daughter got me three different dry starters for my birthday, but I’ve only tried the one from San Francisco. That one is called “SF”. It’s not as good as “the Original.”
Does your starter have a personality?
Well, she does let me know when she needs to be fed. But other than that, no.
How did you start it?
I did a lot of research online and was totally overwhelmed by all the information on starting a starter so I went with the easiest. Flour, water, feeding twice a day, keeping her in a nice spot in the kitchen until I really loved the way she smelled. Then started baking. Waiting for her to be ready was the hardest part of the whole process.
Header images, “Before, During and After feeding” used with permission from Patty Ellis (2016).
I did sign up for the Sourdough Project last November. Today I received a notice that it’s now beginning. I filled out the information and am all signed up. I did send the following story in the section asking why I am doing this. Here’s our story:
My starter has a lot of history. In 1978, my parents went to Alaska. Because they knew I was a huge fan of sourdough, they brought back for me a package of dehydrated sourdough starter. I recall that the package indicated that this starter was over 100 years old at the time. I rehydrated the starter, fed it, expanded it and began to use it. Because this starter was a living organism, we named him Herman and put him in our refrigerator, where he has lived for many years. We have used Herman to bake bread, rolls, waffles, etc. ever since. However, there is much more to my story than that. I was a Girl Scout leader for 13 years. During that time, I was involved with an encampment for over 200 Girl Scouts at our Council camp. The theme of the encampment was “Memories,” and, as part of that theme, we taught girls old fashioned skills: making butter, weaving, etc. One of the sessions had the girls baking sourdough rolls – all with our Herman. At some point, I had given some of Herman to one of my local friends who enjoyed baking. However, there is still more to my story. In 1994 two things happened that impacted our family. The first was the Northridge Earthquake, which caused a tremendous amount of damage in our area. The second was that just before the earthquake – and for the first time – Herman turned pink! That was disastrous because it indicated a bacteria had invaded our dear Herman and I had to toss him out. However, I was not overly concerned because my friend also had some Herman. Sometime after the earthquake, I finally got around to asking my friend for some Herman. When I did, her face dropped. It turned out that after the earthquake, as her husband was trying to clean things up, he noticed a jar of whitish grayish somewhat sticky stuff in a jar in the back of the refrigerator. Thinking it was something old and bad – he threw it out! Disaster strikes again! My family was disconsolate. It was as if we had lost a well-loved family member. I tried buying and creating new starters, but they just did not have the same aroma or taste as Herman. In late 1993, my Mother had passed away. My Mom loved to entertain and, shortly before she died, she had been planning on having a party at their summer home. The following August, in 1994, my father, my siblings and I and our spouses decided to go to their summer home and give the party my Mom had been planning. When we got there, I realized that they had left precipitously when she was sick and that the refrigerator was in great need of cleaning. As I sat on the ground in front of the refrigerator sorting thru items, I began to laugh. And then cry. I knew as soon as I saw him, in all his gooey, sticky beauty. My Mom had a jar of Herman that I had given her at some point in time! Our kids doubted it could truly be Herman, but when we unscrewed the lid, Herman’s pungent and unique aroma hit us right in the face. It was as though my Mom had reached down and given Herman back to us! Now, I have 4 jars of Herman. My kids and various friends also have him – just for insurance. I expect our story will continue to grow thru the generations of our family. I would love to participate in this project and learn more about our dearly beloved Herman.
That is a wonderful story…I would be interested in finding out more about Herman after they check him out. I too have signed up for the study and just today mailed off my South African culture that I purchased in the dry form @4 months ago…it uses whole wheat flour, and does best with whole wheat flour. Would you like to trade ?
Spelled my last name wrong…..it’s Pam Gibbons
I live in Australia and have been given Herman ( the German Friendship cake) starter. That’s the full title as he gets passed around. Could this possibly be the same one