Friday, February 19, 2010



Today I woke up hungry for sourdough waffles. I dug around the back of the cupboard on the bottom shelf and heaved out the waffle iron. Usually I mix my batter the night before and cover the bowl with a damp cloth. Then the batter is light and fluffy for the morning griddle. But today I delayed breakfast while the batter worked, leisurely sipped two cups of coffee, read a few chapters of my current book, and watched the freights roll by from my living room window.

I don’t make sourdoughs often. When I was cooking for my family I always had a starter ready. My dollar-size cakes were a family favorite. But now the family is only me and in my travels, I gave up my starter years ago.

Then last winter I was having breakfast at my friend Linda’s. We once were neighbors along the Milk River. She made the best sourdough pancakes. I asked for some starter from her batch. As she scooped some into a jar for me, Linda said she thought the starter had originated in the old country, crossed the ocean and the prairies, and now was the basis of more than a hundred years of pancake flipping in this country.

Last July my Harlem High School Class of 1963 held a reunion in Ennis. I volunteered to bring the fixin’s for pancakes for our group breakfast. I had three large skillets and a griddle going, piling up the cakes as fast as the gang could eat them, when Donna asked, “Sondra, where did you get your starter?”

“I got it from Sarah’s sister Linda in Kalispell.”

“That is wild,” Donna replied. “Linda got her starter from me. And I got my starter, shortly after I got married, when I lived south of Havre, from Anna and Leonard Sivertsen, who ranched in the Bear Paws south of Chinook. Did you know our starter is well over one hundred years old? And I don’t know the history before it got to Montana.”

Last spring I told this story of the much-traveled starter to Rick in Helena, another school friend from years ago. He asked if I would give him a batch next time he was in Harlem and said he’d bring a small jar for it. Several weeks later, he drove up for a professional meeting. I put a cup of starter into a plastic container and, without thinking, sealed it tightly. We met for lunch at Deb’s Diner out on the Highway. There were four of us waiting for our cheeseburgers, my starter on display in the middle of the table. Suddenly there was a boom and sourdough mix splattered everywhere. While we chattered away, the yeast in the starter, alive and working, built up pressure inside the sealed container and had turned it into a bomb. Most of the sourdough landed on Rick, his hair, his face, his suit jacket and shirt. With aplomb, Rick scooped up as much as he could save into his glass jar. He had thought ahead and punched holes into the lid. We finished our lunch, and Rick, still speckled with globs of batter, departed for his meeting. We all hoped he brought along an extra shirt.

Sourdough has an interesting history and a variety of applications. It makes great glue and many pioneer women papered their cabin walls with newspaper using sourdough batter. But just remember, no matter what your intention, once a splatter of batter dries, and this includes drips on the counter top, it takes a chisel to pry it loose. Prospectors in the remote Yukon gold country, who themselves were called ‘sourdoughs’, toward the end of winter and before spring thaw, when other libations were long gone, drank the hootch which forms on top of the batter when it sits a spell.

I met Bob Sivertsen at a city council meeting. “Bob,” I said. I have sourdough that came from your mother.”

“Her brother Walter brought that sourdough to her from Alaska in 1954 and at that time it had been the vital ingredient in bread and pancakes for 75 years. Let’s see, that was 55 years ago now. Walter got the sourdough from one of the Inuit tribes. I used to carry that sourdough to cow camps,” Bob continued. “I lost it about 4 years ago.”

I think about these things when I make pancakes, waffles or bread using my starter. So this morning I share my waffle with Linda, Donna, Rick, and ranchers south of Chinook. In a few weeks I will put a cup of starter into a glass jar, punch holes in the lid, and return his Mother’s starter to Bob at the Seed Show.

Sondra Ashton
January 25, 2009

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