In the back of my fridge is a mason jar filled with a bubbly, white mess. The rim of the jar is crusty. There is no label. This is my sourdough start, my wild yeast culture.
The stuff in this jar, the start, was given to my mother by her mother-in-law (my LaLa). Family legend holds that our sourdough start was left behind when the followers of Joseph Smith (aka The Mormons) had to skidaddle from Missouri. The Mormon start was passed from my agnostic grandmother to my Southern Baptist mother and stored in a chilled mason jar in my childhood homes (at least five houses and at least that many houses of worship).
For the last 36 years, since leaving home at age 16, I have had this start in my own refrigerator. Actually, I have stored this start in eight different refrigerators, in four different states.
When I left St Louis for college, I took a batch of sourdough start. It flew in my luggage, triple bagged in Ziplock. As the plane took off, I remember praying that the bags would not explode, hoping that triple bagging meant that my clothes weren’t getting covered with slime and that the start’s tiny yeast would survive the trip.
Four years later, college done, I moved from Claremont, California to San Pedro; a mason jar sufficed for the trip. Over the next 12 years, I had an apartment, then a husband, then a baby, a divorce, then a different husband, first one and then another house, finally settling in a tiny home near the beach. Each move meant a new refrigerator for my mason jar. My last two babies were born near the sea and then it was time again to move; we were a family of five and one jar of start.
We all lived in Colorado for five years. At first, the start was very persnickety. It was hard to tease out flavor or bubble, and then, one day, it was very, very happy. In the high dessert, seven thousand feet above sea level, sourdough breads and biscuits bloomed in my kitchen.
1999 brought my family and my jar of sourdough start to New York. We lived on Troy’s Eastside. and sourdough would come in irregular waves, appearing several times in a week and not again for months. Sometimes sourdough biscuits, three inches thick, with crispy fried edges and silky soft middles were piled high on serving platters. Sometimes rustic, hand shaped breakfast bars with nuts, seeds, dried fruit and cinnamon were a daily staple. But more often than not, the mason jar of start sat quiet in the back of our fridge.
At times I am good to this mixture of yeast, bacteria and history. I take it out and feed it every few days, adding flour, water, a little milk and a bit of sugar. I stir the thick slurry and leave on the counter for a day. This doubles the Start and half goes back into the jar, back into the fridge. The rest is available for baking or giving away.
Other times, I am not so good and months go by without me touching the start, its jar pushed far to the back of the fridge. More than once, after months of inattention, I have cursed myself for killing the star; a black, oily liquid covered the top and the cream-colored start was thick and stiff, all life seemingly gone. But every time, after a day of feeding and care, the gas bubbles of yeast and bacteria appear; life is still here.
This winter, my husband and I moved again Technically still living in Troy, we now live in the country. Cows, corn fields and a meandering creek surround our 18th Century farm-house. The mason jar of start is rarely in the fridge; is fed and aired regularly, divided and re-stored. It has beautiful, soft bubbles and it is made into creative, delicious breads -African Wheat, and Chocolate-Lemon-Prune. In our long life together, my sourdough start has never been happier.
May all babies be born into loving hands