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Posted: Apr 24, 2009  09:25

A Glimpse Into the Past

The Tradition of Sourdough

One of the charms of a small rural town like Bonners Ferry is the tendency to hold on to the old customs and traditions from our parents and grandparents that still hold value. Since change doesn’t overwhelm us as much as it does residents of metropolitan areas, there is a tendency to hold on to the valued customs and traditions, which have largely been lost by those living a faster paced life in an “instant gratification” society.

One of those traditions that hangs on here in Boundary County is the sourdough crock-pot. I’m amazed at the number of people I’ve met here who maintain a culture of sourdough at home to use from time to time to make special treats. Each owner has a favorite recipe that begins with the starter from sourdough. Mine is what I call “North Idaho Huckleberry Sourdough Pancakes.” I use a culture started in 1980 when I met my wife Denise. Perhaps you’ve seen one of these sourdough cultures, or maybe you even have one of your own.

If all this talk about sourdough is a mystery, it is a yeast factory in a non-metallic pot where flour and water ferment. It needs to be fed frequently and can then be used to produce bread, biscuits, pancakes and other treats. A century ago, virtually every rural household, including those here in Boundary County, had a crock-pot of sourdough slowly bubbling in its spot on the back of a wood burning stove. Out of that came virtually all the breadstuffs the household could eat. Use of sourdough has even been traced back to the ancient Egyptians. Modern enthusiasts claim there is nothing they can buy in a store that matches the unique flavor of that which comes out of a home’s sourdough crock-pot.

But sourdough can be looked at in another way. If you think about it, it provides a glimpse of how different daily life was for our ancestors of a century ago from the way we live today. Consider this!

When the modern household wants pancakes for breakfast, for example, preparation consists of picking up a box of instant pancake mix at the store, which has been quality controlled for consistent results. It can sit on a shelf for months without attention. Once the impulse for pancakes strikes, you just take the mix, add water and maybe a couple of eggs. Within a half hour, the family is sitting down to a pancake breakfast. This is just one example of our “instant” society.

Other examples of our “instant” society that differ from how our ancestors lived are using the Internet to interact with friends and family throughout the world, watching the news from all over the world every evening, or adjusting the heat through a slight change in the thermostat.

All it takes is a little meditation while cooking from a sourdough starter to get the feel of what life was like a century ago. Compare our modern “convenient” method with what our ancestors had to do to prepare a breakfast of pancakes.

Preparation for our ancestors started with putting some flour and water in a non-metallic bowl, perhaps using potato water to speed up the process. It needs to be kept covered with a towel to keep flies from dropping in it or a pet from snacking on it. By the end of a week, it will be bubbling. This shows that the fermentation process is at work and you now have a culture ready for cooking. Instead of storing it on the shelf, it has to be fed often--daily is best. In a way, it is like a pet – without frequent feeding and watering, the pet will starve, and your sourdough culture will either crust over or spoil and might need to be discarded.

When you are ready to fix breakfast, you put some of the sourdough “starter” in a bowl and add to it the ingredients needed such as eggs, oil, berries (if handy) etc. Waiting until the stove is hot, add a bit of baking soda to make the mixture “rise” or fluff up, and you are ready to cook. (You have to be quick for the raising will last for only a short time). For me, it takes about an hour to serve a breakfast of pancakes from my sourdough starter. I might add it is more an “art” than anything else because the quality can vary depending on a number of variables such as type of flour used in feeding the starter, freshness of the eggs and even the type of pollen in the air.

Sourdough is a perfect metaphor for comparing daily living of today to that of our ancestors of a century ago. Just like sourdough cooking, everything from the past was more labor intense, required more advance planning, was slower to completion, and the quality varied more than do the modern products bought from a store.

One of the nice things about living in a small rural town like Bonners Ferry is we still maintain a bit of a touch with our past as shown by the popularity of local “home-grown” sourdough cooking.

I don’t want to give up our modern conveniences of course, including occasional use of pancake mix from the store. However, when things go right, nothing can match the superb taste of sourdough pancakes from my personal sourdough culture. The huckleberries add enough weight to keep the mosquitoes from carrying them off when eating on the deck on a summer morning. It makes the extra time and effort worth it! I think our ancestors of a century ago would understand.


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