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The Rise of Sourdough

As the COVID curtain descended in 2020, there was a stirring of domestic impulses among folk isolating themselves at home. There was, for instance, an efflorescence of sourdough culture. People were establishing sourdough starters, nurturing them, trying to cook and bake with them.

The reasons for the rise of sourdough were complex. Some may say, it was the shortage of yeast, but that was only an element. People wished to confirm their own self-sufficiency at a time when they felt besieged. They sought diversion from grim daily news in a homely craft.

And there was the living presence of sourdough. It was something less than a dog, something more than a houseplant. It had to be fed, taken care of, interacted with. And it fed us.

Then there was the sense of rustic tradition, presumably getting in touch with the pioneer spirit. Which, in retrospect, leads me to inquire, was sourdough a thing in the settler society of the prairies? It was less so than we imagine, but also more so.

By the time Euro-American agricultural settlement spilled onto the Great Plains, the use of sourdough was almost a thing of the past. You see, settlement of the prairies was substantially an industrial process, beginning with the railroad, which also delivered other industrial products — such as manufactured baking powders and commercial yeasts.

Study the grocery ads in pioneer newspapers for the years after the Civil War, and you will find them filled with offerings of baking powders and yeast cakes. English chemists devised baking powder in the 1840s by combining soda with cream of tartar. In America the titans of baking powder — Royal, Calumet, and Clabber Girl — treated the public not only to their products but also to the spectacle of the Baking Powder Wars, disputing what was the proper agent of acidity to be combined with soda. Meanwhile, in 1868 the Fleischman brothers had brought the Viennese style of producing yeast cakes to Cincinnati.

Sourdough cookery on the plains was associated with the earliest stages of settlement and, particularly, with bachelor life on the homestead. A Montana poet wrote a lengthy and ironic poem entitled, “The Bachelor’s Friend.”

What makes the bachelor’s life a curse?
What makes him go from bad to worse?
What theme weighs down my heavy verse?
Sour dough bread.

An 1884 recipe from Kansas describes the bachelor homesteader style of biscuit making. The mix involved

... a good-sized piece of sour dough, almost a teacup of lard, two and a quarter cups of buttermilk, one day old, a table-spoonful of salt ... Each time biscuit are made a piece of dough should be saved to sour for the next time.

Compare this to the more modern formula for “delicate biscuit” provided to proper prairie women by the Hope Pioneer in 1890.

... two teaspoonfuls of baking-powder, half a cup of the best butter, one teaspoonful of sugar, and flour to make a soft dough.

In the country community of Coxville, Nebraska, in 1891, the newly married couple Frank Todd and Della Smith came home from Chadron to the welcoming embrace of their friends. Della, so says our country correspondent, was “a charming, intelligent and respected young lady.” Frank declared, “No more sour-dough biscuits for me, if you please.”

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