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Pioneers and Pilgrims

Although by the time of mass settlement on the Great Plains — certainly by the time of the Dakota Boom — commercial baking powders and yeast cakes largely had relegated the use of sourdough to rustic memory, still that sour staple retained a sweet significance in regional remembrance.

“Sourdough” was an adjective associated with hardihood and pioneering, particularly with the mining frontier of the American West. California Forty-niners were called “sourdoughs” because they were reputed to carry their sourdough, “or mother,” on their persons to keep it warm and activated. There is a bakery in San Francisco that still claims to make its sourdough loaves with starter that dates from the gold rush. We might remember, though, that sourdough crossed the plains with countless women on the overland trails.

Sourdough associations attach to the range cattle industry on the plains, too. “Did you ever eat ‘sour dough’ bread, cow-puncher bread?”, asked an eastern newspaper in 1896. “If you ever saw a round-up chuck wagon did you notice a sloppy-looking old beer bottle hanging on the sunny side of the grub box? That is the start for sour dough.”

Well, maybe, but I am pretty sure crusty cowboy cooks were as eager as prairie housewives to toss out that tangy and mercurial starter and replace it with available commercial product.

Early in the formation of pioneer memory in Montana, sourdough figured in mythic distinctions among frontier classes. The editor of the Livingstone Daily Enterprise in 1884 composed a lengthy explanation of the terms “pioneers” and “pilgrims” then in use.

Pioneers were the people who preceded general settlement, chiefly gold miners and cattle kings. These folk deserved “high consideration. Moved by a spirit of adventure ... [they were] subject to necessarily hard conditions of existence and removed from all the influences of society or civilization ... [as they labored to] lay the foundation of a new community ... or a new nation.”

The editor objects to this “distinguished class” of pioneers making derogatory reference to agricultural settlers as “pilgrims” with “an inference of inequality.” (Say it like John Wayne, “Pilgrim,” and you’ll sense what I mean.)

“The pioneer of the territory,” the editor declares, “in casting about for some token of his superiority,” resorts to the argument that “twenty years ago — more or less — he baked flour and water into sour dough bread,” and thereby declares himself “the salt of Montana earth — one of the children of promise to whom all less favored should be in subjection.”

In North Dakota, “Sourdough” figured in the public fascination with stories of residents who ventured to the Klondike in the late 1890s. When they wrote home to North Dakota, they invariably applied the label to old hands in the territory. “Those who winter here,” wrote John McCrimmon, who had come from Jamestown, “call themselves ‘Sour Doughs.’”

Which gives rise to one of my nicknames for Dr. Kelley, the literary anchor of our household, who grew up in Fairbanks. Sourdough Kelley, I call her, when I feed her pancakes on a Saturday morning.

Because much as I may make sport of sourdough mythology, I keep a starter on the kitchen counter, mainly for the production of pancakes. Flapjacks made with baking powder or yeast do not compare with ones made with sourdough, their acidic tang complementing the sweet syrup. You have to start them the night before, then the next morning meter in the buttermilk and soda to get the right fluffiness. Better yet if you have some juneberries to throw in, little purple vanilla punctuation marks on your plate.

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