In tough times, Americans have always turned to sourdough

Sourdough starters
Sourdough starters
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I will not argue that the quarantined Americans of the past year have had it harder than the Forty-Niners who headed west to California in 1849 in search of gold—though I will note that the gold rushers chose to leave their homes and spend long hours crouching over streams with their gold pans (must’ve been hell on the glutes and quads) and pay ridiculously inflated prices for ordinary consumer goods. Still, hard times are hard times, and when times get tough, people apparently turn to sourdough.

This is, at least, the conclusion I have drawn from an article from Food52 that has been reprinted by Salon. Back in gold rush times, many aspiring miners brought jars of wild yeast with them on the sometimes-perilous journey to California: “Those jars of cultivated wild yeast represented a semblance of stability and a taste of home, even amid backbreaking work and an uncertain future.” Once in California, miners discovered that there was such a food shortage that merchants could get away with charging $3 for an egg (the equivalent of $80 today, and hoo boy, that must have been some omelet!) and since very few of them were actually finding any gold, it was more economical to buy flour and use their starters to bake their own daily bread. According to some legends, the miners cuddled their jars of starter at night, not out of affection (probably) but in order to keep them warm so they wouldn’t die.

(But now I wonder: did the miners also bring portable ovens with them? Otherwise how else could they bake bread over a campfire?)

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Over time, the native California bacteria mixed with the starters to give the bread its distinctive sour tang. Eventually, as gold fever dissipated, bakers embraced sourdough as the defining taste of San Francisco. (Sorry, Rice-a-Roni.) Some bakeries, notably Boudin, still use starters from those heady gold rush days.

“Perhaps humans have an inherent desire to spend more time in the kitchen when day-to-day comforts become uncertain,” the article concludes. “Indeed, the emergence of sourdough bread as a staple during the Gold Rush, paired with the thousands of loaves of sourdough baked during the pandemic, imply that times of unease force us to reclaim the sense of assurance that comes from making key foods entirely from scratch.”

Or maybe panning for gold was just as boring as quarantine, only without Netflix, so any diversion was welcome. Anyway, read the article and then give your starter some love.

Aimee Levitt is associate editor of The Takeout.

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DISCUSSION

did the miners also bring portable ovens with them?

yes, they’re called dutch ovens. the ones with feet and a lip around the lid.