Where to get a 150-year old sourdough starter, for free.

For the price of a stamp, you can get a dried culture of a sourdough starter that has been maintained for more than 150 years, after having traveled from Missouri to Oregon. Carl Griffith maintained and freely distributed this starter for years until he died in 2000 at the age of 80. Since then, a number of his friends have kept the tradition and the culture alive for him. Yet another instance of the ways that fungi (and bacteria too, in this case) enlist humans to further their evolution and survival.

Here’s the backstory:

All I know is that it started west in 1847 from Missouri. I would guess with the family of Dr. John Savage as one of his daughters (my great grandmother) was the cook. It came on west and settled near Salem Or. Doc. Savage’s daughter met and married my great grand father on the trail and they had 10 children. It was passed on to me though my parents when they passed away. I am 76 years old so that was some time ago. I first learned to use the starter in a basque sheep camp when I was 10 years old as we were setting up a homestead on the Steens Mountains in southeastern Oregon. A campfire has no oven, so the bread was baked in a Dutch Oven in a hole in the ground in which we had built a fire, placed the oven, scraped in the coals from around the rim, and covered with dirt for several hours. I used it later making bread in a chuck wagon on several cattle drives – again in southeastern Oregon.

Considering that the people at that time had no commercial starter for their bread, I do not know when it was first caught from the wild or where, but it has been exposed to many wild yeasts since and personally I like it. I hope you enjoy it.

Link (As seen at BoingBoing)


3 responses to “Where to get a 150-year old sourdough starter, for free.

  1. Yeast invents internet!

    I love this story, for two reasons. First, the "Botany of Desire" reason. If you go to the web-site, you’ll see that there are volunteer "starter keepers". These are presumably people who have recieved the starter, continue to maintain it, and are willing to send it to someone in response to a request. Does that structure sound familiar? Does it sound a tad like BitTorrent? Well, the analogy is not quite sound, since a single request for starter is not servered by several "starter keepers" each sending a fraction of the required starter. But, I love the idea of a YeastTorrent. So, it’s not really BitTorrent. But it is the internet! There is a long tradition of exchanging starters among bakers, and in this way, yeast have developed, along with their human collaboorators, a robust, fault-tolerant, highly redundant network for their own replication. Imagine some catastrophic event that somehow killed all of the starter west of the Mississippi. It would not take long at all for "starter keepers" in the east to fully repopulate the larders of the west. Robust, fault tolerant, networked. Sorry Al, it looks like yeast invented the net first.

    The second reason is really a question. I have always heard that San Francisco sourdough starters will only grow in the unique conditions of San Francisco, and that when they are sent elsewhere they actually become the "local" starter over time. Is that true? It would suggest, of course, that the "starter helpers" may not really be sending anything close to the original, and that any person who gets the origianl will end up with their own local variant after some time. So, I wonder if there is any sense to getting exotic, but non-local starters? I’m no expert on this, but I’ve always liked the mystique that every local sourdough bread really does have a unique local flavor.

  2. Scott –

    I dig this sort of thing for the same reasons you do. This kind of network-based storage of useful organisms has personal significance for me, since my extended family has been passing around and maintaining a yogurt culture for 40 years now, originating in my grandmother’s kitchen, if not earlier. (I don’t know where it came from, but I doubt it was brought over from the “old country” since she fled there at the point of a bayonet.) We Armenians purport to have “invented” yogurt in the olden days, but I suspect this claim is apocryphal.

    The twist I like to put on this type of story is to consider whether it isn’t the organisms manipulating us to give them a good home, rather than the other way around. The satisfaction of human desires (gourmet, aesthetic, or pharmacological) has to be one of the most successful evolutionary strategies nature has invented.

    As for the stability of cultures over time and space, I have wondered about that myself. I too have heard the claim about San Francisco sourdough cultures being impossible to maintain outside of the Bay Area, though it seems that the jury is still out as to its validity. Frank Sugihara, one of the researchers who first characterized the biology of SF sourdough (a symbiotic association of the acid-loving yeast Candida milleri and the acid-producing bacterium Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis)says that such cultures remain stable no matter what the environment. However, many bakers claim that the bacteria in a transplanted culture will be replaced over time by local flora. There is a nice summary of the debate here: http://www.discover.com/issues/sep-03/departments/featscienceof/

    My experience (so far, at least) is that the SF sourdough culture I have is pretty stable. I can’t say for sure which bacterial species I have in there, but there is no question that particular culture is much more acidic, more “SF like”, than the Italian one I’ve been maintaining alongside it.

  3. please let me know how to get some og that 150 year starter thanks ray