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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Esther Addley

How a TikTok clip led demand for 177-year-old sourdough starter to rise

A pack of 1847 Oregon Trail sourdough starter ready for posting
Tradition holds that the starter nurtured by Mary Buckingham and her friends in Colorado has been kept alive since 1847. Photograph: Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post/Getty Images/DP

“There’s an old pioneer tradition” dating from the earliest days of the colonisation of the US west, says Mary Buckingham, “that you shared your bread starter with anyone who asked.”

Which was all very well until TikTok came along.

For decades Buckingham, a retired meteorologist from Greeley, Colorado, and a tiny community of bread enthusiasts have embodied that generous tradition by posting for free, to anyone who sent a stamped addressed envelope, a sample of sourdough starter to use in their own baking.

This is not, however, just any old starter. The natural yeast and bacteria culture in this mix, tradition holds, has been lovingly fed and kept alive since 1847, when a pioneer family pushed west in a covered wagon from Missouri to settle in the state of Oregon.

For decades, the 1847 Oregon Trail sourdough starter was prized only by those in the know. But a viral TikTok video posted last month has changed all that.

Mary Buckingham logs one of thousands of letters she now receives in her home in Greeley, Colorado
Mary Buckingham logs one of thousands of letters she now receives in her home in Greeley, Colorado. Photograph: Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post/Getty Images/DP

“It’s just insane,” Buckingham says. Previously she would have fielded between 30 and 60 requests a week for a sample, but “we’re up to 7,000 this year already. We’re just running to catch up. There’s only two of us doing it, although I have drafted my sister in to help with the envelopes.”

She used to spend two to three hours a week dealing with requests but not any more. “I spend all day every day, every weekend, eight to 10 hours a day,” she says. “It’s just crazy. I haven’t had a day off since this started.”

Sourdough is a naturally fermented culture of flour and water that was used to make leavened breads for most of human history, before the development of commercial yeasts. Prized by many breadmakers, it requires careful management to feed and maintain the culture, which can theoretically live and grow indefinitely.

The 1847 starter has its origins in the family of Carl Griffith, an Oregon lawyer who was born in 1919, and served in the US air force in Britain during the second world war. He had been baking from the same sourdough batch since he was 10, he wrote later, and his parents told him it had been passed down from the family of his great great grandfather, Dr John Savage, who had come west to the state in 1847.

“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,” he wrote.

Griffith was happy to share a dried sample of the dough to anyone who asked, and in the early days of the internet he connected to a small community of other sourdough bakers online. After his death in his 2000, with his widow’s agreement, they decided to carry the tradition forward.

Mary Buckingham collects the latest batch of letters to arrive at Greeley’s post office
Mary Buckingham collects the latest batch of letters to arrive at Greeley’s post office. Photograph: Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post/Getty Images/DP

Though most had never met Griffith, they called the group “Carl’s friends”.

“It was a good starter, and our founder thought ‘what a shame to let this thing die out’. So we started our little society,” Buckingham says.

Where she would normally manage only the sorting of requests – a bigger job than it sounds considering the number who don’t include a stamp – while another member in Washington state grows and dries the starter, the surge in demand – “this needs to die down soon” – means she’s pitching in too.

That means growing enough to spread thinly in eight Swiss roll tins – “the stuff is sticky and stretchy, and hard to get it in the tin” – then leaving them in a warm room to dry. After two to four days, the mixture is blended, tested, placed into small bags and stuffed into the thousands of incoming envelopes.

“Starters that are nice and strong, taste good and are stable are prized and always have been,” says Buckingham, who has been baking bread since the 1960s, when her mother taught her, aged 11. Carl’s “is a good, robust starter, it doesn’t need any yeast or anything to rise beautifully.”

Has it really been alive for 177 years? It’s impossible to verify, but as Buckingham points out: “Historically, people who could get a really good starter always treasured it and kept it going. This just used to be the way you make bread.”

With such huge demands on her time, why does she keep doing it? “I guess this is kind of a passion. It’s encouraging that so many young people are interested in it. I hope they maintain it.”

Sourdough, she says, is “like a little pet, you got to keep it fed and alive. And if you don’t then it dies. Often they’ll do that for a little while and then they’ll say ‘oh this is too much bother, it’s easier to buy local bread from the store’.”

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