San Francisco’s Famous Sourdough Was Once Really Gross

Prolonged right before it grew to become a viral foodstuff trend or social-media feeling, American sourdough was astonishingly gross.

San Franciscans proudly trace their city’s iconic bread back to the Gold Rush of 1849. The males who flocked to Northern California in lookup of gold produced bread in their wilderness camps not with retailer-purchased yeast, but with their very own supply of bitter, fermented dough.

Their tangy, funky bread grew to become so closely related with frontier lifestyle that veteran miners ended up named “sourdoughs.” And supposedly, when the 49ers shared their culinary development with freshly-emigrated European bakers in the town, the well-known San Francisco sourdough loaf was born.

But to food stuff historians, this tale smells a bit bitter. Letters, diaries, and newspaper content written by and about the 49ers, lumberjacks, and pioneers of the American West are complete of complaints about horrible and inedible sourdough. Could terrible bread really have influenced San Francisco’s most beloved loaf?

In 1849, when gold miners commenced arriving in San Francisco, most Individuals did not bake or consume sourdough bread. American bakers normally leavened their bread with “barm” (a yeast derived from beer brewing) or a single of quite a few fairly new commercial yeast merchandise. These industrial yeasts were being easy to work with, didn’t have to have continuous servicing, and created responsible results. They also manufactured bread that appealed to American taste buds.

Most 19th-century Individuals desired bread that was sweet somewhat than bitter. In accordance to 1 1882 assistance ebook for housekeepers, the “ideal loaf” was “light, spongy, with a crispness and sweet pleasant taste.” Bitter bread was a sign of failure. As a end result, bread recipes from the time period employed professional yeasts together with significant quantities of sugar or other sweeteners to pace up fermentation and stay clear of an overly bitter taste.

The 49ers didn’t bake sourdough bread simply because they preferred it, but for the reason that they lacked improved possibilities. Whilst some miners brought commercial yeasts, baking powders, and self-elevating flour with them to California, their provides inevitably ran out. Food items was highly-priced in frontier boomtowns, and retailer-bought yeasts and self-increasing flour ended up luxuries. Sourdough demanded only flour, h2o, and new air. A sourdough “start” required care, notice, and standard feedings but offered an inexhaustible, self-perpetuating provide of leavening agent, even in the wilderness.

California gold miners didn't have access to many baking supplies.
California gold miners did not have access to quite a few baking provides. North Wind Photograph Archives/Alamy

But, as quite a few modern-day bakers know, producing great sourdough bread is tough, and most miners were not expert bakers—a mixture that often made disastrous effects. Miners’ accounts from the period of time attribute several problems about bread. In the early days of the gold hurry, their camp baking endeavours were often described as extremely bitter and improperly risen. According to a single description penned by a previous 49er, “as a general factor miners’ bread was but sorry, sad stuff.”

Bread was baked below complicated circumstances—outdoors, more than a campfire or incredibly hot coals, and at times in the same flat pan utilized for panning for gold—leading to inconsistent and unsanitary results. Miners routinely experimented with their dough to try out to minimize its sourness. Some even tried using mixing in copious quantities of baking soda, but this still left the bread with yellow streaks and an uncomfortable taste.

A single account, written by a veteran miner in Idaho, joked that a newcomer to camp may miscalculation a loaf of sourdough for a rock, for the reason that the bread experienced been streaked yellow by the addition of also a great deal baking soda and then left out overnight on the ground to acquire dust and environmentally friendly mildew.

Sourdough starter itself could also be revolting. A family members viewing Yosemite in the late 1860s asked a area miner if they could borrow some starter, as they’d operate out of yeast. The miner was happy to oblige but couldn’t locate his starter any place in his untidy frontier cabin. According to the story, he ultimately “got a wonderful massive stick and swung it back and forth beneath the mattress and out came outdated sneakers, socks, filth, and a saddle. Absent in the again close to the corner he scraped out a good huge ball of sour dough.” The storytellers’ mom was pressured to slice absent layers of dirt and mould from the outdoors of the ball in buy to come across clean, uncontaminated dough that could be utilized for baking.

Sourdough was considered bachelor food.
Sourdough was considered bachelor foodstuff. benoitb/Getty Photos

Sourdough baked by pioneers was not just gross and unappetizing it could also make you unwell. The diary entry of a Montana lumberjack new to camp integrated this standard report:

“Made bitter dough bread right now, just about as major as green lumber. I imagine the recipe I acquired from Poker Invoice is at fault. My partner experienced the belly ache. Did not explain to him it was the bread.”

Problems of indigestion were being widespread, although the other camp foods—beans, bacon, and black coffee—may have been similarly accountable. Push studies from the period of time even blamed contaminated sourdough starter for the fatalities of bakers.

Across the American West, sourdough was viewed as a food for single males who did not know how to cook dinner. These guys were being like their bread: rough, difficult, and they smelled a very little bit funny. But the ultra-masculine frontier lifestyle was meant to be non permanent. These gentlemen were being predicted one particular working day to return to civilization and get pleasure from the “sweet” and “light” bread baked by their mothers or wives.

So it’s worth inquiring: If sourdough bread baked by miners was so awful, how did it come to be one of San Francisco’s most beloved food items?

It all came down to the good results of the city’s French and Italian bakeries. The earliest of these, Boudin, was launched in 1849 by French immigrants. These specialist bakers did not need to borrow starter or baking techniques from miners, mainly because they have been already authorities in the use of levain. This sourdough strategy was broadly practiced by bakers in France and Italy. Other famous bakeries that popularized sourdough in the region around the switch of the century—Parisian, Larraburu, Toscana, and Colombo—were all founded by French and Italian professionals, not previous miners.

These bakeries described their bread as “French bread” or “Sour French bread,” linking it to European culinary traditions, not the demo-and-mistake baking of the American West.

San Francisco bakeries such as Boudin have European roots.
San Francisco bakeries this sort of as Boudin have European roots. Edward Z. Yang/General public area

But it was nostalgia for the American West which in the long run rehabilitated sourdough. The first initiatives to rescue the bread’s standing arrived at the start of the 20th century, when social golf equipment for growing older miners, sometimes identified as “Sourdough Clubs,” inspired members to romanticize their earlier struggles with biting insects, sleeping outdoors, and even sourdough.

By the 2nd 50 % of the 20th century, tourism boards in San Francisco were inserting the 49ers at the center of the city’s heritage, idealizing existence on the frontier and taking part in up hyperlinks concerning the Gold Rush and the City by the Bay. San Francisco bakeries joined in, crafting stories about partnerships involving bakers and miners and attempting to marketplace the bread nationwide.

This paid off. Sourdough became so trendy that a single 1986 newspaper even known as it “he-male bread,” that experienced “carried cowboy, trapper, prospector and pioneer throughout the western frontier.” For sourdough’s new lovers, the bread available “a harkening again to the wholesomeness of the old ways of residing,” and promoted values like authenticity, hard work, and the benefit of handcraft. Sourdough, once a rank, rock-tricky survival meals, experienced develop into the bread that fed the West.

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