simple sourdough for pioneer girls

Esme stood alone but for her dog, watching the mountains. She and her new husband  had travelled for months in their covered wagon, across vast endless plains of shoulder high grass, fording rivers, their horses heaved them across dusty deserts, through forests. They had been passed by speeding pony express riders. She had talked too long to gold prospectors, thin and crazed in towns that smelt of new wood, gold and hope. They saw towns that had already been abandoned, their silver mines collapsed. It was 1860. They had left St Louis with the last of the snow and now the summer was dying.  They were trying to reach Sacramento before the winter. Buzzards as big as dogs rode the drafts above her, watching her.   She was tired, tired to her bones. Her clothes were worn and dirty, her eyes were red,  her face rough and itchy.  Of late they had ridden in the wagon for weeks without seeing a soul. Although Otis would not admit it, Esme thought they were lost. They had traded their belongings clear across the country for food. But she still had her silver forks and her few pieces of good dinnerware, two beautiful oak chairs and chests with the quilts and linen to start a home somewhere. Her peonie tubers for Aunt Celia and her bread starter from her sister Jo.  Every night she poured off a little of her mother dough from the small crock, added a little flour and a little water and tucked the starter  back away in her rosewood box. Then made the pancakes on her griddle.

Otis  came running back down from the ridge. There is a house up farther!  He called above the wind. Running toward her grinning. The smoke is from a stack, a chimney! Make a lot of noise as we approach they shoot strangers out here.  So they rode on arriving at a little shack as dusk was falling.

Esme spoke quietly to the woman of the house, a big strong good woman. She had chickens and a cow and  she had an oven for cooking in her cabin.  Esme wanted to bake bread.

Their camp site was  under trees by a stream, a hundred miles of darkening sky above them, the stars  bright as rain in the sun. Esme, sitting on the buckboard that Otis had detached and set by the fire,  carefully poured half of her starter into a small bowl.  She squinted as she thought of Jo’s hands doing the same. Her hand rested on her  stomach. Her clothes were beginning to feel tighter, she hoped they would reach Sacramento soon. She slowly added a cup of precious flour into the bowl and another into the jar. She had warmed the water from the stream slighty and added that after the flour. She stirred with the wooden spoon Otis had whittled for her as a gift on her twentieth birthday, last month. She  stirred thinking how long this bread starter had been in her family.  They said that  it came from an Italian baker her grandfather had known. She wrapped a muslin across the top of the bowl and left both on a flat rock close enough to the fire to stay warm for the night. She set a pot of red beans to soak, then crawled into the wagon to sleep.

The morning was dark and gentle when they woke, a slither of light under the door of the dawn, reached from the horizon. Otis was stirring up the fire, she ground a little coffee and placed the coffee pot on the trivet. Put the pot of beans on to cook. Then she sat down to pick the biggest weevils out of a bowl of flour. How could she wake from her sleep and still feel tired.  She threw weevils into the fire. They hissed as they hit the flames, Dog raised his head and sighed. The sour dough starter in the bowl had stirred in the warm night, there were bubbles and it was filling the little  porcelain  bowl.  It’s smell had changed, it smelt richer.

She took the bowl of  Starter and poured a cup full into the big old mixing bowl with the cracked glaze,  then added a  tin cup of warm water. Stirring she gradually added two and a half cups of flour,  gently folding it in.  She left the dough to sit, to moisten the flour thoroughly, while she tidied things around the campfire. The dough had started to spread and gather. She sprinkled on the salt and lightly kneaded it in.  She left it again, so that the salt could absorb its own moisture from the dough.  As the sun rose she began to knead. Adding another cup of flour slowly as she kneaded.  She took her time. The day slowly brightened around her.  She kneaded as the sun rose, lifting, pressing, lifting, pressing, the bowl on her knee, her knees warm from the fire. The dough began to push back and it became smoother and livelier.  The rhythm soothed her heart, her breathing slowed and the heart beneath her heart began to silently dance. Otis quietly stoked the fire, moving to and fro, and soon walked off with the horses to water them at the stream and then stake them out for a days grazing.  The mule waited fussily.  The dog lay panting at her feet.

She settled the dough into the bowl, covered it with a cloth and set it in a warm spot by the wagon to rise.

She worked. The sun moved across the open sky. Impeded by nothing. Otis heated a vast vat of water and she took down her hair and kneeling on the ground he poured jug after jug of warm water over her hair, she shampooed with precious soap. Then went to rinse it all off  and wash in the creek. She washed her underclothing and bashed them on a rock then hung them on bushes to dry, out of sight. Dressed in her other slightly better dress she shook and smacked her long black everyday skirt, picking the mud off the hem  and hung it over another bush to air.

Late in the afternoon, she retrieved the risen dough and slid it out onto a tin board, it rested there for a bit, then she began to pull the sides up and across, the dough lost its corners as her fingers moved around the dough fashioning it into a round loaf, pulling up the edges and folding them across the loaf, pulling and  folding until she was satisfied. The day was at its warmest, fall was coming though, she could smell it.  She rolled the loaf over and then left it to sit like a cat in a new warm spot until the sun was an hour away from dropping.

Her hair dried and braided, her face shining and wearing her cleanest clothes she carefully  carried her covered loaf across the open land to the house, where the good woman was waiting for her. She carved two E’s into the top of the loaf and they slid the loaf into the oven of the wood fired range. Esme wondered how they had transported such a monstrous piece of iron out here into the wilderness and was grateful that they had. They sat outside the cottage, surrounded in the scent of cooking bread as though it were a colour. They talked as women do. Esme carefully wrote her sister Jo’s instructions for caring for and baking sourdough bread. She wrote on a linen napkin because she could not bear to use any more paper,with the nib and ink from her chest and gave these to the Good Woman with a portion of the Starter. The Good Woman drew a map on another napkin showing Esme how she could find the wagon trails to Sacramento.

That night she shared the bread with Otis and the Good Woman around their fire, with butter and slices of roasted chicken, sweet potatoes and pumpkin from the garden. It was a feast. They  told the Good Woman that they were going to live with Aunt Celia out in Sacramento. How Jo had taught Esme how to bake bread and how Celia’s loaves were a legend in the family. The Good Woman spoke of how her husband had left with their only horse to try his luck at panning for gold, he had not come back. Otis eyed his mule thoughtfully.

In the morning there was a light frost on the ground. It crunched under Esme’s thin boots. They remade the wagon and loaded each piece into its proper place moving in a silent rhythm.  While Otis sneaked the gift of a mule into the Good Woman’s corral with the cow,  Esme gave the woman a peonie tuber as a thank you. The good woman insisted that they have her little crib with its unused little quilt and unworn baby clothes. Her sorrow mixed with Esme’s happiness and was eased.  And so they rode away.

The good woman could see them for miles as they made their way west. She silently wished them god speed and went across to milk the cow.


69 Comments on “simple sourdough for pioneer girls

  1. Nice story Cecilia. My mom used to bake all kinds of breads. I think I have her starter and bread recipes somewhere.

    • Thank you kathryn. Though writing it in a few hours does not really do esme justice, I may return to it at a later date.. c

      • We are doing great! All the babies are growing like crazy! The pigs’ ears got badly sunburned when we moved them to their new home in the pasture. We noticed too late, but still tried to put sunscreen on them. They are healing now, thank goodness. We just moved the 15, 3 week old Keats from the brooding box into the hen house this morning and are watching very carefully to see how the 48 chickens take to them. I keep remembering you blog post about ‘murder in the hen house’ and am so hoping nothing like that happens in there. We are watching carefully. We are eating cucumbers, peppers, zucchini and green beans from the garden, and in 3 more weeks will be gorging ourselves on tomatoes….finally!!! I’m hoping to have enough to make some of your summer sauce! I’ll let you know when we eat our first tomato!!! XO

        • Diane that is fantastic.. maybe you could send me some pictures, to my email if you like. Fancy your baby piggies getting sunburn.. that is funny but in a dark way and such an image you and Jack chasing after them armed with your suntan lotion. Do they have a paddling pool? c

      • I’d love you to see some the farm pics Cecilia! Are you a Facebook user? I’ve got lots of pics on my Facebook page. I’ll invite you! I’m not sure what your email address is, as I don’t see it on the blog. We have a paddling pool for our 3 geese and 11 ducks. Our puppies also often take a quick swim in it. It’s actually simply a plastic baby swimming pool, but it works great. For the pigs we have to keep their ‘wallow’ filled with water so that can lounge around in the mud. They love that!

    • Morning Neil, I just wanted to think about how the pioneer women made the bread and transported their starters as they journeyed for months and sometimes years across this country. I tried to strip it down I guess. c

    • Morning Julie, I will post where I bought the starter so that you can make your own.. it is like entering a new world of baking!

  2. A wonderful read, C. You really pulled all the elements into that one…the fresh-scrubbed face of a prairie bride, the kindness of strangers on a long journey, the kinship of a shared meal…and all of it, wrapped in the warm smell of baking bread…

    • Thank you Miss Tomatoes (how are your tomatoes by the way), the whole pioneer woman cooking is a fascinating thought really. c

    • It is too, in fact it was all gone 4 hours after the baking and it took almost 24 hours to make!! very very tasty too, have another one on the go already.. c

  3. You really are quite the story teller! Your bread looks great and is a reminder that I’ve got to get my starters going again. I get real satisfaction from baking a great-looking loaf of bread using nothing but starter for yeast. Great post!

  4. There is nothing finer than freshly baked
    bread and that looks rather delicious 🙂


  5. Thanks for the link and the role in your story – don’t think I’ve ever been woven into a tale before, I am terribly flattered (blush). When my sourdough was younger I took it to the Lake District on a mission to bake bread at my father’s house, I did that and I also gave some away to an American guy I met in a wholefood store with instructions what to do. I love the idea of sourdough travelling around the world.

    And – the bread looks mighty fine too 😀

    • Hi Joanna, hope the link works it was subtle..and yes my loaf came out really well for the first one, then they ate it, so now I am getting set to put one in to rise tonight.. when i finally go shopping i shall indulge in some rye too.. c

  6. I felt transported… what a wonderful post… is this your loaf of bread and are you posting the recipe? I’d love to learn more about “starters” and how to do this.

    • Yes, smidgen this is myl littele sourdough loaf, I just bought the starter off the internet, it is all very new to me, and there are two links, jo and celia in the story . They have instructions and recipes.. Let me know how it goes! c

  7. This is a great reading story, and I second Cin’s suggestion of a full novel about Esme and Otis.. lol Old Otis.. typical man… not to admit he was lost. That was cute. You know the saddest things that came to my mind while reading this work, were the Donner Party, and the Mountain Meadows Massacre. I think of all the terrible hardships that even those who DID make the trek must have gone through, but those were two horrendous tragedies.
    By the way, anyone wants a sourdough starter they can make one in a few days with indigenous fruits, vegetables, or even just flour and water WILL catch yeast and develop into a culture in less than a week. I started mine with grapes, and was baking bread in three days. I wrote a little about how to do it, but you can google other methods just anywhere.
    Keep up the wonderful work…

    God Bless You

    • Thank you Early Bird, i am glad you got that I was trying to show how the sourdough needs slow, unhurried steps. Something I am learning about. c

  8. I found you via Earlybird, and am so glad I did. I love the measured pace of your story. I make all our bread, but (shame) using dried yeast. I shall now research and start my own starter!

    • Welcome Viv, I have to admit that the other day when I realised that sourdough bread took so long to make, (I am a novice) and we were out of bread (as well as badly organised) , i grabbed my yeast out of the fridge and made a quick few loaves for the starving masses. maybe there is room for both methods! c

  9. Heavens, you write short stories too! I see you are absorbing the culture where you live – I really enjoyed this story. SA has pioneering people in common with USA – I often think about the Voortrekkers and how they lived their daily lives. This was such a touching story, thank you!

    • I was trying to work out how a girl in the middle of nowhere would make the bread, kind of trying to simplify it all.. c

  10. Totally captivating story…I want more! And how very clever to weave the bread in with the narrative. You are a truly talented lady. I am back from my holiday now and can dedicate some time to getting a starter going and trying to make some of this wonderful bread. Oh, and catching up with all your wonderful posts!

  11. Regardless of the ethics viewed from modern eyes and sensitivities, they were amazing people, particularly the women. Goodness knows where they found that strength in an age of corsets and prudery. And on my travels, I think it was in Missouri, I saw a real life prairie schooner for the first time, I couldn’t believe how titchy it was, they make a VW look like a palace! When I make an American recipe using those awkward ‘cups’, I always think of them. I think that’s where the volume system stemmed from, you definitely didn’t (and couldn’t) carry scales and weights in your tiny schooner. 🙂

  12. Esme – Otis – Celia – Jo and you. What a beautiful and touching story! It brought me to tears. It was like diving deeply into that former life, I felt as if I have been in. Thank you so much, Celi, for that wonderful tale. Awesome.

    I still am trying to catch up the old posts for getting to know you and the Farmy better. So I find gem after gem here – so nice 🙂

    P.S.: I do not know the blog rules – is it ok to post a comment to where it fits or should it be given or put on the today’s post?

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