Sunday, September 28, 2008


and GRAVY. Not that nasty stuff out of a can or a pouch. But the real thing. With milk and lots of pepper and some little bits of sausage added in after it's creamy.


The term sourdough originated during the Klondike Gold Rush when settlers began to flood into Alaska. Due to the limited availability of leavening in the remote bush of Alaska, settlers made their bread using a sourdough starter which uses flour, water, and sugar to naturally collect yeast from the air. The use and consumption of this bread was so widespread that these settlers began to be known as "sourdoughs."

The history of sourdough, however, begins long before miners came to Alaska. Sourdough is the oldest form of leavened bread and was used at least as early as ancient Egypt. It was probably discovered by accident when bread dough was left out and good microorganisms -- wild yeast -- drifted into the mix. The resulting bread had a lighter texture and better taste.

All sourdough recipes begin with a starter -- a mixture of flour, water and a little sugar. Sitting at room temperature, wild yeasts in the air and on the grain settle into the mix. The fermentation that occurs after a few days gives the starter its sour smell. Then it's ready to use, for years if treated with respect.

A starter, or "sponge" as the pioneers called it, feeds many families over many years. Starters have always been passed through families and from friend to friend. I have kept my last starter alive for 10 years and there are stories of starters that are much older. There is one starter from a famous bakery in San Francisco that started back in 1849 and is known as the "Mother Dough".

Starters can be kept thriving simply by adding equal parts of water and flour to a portion of the starter every couple of weeks. Replenish it, keep it stored in the refrigerator, and it will last indefinitely, acquiring more personality as the years go by. The extra tanginess that comes with age is highly prized, and is why older starters become treasured members of the family for sourdough junkies.

So for the start of your sourdough adventure . . . a tale from Home on the Range.

Sourdough Starter & The Mad Trapper Of Rat River.

Nobody knew much about Albert Johnson. He arrived in Fort MacPherson, July 9th 1931 on the southern edge of the Mackenzie delta (67 degrees N latitude) non eventfully, descending into the town on the idle wind with a lot of cash in his pocket. He was by all accounts, in his mid to late thirties, with a rugged build, icy blue eyes and a tactiturn disposition, keeping to himself. These physical characteristics in men that trapped for a living in the north were nothing out of the ordinary and he quietly melted into the landscape.

What the locals noted as strange was this young man had pockets of money and build a large cabin with a good view on three sides in the prime trapping area of the Rat River, but did not obtain the requisite trapping license. He didn't invite questions, and shunned visitors.

When the trapping season went into full swing, something changed. The traps in the area were disrupted. Smashed, bait tossed about. Meat ruined. Indian trappers complained that someone was interfering with their work. In this region trapping was the only source of food and livelihood for many,settler and native alike, and interfering with it was the most serious of crimes. Several pointed fingers at the hermit like Mr. Johnson. The Indians said he "was mad". So one cold day Constable Alfred 'Buns' King and Special Constable Joe Bernard, each of whom had considerable northern experience, decided to call on Johnson to investigate. When they approached his cabin they noticed smoke billowing up from the chimney, wrapping around the house like a fortress. After numerous attempts to strike up a conversation in 40 below temperatures, about as productive as arguing with a Democrat, and getting nowhere with a man holed up with a gun, they decided to return to Aklavik to get reinforcements.

They returned with 2 more Mounties plus one civilian. Steam came from edges of the cabin door as if it was warm inside. Men and beast moving only slowly in the incredible cold, white fog brightened only by a shortened sun, the cold air gusting around the men, heightening the sense of urgency. A simple knock on the door and without warning, a shot rang out, three bullets splintering the wood and smashing into Constable King's chest. McDowell did not wait. He dragged his friend to their sledge and cracked his snake whip as loud as Hermit Johnson's rifle. Tongues out, the husky dogs plunged forward, racing back through the night, fueled by hunger and the smell of blood. They made the 100 miles back to Aklavik in 20 hours. It was a record that saved Constable King's life.

Ten days later a new patrol mushed out to Rat River to avenge Constable King. Albert Johnson had used the interval to turn his hut into a blockhouse. He had dug the dirt floor out to a depth of four feet, cut loopholes at the floor level. For 15 hours Albert Johnson held off the Mounties. Hand grenades blew the roof off his hut. Albert Johnson retired, like an angry woodchuck, entrenched in his dugout, willing to fight to the death. The police retired, thwarted again.

For the third time, a police patrol set out from Aklavik, but this time Albert Johnson had fled from Rat River, trying to beat his way through the arctic winter to Alaska and safety. What followed was the north country's greatest man hunt. Trappers rushed their wives to trading posts for safety, then joined the posse. They were loosely organized, but realized as we still do today that is is the spirit of the law, and not the form of it that keeps justice alive, and they were willing to leave all behind to ensure justice for an officer taken down simply trying to preserve a man's work and the fruit of their sweat.

Thirty miles further in the this posse finally tracked where Mad Albert had built a fort of ice and snow. There was another battle. In it, Constable E. Millen died. Police ammunition ran out and the posse withdrew for supplies, leaving three men to watch the fort. In the middle of the night Mad Albert Johnson slipped away again in a blizzard that covered his snowshoe tracks, winds wailing a hymn of mourning for another fallen officer.

They called in Capt. W. R. ("Wop") May, a survivor of the epic battle which ended in the death of Germany's famed Baron Manfred von Richthofen. "Wop" May was at Fort McMurray, Alberta, 1,100 miles away, when Constable Millen was shot.

Flying in that day was slow, it was risky and it was low to the hard earth. There were no instruments to guide you in bad weather, no controllers to help you find our way. All you had were wings and courage. Articulate honor in the face of death. Men like Captain May, those that earn their names, know what risk is, and they elect to it anyway. With winter weather making the sky a time bomb of ice, May took their frantic call for help and took off in an Army monoplane, headlong into the swirling snows of the pursuit, armed with nothing more than a craft about as maneuverable as a Brinks Truck equipped with a single bomb rack.
Even flight in a blizzard couldn't hide Albert Johnson from the eyes of Capt. May. Days later May reported that Albert Johnson had crossed the Yukon River, was tracking west from Pierre House trading post, only 175 miles from the Alaska border. The man hunt resumed, full cry.

On Jan 30th he was confronted once more. After a short shootout, Constable 'Spike' Millen lay dead - shot through the heart. Johnson made his escape by climbing a sheer cliff in the dead of night. The Mounties reputation was on the line, their ability to take down one lone man reduced to a whisper of cold promise left in prints of a snowshoe.

Albert Johnson seemed to be no average trapper. The Mounties said of him to be capable of great feats and was crafty beyond belief. The local Inuit said at one point in the chase that Johnson could snowshoe 2 miles for every 1 mile a dog team had to break trail. The cold was brutal, pulling the air from your lungs, as the hairs in your nose froze to Brillo pads that blocked the little breathe you could take in. Yet Johnson was able to flee, and at a pace faster than the best of the best, so many times they thought they had him, when his departed form split the night like artillery, breaking the lie of silence.

He took down one other officer before being felled in one crashing volley.On February 17, 1932 May directed the Mounties to a hairpin turn in the middle section of the Eagle River where a gun battle eventually brought Johnson down. It took 9 bullets to Johnson's body to finally end this weeks long order. The fallen officer, Sargent Hersey was rushed back for aid in May's airplane. The Mad Trapper, Albert Johnson came back on a police sledge, dead, frozen stiff. No one ever claimed his body. No on in Alaska or the trapping fields had head of him. No one had ever heard him utter a single word. Yet he had the modern day cash equivalent of the cost of a new home in his pockets. His identify was never known, quietly buried, a DB Cooper of the Wild North.

To end his rampage, and ensure the reputation of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police it took seven weeks, a dozen straining dog teams, the life of a good Constable, the wounding of two others and a fighter ace. And it took sourdough.

For a particular sourdough starter was carried along on that famous hunt for Albert Johnson. As the mounties and their posse stayed on the trail of Johnson for several months, the men had to prepare food on the trail in the harshest of conditions. The mix helped keep the posse fed throughout much of the manhunt.

As summer cools to Fall it's a good time to make a sourdough starter, flip pancakes, bake bread or roll out tasty biscuits. If the only "sourdough" you've had has been packaged, preservative laden bread from the store you are missing out on something truly spectacular. Light fragrant, tangy, it makes white bread hide in the closet in shame. Add homemade gravy and sausage to it and it's absolutely addicting. -

Throw in some home cooked gravy and you have a filling breakfast that won't weigh you down for a manhunt or simply provide you nourishment for your soul on a the day of rest. I think Captain May and the Mounties would have approved.


  1. The container is important for the "starter," the best one being an earthenware crock with a good lid, close fitting but not air tight. DO NOT use a metal container! For this recipe a 3-quart to gallon size crock is sufficient. If the container is too small, the sponge will overflow when it starts "working."


    1 cake of yeast or 1 pkg. Fleishmann's dry yeast dissolved in 2 pints of warm water.
    Add 2 tablespoons of sugar
    Add 2 pints of flour
    Mix in crock and let rise until very light and slightly aged, 24 to 48 hours, no more than that or it will be too sour and don't let it get too cold.


    Form a nest or hollow in pan of sifted flour. Pour approximately 2 cups of "starter" into the hollow; add 1/2 teaspoon salt; 1 tablespoon sugar; 2 heaping teaspoons baking powder sprinkled over sponge. Mix well to a soft firm dough. You can roll it out with an old bottle of Old Crow as some ranchhands do, myself I gently pat the dough to a thickness of 1/2 inch. Cut the biscuits with a small cutter (or use a small jelly glass dipped in flour) and put into well greased pans. Tin plates give excellent results. Grease tops of biscuits generously.

    Sour Dough Biscuits, like cowboys, need a rest, so at this point set them in a warm place to rise from 5 minutes before baking. Bake in a very hot oven,500 degrees, until nicely browned, 9-12 minutes.
    (at that high of heat ovens may vary, you may want to do a very small test batch with a new oven)

    The closer the biscuits are crowded into the pan for baking the higher they will rise. Even heat is important so make sure you preheat the oven so you are sure of a steady high temperature when the biscuits are placed inside.

    If you have some dough left after making Sour Dough Biscuits, do not throw it away, but return it to the crock with the "starter", add a cup of warm water and the amount of flour to mix to consistency of first "starter." If a larger amount of "starter" is desired, add more water and flour. Set aside until biscuit time again. You never have to add yeast after the first time.

    For best results your "starter" should be used regularly, a couple times a week minimum. If not used often it will get sour and die, then you will have to make a new starter. In case it gets a little sour by not using it for a few days, especially in warm weather, it will still give good results by adding 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of soda dissolved in a little warm water along with the baking powder. Do not be discouraged if your first Sour Dough Biscuits are not a howling success as the "starter" improves with age. As Carteach0 pointed out, some cooks are known to have kept the same "starter" going for years.

  2. Interesting. I think Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson starred in a movie based on this incident. Of course, Hollywood made the Mounties the bad guys and the bad guy the hero.

  3. Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson made a pretty good (albeit completely ahistorical) movie about this story, Death Hunt.

    I tried making my own sourdough starter in the barracks one year, when I came back from PT one morning it had exploded all over the room...
    Darned Korean yeast!

  4. My bisquits are from my great grandmother's recipe and the gravy is mine (but gravy is so easy there isn't really a "recipe"). I've made sourdough bread but my starter always ends up dead from lack of use. Sadly, I'm no sourdough I suppose. I think I'll go make some of grandma's bisquits.

  5. That... was AWESOME.

    Yummy pictures and better story - you made my morning, thank you.

    Ever give any thought to compiling a story/recipe book someday?

  6. The waiting rooms at the doctors' offices and hospitals around here now have those extra-wide chairs. If you started shipping to Kansas, I'd have to buy several for home.

    Mom used to keep starter around but hasn't for years. I do miss it. She still makes some of the best sausage gravy in a massive cast-iron skillet. Black pepper is a must.

  7. I can't believe I was completely ignorant about the existence of "Starters" One would think I would have heard of it before now. Man, some things should get passed on.

  8. I'm gonna dig out my Ruth Allman and start another batch of starter quickly. Thanks

  9. Thinking about your sourdough reminded me of a favorite I saved years ago.

    It's a place that mails out a sourdough starter from a man who kept the starter from about 150 years ago.

    Check it out. I think I'll invest in an envelope.


  10. Ah yes, sourdough wonderful stuff. I have some now with toes of roasted garlic in it. Real good. the mushroom

  11. Judging by your familiarity with the Albert Johnson story, you're familiar with Dick North's book. a year or two before "Death Hunt" came out there was an independent Canadian movie based on the book called "the Mad Trapper of the Rat River" also. Don't have a clue where you'd find it, but it's a pretty good portrayal.
    Hmm, sourdough.

  12. I've GOT to quit visiting this site when I'm hungry. :)

    Your post here prompted me to give a go at a sourbread starter, and then some biscuits.

    While waiting for the sponge to come up, I tried making some biscuits with Bisquick this morning- first time I've ever done any baking to speak of. Turned out well! Yeah, I know it's hard to mess up Bisquick- but if anyone could, I could.

    Encouraged, I'm now waiting for nature and all those good bacteria to do their job so hopefully I can make some sourdough biscuits and sausage for the kid and I this weekend. Might even have to do a scotch egg and expand the boy-critter's horizons, culinarily speaking...


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