This Sourdough Starter Dates Back to the Klondike Gold Rush

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CC BY 2.0. Mary Catherine Tee -- A sourdough starter bubbles away happily. (Note: This is not the starter described in the article.)

84-year-old Ione Christensen of Whitehorse, Yukon, has had her starter for 60 years. She knows that it traveled with her grandfather in 1897.

Every Saturday night, Ione Christensen makes waffles. She uses flour, water, oil, cornmeal, eggs, and a portion of sourdough starter that's been in her fridge for more than sixty years. But that's only the length of time she has had the starter -- it's far older than that, estimated to be at least 120 years of age.

Currently it's kept in an assuming plastic container with a label reading, "100-year-old Yukon sourdough. PLEASE DO NOT THROW OUT." But the label itself is at least 20 years old, Christensen estimates. She does know that the starter traveled with her grandfather in 1897. As she told the CBC for a documentary project last fall:

"Her great-grandfather and his three brothers brought it with them, over the Chilkoot Pass. They traveled across Canada from New Brunswick to the Klondike gold fields, in the Yukon, their eyes glinting with gold fever... Hordes of people, mostly men, flooded into Dyea, Alaska, on ships from San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver. The port of Dyea was the start of the trail [and this] is where Ione figures her great-grandfather picked up the sourdough that sits on her counter today."

CBC's mention of Christensen's starter caught the attention of Belgian baker Karl de Smedt, who works for the Puratos World Heritage Sourdough Library in St. Vith, Belgium. So far the 'library' has 87 sourdoughs from 20 countries, the goal of which is to "preserve baking knowledge and sourdough heritage." de Smedt traveled to Whitehorse, Yukon, to visit Christensen, enjoy her waffles (which he deemed delicious), and collect a sample for the library. The sample will be labeled "106" and put on display as one of the library's oldest specimens. Part of it will be sent to researchers in Italy who sequence and study the sourdough's DNA profile.

Karl de Smedt

Puratos -- Karl de Smedt displays a specimen at the sourdough library/via

Christensen is pleased by the attention her starter is receiving. "It’s a family pet, if you will." Indeed, sourdough starters do require steady attention to be kept alive. Until fairly recently, they were crucial if anyone wanted fresh bread, which is why de Smedt described people in the past as "slaves to their sourdough," needing to feed it every few hours. Modern yeast extraction has eliminated that need, but has paid the price in flavor.

"In baking, a starter is a culture of yeast and bacteria that converts starch molecules into sugars. During this process, the yeast also produces carbon dioxide, which in turn helps the bread rise. It is a critical – if under-appreciated – component of baking, said De Smedt." (via the Guardian)

Meanwhile, Christensen laughs at the fact that her starter's fame might eclipse her own accomplishments. She was the first female mayor of Whitehorse in 1975, Commissioner of Yukon after that, a Canadian senator, and a recipient of the Order of Canada in 1994.

What will happen to her starter when she's gone? Christensen has two sons and she told CBC that "it will go to whoever ends up cleaning out her fridge." But in the event they're not quite so diligent at feeding the 'family pet' as their mother was, Canadians can rest assured that a portion will be kept for posterity at the sourdough library in Belgium.