I haven’t actually named my sourdough, at least not formally. But we have been through a lot together, and if I was going to name this culture I would name it Rita.
When I lived in Manitoba back in 2011, I was becoming increasingly interested in developing sustainable eating habits. Perhaps it was the weather, or the influence of the local Mennonites, but I felt a strong urge to source, store and stretch any fruits of the harvest I could find. I wanted to create as much of my own food at home, as possible.
At that time we were attending a small church, located in the middle of a tiny town surrounded by acres of farmers’ fields and brush. It was there that we met Henry and Rita, an older couple who had spent many years living in northern Manitoba where they raised nine children in a two-room house. Now retired from teaching, they continued with the same self-sustaining habits that had enabled their fascinating lives. They kept bees, grew vegetables, put up preserves, and ground their own grain. They were so enthusiastic about their grain-grinding that Rita happened to have a second grinder. As I failed to conceal my interest and peppered her with questions about grains and bread-making, Rita offered me that grain grinder.
I was so touched by this gift because it was clearly a valuable tool. I was at a point in my food journey when I was looking for genuine, practical people to show me how self-sustaining practices could work in the regular routines of the day – and here Rita (and Henry) had succeeded with flying colours. I was also touched because at the time I was far from my own family, and Rita possessed that wise, grandmotherly kindness that seems to follow bread-makers.
My immediate plan was to create a sourdough starter from fresh-ground rye. From what I had read, this seemed to be the best route for a successful starter. I ground enough rye for my first week and patiently stirred, measured and poured. I tried not to become too attached, should it not work. But lo and behold, on the fifth day it was alive!
That starter will soon turn six years old, having made many batches of crackers, muffins, pizza dough, dumplings, pancakes, biscuits, cookies and even a few loaves of bread (who has time for bread when there are cookies?). It moved from apartment countertop to its own place of honour in our first house’s kitchen. It came with me on the plane in a small jar tucked into my luggage, when I moved back to Ontario. It waited patiently to be noticed again while I had two babies. It is now “the batter” that my son wants to stir. It has continued to remind me of that cold winter on the prairies, and Rita’s kind gift that gave me confidence to keep trying new things.