This is Ezekiel:
In some ways, naming your starter seems completely natural—it bubbles and teems with life, eats and excretes, requires maintenance, and, if neglected, will die. It’s a little like a very quiet, low-maintenance pet. I named the other two starters I cultivated, too: Isaiah, who I converted from an Amish friendship bread starter which probably initially included sugar and milk to a far more Spartan diet of whole wheat flour and water and then killed because I suspected the friendship starter relied on active dry yeast and I wanted a “wild” starter (I’ll explain the scare quotes in a minute) and Esther, who I stopped baking with and eventually let suffocate and die in her own excrement.
It’s not just me. I also know of a Lisette, a Philemon, and a Mr. Googly (gluten free). And Amish friendship bread starters, which are a kind of sourdough starter, were so often called “Herman starters” or simply “Hermans” that there are still dozens of recipes out there that call for “1/2 cup Herman.” I really tried to figure out why and for a minute, this wiki page made me think it was something German passed down through the Pennsylvania Dutch that just happened to be a common name…until I noticed that even “Herman-Teig” has only been well known since the “1980er.” Which is about when most people's fond memories of their mothers or aunts caring for and baking with “Hermans” date from (likely influenced by the 1970s Earth Mother vogue and what Warren Belasco has called the “countercuisine”). Also challenging the Pennsylvania Dutch theory: the English-language wiki claims that Elizabeth Coblentz, author of “The Amish Cook” said the rich cinnamon coffeecake that people sometimes flavor with instant pudding mix was nothing like Old Amish “friendship bread.” So while I’m skeptical, I have nothing to definitively dispute stories like this one from Uncle Phaedrus, Finder of Lost Recipes:
"Herman is a name that was given to a sourdough starter many years ago when a young girl (probably in San Francisco) watched her mother making sourdough. The mother explained that the sponge was a living thing and needed to be feed and watered. The little girl, in the way of little girls everywhere and everywhen, decided that it needed a name like everything else that was alive, and some things that weren't. After due consideration, she bestowed the name "Herman" upon it.
Like most good things the mother wanted to share the starter with her friends. Along with the starter went the anecdote of her daughter's naming the sponge. As friends gave this starter to other people, they also received the story of the little girl. To this day "Hermans" seem to pop up among sourdough aficionados everywhere, all due to a little girl and her need for everything to have a name. "
But the sad stories of Isaiah and Esther start to suggest some of the ways the “pet” analogy breaks down: it’s a pet that you routinely kill and eat every week or so, but that nonetheless can live for centuries in the right conditions—something between Rose Nyland’s pet cow and octogenarian Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. There are websites that will sell you starters that supposedly have special historical/regional pedigrees, and even one with information on how to get a starter that was carried west on the Oregon Trail in 1847 for free (in memory of Carl T. Griffith who, as the site claims, “gave a sourdough starter to anyone who asked, or who sent him a self-addressed stamped envelope.”) [A minor aside to the two people who’ve landed on this site in a google search for “oldest verified sourdough starter,” if you didn’t leave in a huff at my blog’s irrelevance never to return: I’m sorry to say I have no idea.]
Furthermore, I’m not totally sure what I’m referring to when I talk about “Ezekiel.” Is he (or should that be “it” or “they”? Is it totally perverse to assign my starter a linguistic gender?) just the particular strain(s) of yeast I’ve cultivated or is/are he/it/they the fermenting flour and water paste? The problem with the former is that I can change the kind of yeast living in the culture by changing how I feed him/it/them or what temperature I store (oh hell with it, if it’s perverse, it’s perverse:) him at. The problem with the latter is that I add about 1 1/2 cups of fresh flour and water every week, and remove about the same amount. I could convert him almost entirely to a new kind of flour in about a week’s time, in which case almost none of the original Ezekiel would be left. The compulsion to assign your starter a unique name seems, instead, like a symptom of the being-a-foodie-makes-me-special nature of most contemporary sourdoughing. No offense meant—I’m clearly guilty of it, too.
Anyhow, I won’t deny that I’m fond of Ezekiel, and maybe sometimes even a little stupidly proud in what only a non-parent could call a “maternal” way: My yeast culture! He’s 19 months old! And already he’s leavened everything from naan to chocolate cake! So, below the jump, instructions for one way to make your own little mason jar full of joy and fermented flour paste…oh, and an explanation about what a sourdough starter is in the first place. Read more »