Bread as Myth, Meme, and Sustenance

Bread has always been miraculous—bread serves as a sacrament in Catholicism, as a universal symbol of fertility and abundance, and matzoh’s edible grace during a time of exile. These days the popular meme “Let’s get this bread” mocks the monotony of earning a living (and that most parents have no idea what their children are texting them when they promise to pick-up actual bread on the way home).

For anyone who likes to bake, tales of century-old sourdough starters are fodder for wild, romantic stories, especially in the United States. Starters, for the uninitiated, are a small amount of fermented dough bakers “feed” with flour and water, also known as the “mother dough” or “sponge.” If properly fed and kept at the right temperature, a single starter can yield millions of loaves of bread, waffles, bagels, and more in the decades, and even centuries, it is alive. This slow process is how most bread was made prior to the invention of fast-acting, readymade yeasts, additives, and processing grains lickety-split. There is even evidence that those who have celiac disease and gluten sensitivities might find the origin of their health problems in the mass-produced bread of the 20th and 21st centuries.

While it may be more believable to discover 100-year-old sourdough starters in France or China, North America does have its share of fermented goodness living through gold rushes, world wars, the Spanish influenza, the Great Depression, and much more. San Francisco and Whitehorse, Yukon, the largest city in northern Canada, have century-plus starters included in the Puratos Sourdough Library in Saint-Vith, Belgium, the global seed vault of sourdough starters. And now I wonder if I might have stumbled onto a piece of St. Louis culinary heritage that may one day find its rightful place in Belgium, too.

In researching the past century on Cherokee Street in south St. Louis, Missouri, I discovered once Black Bear Bakery, a neighborhood favorite, closed in 2016, Russian Jewish immigrant Samuel (Sam) Lickhalter’s 1915 starter was not passed on to owner and baker Fred Domke of Bridge Bread Bakery (2639 Cherokee Street).

In a now defunct IndieGoGo crowdfunding page, Kerry O’Brien, formerly of Black Bear, wrote about “Lickhalter’s 97-year-old rye starter dough and recipes” six years ago. Black Bear Bakery even won awards for its bagels in 2010, which, according to the St. Louis Jewish Light, were “made with the original sourdough starter” Lickhalter created in 1915.

So, I wondered, what happened to Lickhalter’s mother dough, arguably one of St. Louis’ longest running historic bread starters?

Domke was kind enough to float a couple of names of former Black Bear bakers who would possibly know the fate of the starter. One such lead, Robert (BobEE) Sweet, did confirm that he had some of the starter, which he still uses for his own baking needs. Sweet, who works as a handyman and as a DJ at the community radio station KDHX, said, “I keep it in the fridge when I’m not using it, and I don’t have any proof that it’s the same starter from a 100 years ago, but I know it is the same starter I’ve used since the mid-1990s, and that’s the best I can say.”

As for Sweet’s plans for the starter, he does not have any, other than to gift the mythic starter to lucky friends who are interested in baking and keeping the special mixture alive.

And what keeps sourdoughs like the Lickhalter starter alive? A strain of bacteria called Lactobacillus, of which there are at least ten different strains, have been isolated from sourdough breads. That bit of knowledge, Sweet said, is noteworthy: “As the starter moved locations, the changes in the air would likely flavor it differently too.”

That special and scientific notion, of tasting a unique place and time period, is one worth preserving. I only hope that whoever else in St. Louis (or beyond) has a bit of the Lickhalter starter submits an application to the Sourdough Library. A little, fermented piece of the Old World that made its home in America’s Middle West at the turn of the 20th century deserves a home with the rest of the world’s legendary leavens.