Greenup County man's sourdough starter goes back 112 years

Sourdough starter has a history all its own

swthompson@herald-leader.comNovember 21, 2012 

People who truly enjoy the food they eat can be sated with a cookbook. To many of them, sitting down with a new cookbook can be as satisfying as a home-cooked meal.

This holiday season, give the gift of a cookbook — even if your friends aren't really giants in the kitchen — because many cookbooks are just good reads.

That's the case with Soc Clay's Mad Trapper Sourdough Baking Cookbook: On the Rise Since the 1800s.

Clay, of Greenup County, is a photo journalist who covers outdoor recreation. He is fishing editor for Heartland USA magazine and Fishing South columnist for Cabela's Outfitter Journal magazine. Clay has received awards for his writing and photographs, but now he's writing about sourdough starter.

Clay, 77, and his wife, Wanda, live in a log cabin in Fern Hollow in the western end of Greenup County. His book has recipes, but most of it is about how he obtained the sourdough starter he uses.

He's how he explains it:

"I was partially raised by a man named Watt Watson Walker who lived in an old cabin next to our hillside farm. I called him 'WW.'

"WW had been an adventurer most of his life, sliding around everywhere trying a bit of this and that. He made the Gold Rush in 1899, nearly starved and froze to death with little glitter to show for it. He survived on sourdough flapjacks fried in a thin tin skillet and any fish he could catch from the creeks.

"Later, he became a cook in a timber camp in the Big Horn Mountains, then wound up in the old cabin and told me all about it. He fed a starving kid sourdough pancakes (flapjacks), biscuits and loaf breads. He taught me how to make a loaf before I was 10, and I have been baking on and off ever since. I've written tons about sourdough, usually in a camp format, nothing ever fancy,"

After working 25 years at Detroit Steel in New Boston, Ohio, Clay presented seminars on sourdough.

"I learned that sourdough was a popular show. A lot of folks (men and women) were interested in it, but hardly any had actually used sourdough," he said.

The starter Clay has been keeping alive for more than 30 years came from an old friend, the late Sam Roberson of Lobelville, Tenn., who went to Alaska before World War II and stayed there for many years until his first wife died.

"He had obtained his starter from an old mail carrier who ran the snowy trails of Alaska and the Yukon with dog sleds and had also taken the starter when he was hired as a tracker to find the 'Mad Trapper' Albert Johnson," which is how the starter got its name.

"The mounties and their posse stayed on the trail of Johnson for several months, and men had to prepare food on the trail in the harshest of conditions. The sourdough starter helped keep the posse fed throughout much of the famous Canadian manhunt during the early 1930s. The old man told Sam the 'Trapper' originated with a sourdough during the Rush of 1900. I'm the fourth to own it — in 112 years."

Clay said he has been able to keep his starter alive by freezing it and by learning how to dehydrate it and store it dry, also in the freezer.

He sells the sourdough starter for $10. It's available from Mad Trapper Sourdough, P.O. Box 514, South Shore, Ky. 41175.

Books are $14.95, plus $3 for shipping and handling, from Catchallpress.com.

Call Clay at (606) 932-4126 or email socclay@windstream.net.

Sharon Thompson: (859) 231-3321. Twitter: @FlavorsofKY. Blog: Flavorsofkentucky.bloginky.com

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