Every year on his birthday, no matter where in the world he was, the prolific New York restaurateur Jason Denton used to get a package from his grandmother Harriet containing a loaf of freshly baked sourdough and a jar of raspberry jam. Harriet was a small-town country gourmet—her spicy mustard made it into Denton's Simple Italian Sandwiches cookbook—and her sourdough starter had a pedigree. It had been her mother's, lovingly coddled and fed through two World Wars and the Great Depression, the source of Sunday pancakes for three generations. Denton let it be known he had designs on the starter, but sometime toward the end of her life, Harriet confronted him with an awful truth: She had accidentally thrown it out. He was crushed—he had dreamed of using it to open a bakery, just Pullman loaves and silver-dollar pancakes—but stoic in the face of the immutable. The starter was gone, and with it a hundred-year-old family tradition.
When Harriet died last summer at the age of 96, Denton went home to Idaho for the funeral. There, one of his grandmother's friends, a woman of similar vintage, approached him. "This was my mother's," she said, handing him a small glass jar full of sandy sludge, with a thin layer of darker liquid at the top—her starter. "It's 125 years old. Would you take care of it for me?" Now he makes pancakes for his boys every weekend, in the hopes of nurturing a successor. "Normally, pancakes are creamy golden yellow," he says. "These tend to be darker. The smell is musky, in the best of ways. You know the starter has been around for awhile. It's alive."
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In an era where the world's best chefs are hacking industrial food and the growing ranks of curious amateurs embrace anything locavore and DIY, artisanal baking is staging a comeback. Commercial yeast? Too generic, too easy, too processed, too 20th century. Starter-born breads have personality; they show the maker's hand. In the most romantic light, an artisanal baker is a nano-forager, gathering from the wild the tiny elements that transform flour and water into loaves.