NEWCASTLE — The particular sourdough starter under consideration is older than most things.
It was created before the rotary dial, airplane and modern assembly line. Someone first stirred its ingredients together the same year the Eiffel Tower opened and Vincent van Gogh painted “Starry Night.”
It has lived through the turns of two centuries, the Great Depression, World War I, World War II, the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam and beyond, blues, jazz, rock ’n’ roll and 23 U.S. presidencies.
It’s older than the state of Wyoming.
Lucille Clarke Dumbrill of Newcastle got it from her mother, who got it from one of her husband’s students at the University of Wyoming. The student’s family could trace it back to 1889, to a sheepherder’s wagon near Kaycee.
Guinness World Records tracks all sorts of achievements regarding things that are edible (longest sandwich, largest meatball, largest pizza base spun in two minutes) and things that are old (oldest pig, oldest sweater, oldest acrobatic salsa dancer). It even has eight records involving the food Lucille makes most with her starter, pancakes (stacking them, making them, throwing them).
But there is no record for oldest sourdough starter.
Maybe it belongs to Lucille.
Her starter is 122 years old, kept alive and fermenting in Lucille’s refrigerator.
To maintain a starter this old, Lucille, 83, keeps it in a ceramic jar with a lid. When baking for guests, she takes the starter out of the fridge a couple days ahead of time. She removes a half cup to one cup of starter, puts it in a bowl on the counter and feeds it flour, sugar and water to make batter. Just before adding in eggs, oil and more sugar for pancakes, she puts a half cup to one cup of batter back in the starter jar, then back in the fridge.
Let’s be sure about one thing: The idea that sourdough starter is tough to keep is a big misunderstanding, Lucille said.
You don’t have to bake with it every week to keep it alive or have someone babysit it while you’re on vacation.
In fact, when Lucille’s mother died, winter, spring and summer passed before Lucille could clean out the house. In the fall Lucille finally brought home the sourdough starter, untouched for months. She baked pancakes with it just fine.
Lucille’s advice: “You just have to not be afraid if it doesn’t look good.”
Once, Carol Rolfe, who assists Lucille at home, was cleaning the fridge and opened the starter jar. The contents had turned black around the edges, clear and oily on the top. Whatever this was, Carol thought, it needed to be thrown out.
Oh, no, Lucille said. Just stir it together and it’ll be fine.
The starter, when it looked ugly, could make some women squeamish. Lucille’s late husband, Richard Dumbrill, joked that maintaining the starter was a “man’s job.”
To keep, sourdough starter needs refrigeration, a little attention every once in a while and a go-with-the-flow attitude. Sometimes batter will need a little more of this or a little less of that.
“Nothing about sourdough is absolutely absolute,” Lucille said.
Richard cooked with the sourdough most often. He requested starter from Lucille’s mother and started baking for family and friends. If Lucille was particularly busy one day, he’d get out the starter in the morning and bake pancakes for dinner. He would pile them high, cover in butter and sugar and cut the stack like slices of layer cake.
The Dumbrills served pancakes to guests with whipped cream, fruit and a variety of syrups: maple, blueberry, chokecherry. One time they served 90 people at once, celebrating the 100th birthday of the starter with the Wyoming State Historical Society. They fed sourdough pancakes to the state officers of the Federated Women’s Clubs of Wyoming and hosted pancake dinners to raise money for the historical society and Newcastle’s museum district. They even auctioned off a pancake supper once so they could put a new roof on the local museum.
For 18 years Richard served as Weston County campaign chairman for former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, and the Dumbrills hosted political meet-and-greets at their house.
“Instead of cocktail parties, we made pancakes,” Lucille said.
Just once, Richard almost lost the starter.
He made pancakes, put the batter bowl in the sink and turned on the faucet.
Realizing what he’d done, he scraped a tiny bit of batter left on the edge of the bowl. He put it in a jar and fed it flour, water and sugar. It came back to life and started to expand. Thank goodness for that.
Visit Lucille in Newcastle and chances are she’ll try to send you home with part of her 122-year-old starter. She’s shared it with friends in Newcastle and even traveled with it to Michigan. Two of her children have starters, and her daughter made pancakes regularly for her sons’ track and cross country teams. Even if the starter in Lucille’s house dies, it lives in other fridges across the state.
Lucille won a Wyoming State Historical Society Award for her starter this fall. It’s the only time the society has granted an award for food.
People with the society say it’s folks like the Dumbrills who are responsible for historic preservation in the state. Both Lucille and her husband served as society presidents. The sourdough is just one thing they’ve done.
It is, however, the thing that gets people talking.
Lucille’s phone woke her early one morning, 2 a.m.
She thought it was bad news. Good news doesn’t come in the middle of the night.
“Is this the Dumbrill residence?” A man on the other end wanted to know. He heard about the sourdough starter, he said.
Later, Lucille guessed the guy was out at the bar and made a bet with friends.
“Is it really over 100 years old?”
Well, yes, she said.
And still counting.