It was a warm summer’s day in 1970.
In the Stadium Village walk-up apartment she shared with her graduate student husband, Lois Parker, a recent East Coast transplant, was undertaking a culinary experiment, one that would shape their family for the next half-century.
Working from a trusted source material — the “Sunset Cook Book of Breads” — Parker poured a cup of milk into a glass jar and placed it near an open kitchen window.
Twenty-four hours later, she stirred a cup of white flour into the milk, covered the jar with cheesecloth and let it sit near that same window for the next three or four days.
“It started to have a bubbly, spongy texture and a pleasantly sour aroma,” she said. “A genuine Minneapolis sourdough was born.”
Parker, then 25 years old, was a bread baking novice. Her mentor, Helen, was one of the first friends Parker made in Minneapolis and a woman familiar with the ins-and-outs of bread baking after growing up on a southern Minnesota farm.
“Of course, I’d never thought of sourdough,” said Parker. “I don’t know how wild yeast gets in the atmosphere. But I figured that with the Pillsbury A Mill, and lots of baking going around, that something would happen. I was intrigued. I like to know where things come from. I’m very interested in process.”
No kidding. This is a woman who spent several years grinding her own wheat flour. “That got old,” she said with a laugh.
But sourdough baking? She’s still a devotee, 49 years later.
The starter is older than her two sons, who are now both in their 40s and were raised on their mother’s nutritious, fresh-baked breads.
“With growing kids, we went through a lot of bread,” she said.
(The Star Tribune’s Taste section debuted on Oct. 1, 1969. During this 50th anniversary year, we will occasionally dig into its 2,500-plus past issues. A column that profiled local cooks, Twin Cities Gourmet — later, Tastemaker — ran, off and on, from 1975 to 2006. Consider this a 50th-anniversary edition of that popular feature.)
That well-worn copy of the “Sunset Cook Book of Breads” has been Parker’s guide for years, although she’s recently been exploring the methodology in “The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook.”
In the summer, when she’s less inclined to turn on the oven, she’ll skip breads in favor of an overnight waffle formula, or she’ll prepare English muffins, using a countertop griddle.
“The English muffins are really something else,” she said. “You can’t buy them like that.”
Spoken like a true home baker.
Lately, Parker has been drawn to fortifying breads with flax, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, millet and oats.
The mixture is soaked in boiling water before it’s added to the starter, followed by white flour (she prefers the King Arthur label, although she also purchases the bulk flours available at St. Paul’s Hampden Park Co-op) that’s mixed with rye and whole-wheat flours.
“It’s got a really good flavor,” said Parker. “I like the looks of it.”
The starter experienced one significant and potentially disastrous interruption. In the early 1990s, a tornado left the family’s south Minneapolis home without electricity for more than a week.
That’s not an ideal environment for a refrigerator-dependent sourdough starter.
“It was hot, and the starter started to smell bad,” said Parker.
Yikes. Fortunately, she had shared her starter with her friend Helen. Crisis averted. Parker was able to retrieve a piece of it and kept the tradition in place.
“You just need a tablespoon of the starter to get a new jar going,” she said.
She nurtures it with equal parts 2% milk and flour (“I’ve tried to be a good mother to it,” she said) but it’s not a daily habit. Now that she’s retired, Parker isn’t baking as frequently as she did in the past.
If more than 10 days have gone by and she hasn’t used the starter, “I’ll get rid of 90 percent of it, and I’ll start again, and replenish it,” she said.
The starter has evolved over the years, losing some of its sour bite as it ages. It resides in a small glass jar, although the top remains slightly askew while the fermentation process is at its peak, allowing gas to escape.
Notice the use of “It,” because although it has been a member of the family since “Love Story” was No. 1 at the box office, Parker’s starter has remained unnamed for all of these years.
“Interestingly, a friend recently e-mailed an article that said that people who keep their sourdough starter at room temperature, living on the counter, they name it,” said Parker. “But it said that, if you keep it in the refrigerator, like I do, it generally doesn’t get a name.”
Parker grew up on Long Island, N.Y., and attended college in Baltimore. That’s where she met her future husband, who was leaving the U.S. Army and heading to Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota.
“And I’ve been here ever since,” she said.
Over the years, she’s spread the sourdough starter gospel all kinds of ways. She’s spooned it into baby food jars — with recipes attached, of course — for a school fundraiser, and it ended up in a restaurant kitchen, where it became the foundation of a pizza dough.
Then there’s all those loaves of bread that Parker has baked over the years, a number that’s surely in the thousands.
All from a curiosity-driven experiment that began 49 years ago in Stadium Village.