Sammy the Yeast

It took me several months living in the Yukon to figure out what was bugging me.

One Saturday, after holding nails while two Yukoners and an artist from Vancouver assembled a complicated woodshed art piece, it hit me: I don’t actually know how to do anything.

Raised in a family whose parents both had white-collar careers and spent most of their spare time reading, I was rarely required to lift my head out of my books to do things around the house involving paint brushes, power tools, or machinery.

Once or twice a winter, I could be found wielding a shovel, sometimes successfully.

As an adult, after waitering until I was 30 (okay, I can balance a drinks tray), I embarked on a career that involved being paid to offer my opinion on other people’s creative work.

So in Dawson I am a cashier who is continually impressed by how many things people can do.

The average Yukoner, it seems, can haul water, fell trees, chop wood, assemble furniture, build houses, paint, hunt and butcher proteins, grow vegetables, pickle, can, bake and cook, make their own clothing, drive a boat and/or dog sled, change the oil, battery and tires on their vehicle, and administer specialized first aid.

I am relatively useless in all of the above, and my ineptitude is not limited to practical tasks involving tools or machinery – kitchen implements and chopping blocks leave me equally discombobulated.

It takes me three hours to prep my “famous” chicken pot pie, where most people would throw it together in 20 minutes.

However, thanks to an unimpeded view of our kitchen from my favourite spot on the couch, where I can often be found curled up with a book, I have learned a lot about cooking by watching my boyfriend, Michael, prep.

Butter, onions, mirepoix, butter, chicken stock, fresh herbs, butter – these building blocks are no longer foreign concepts to me. I’m even considering expanding my cooking repertoire from one dish to three.

In the meantime, an area that remains unexploited in our kitchen is baking. Michael has never had the time to take it on, and notionally it’s something I may actually be able to do.

After all, at 95 my Grandma Grant still makes the best apple pie on the planet. I start to get a bit excited about the baking idea, and my excitement must be contagious, because Michael decides to make a sourdough starter.

He consults Sourdough Boot Camp in Michele Genest’s gorgeously yummy The Boreal Gourmet. I take one look and am no longer interested in baking – to my untrained eye the 14-Day instructions are more complex than my Grade 12 chemistry final.

Undaunted, Michael approaches the starter with gusto, following Michele’s detailed instructions to a T (they mostly involve mixing flour with water in a bowl, monitoring bubbles and growth, and removing starter as it expands).

I wake up elated on Day 5, when we get to make scones. Except that we don’t. Because Michael gets called away to Ross River for work.

He’s going to be gone for eight days. That means I’ll be responsible for our sourdough starter, which by now we’ve named (no pets, no kids, what can I say?).

Days 6 to 13 are make or break days for Sammy the Yeast. Sometimes he’ll need to be “fed” twice a day, and on Day 11, I’m expected to make Fig, Anise, Hazelnut and Gorgonzola Bread.

When Michael leaves, Sammy is a bright, bubbly yeast ball with a healthy complexion and a bright future. Days 7 to 9 I don’t have to do anything but check on him from time to time, giving him a stir. He still looks good on the morning of Day 9.

But once I start feeding Sammy (one cup of flour and water per day), things start to go downhill fast. By the end of Day 9 he is looking a little grey and not so bubbly.

Twenty-four hours later, he’s gone from grey to green. Miche’s book mentions mould is a possibility but nothing to worry about, so I scoop out what I can and move the rest of Sammy to a clean bowl.

He continues to decline.

On Day 11, rather than enjoying a fresh-baked loaf of fig bread, I am laying poor, dead Sammy to rest in the compost bin. I am already missing Michael, and the house feels even emptier with Sammy gone.

Day 14. “Your starter is ready!” read the instructions. “You probably have 9 or 10 cups of bubbly, active, yeasty-smelling starter.”

It’s certainly not Michele Genest’s fault that we don’t.

Michael arrives home from Ross River that evening, and immediately checks on the starter (I decided not to break the news over the phone).

He is disappointed we won’t be baking bread that weekend, but not all that surprised I killed Sammy the Yeast.

Occasionally Michael talks about creating another starter. I encourage him to wait until I’m out of the territory for an extended period.

In the meantime, I just ordered more books from, and highly recommend Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.

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