When the discovery of gold near Coloma, Calif., in 1848 ignited a massive influx of prospectors to the area from other regions of the United States, as well as Europe, Asia, and Australia, many arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs. Among the few prized possessions brought along for the journey were jars of sourdough starter—the mixture of fermented flour and water used to make bread without commercial yeast—that held the promise of a full belly. To thousands of hopeful (and hungry) miners who risked it all in pursuit of striking it rich, those jars of cultivated wild yeast represented a semblance of stability and a taste of home, even amid backbreaking work and an uncertain future. Legend has it that the miners even hugged their starters at night to keep the cultures warm and help them survive.
Sourdough starter served as a lifeline to which the miners literally clung. Due to the sudden population explosion, farms couldn’t keep up with the surge in demand, rendering affordable food an elusive commodity in many parts of the state. Moreover, the discovery of gold excited locals, too: As California’s farm workers left their agricultural jobs to pan for gold, farms that had once supported the state's economy sat abandoned. Local food merchants, smelling opportunity as droves of miners rushed the goldfields, inflated prices on everything from fruit to flour: A single egg could command as much as $3 (more than $80 per egg in today’s dollars). Suffice it to say, many merchants struck more riches than gold miners; after traveling thousands of arduous miles to stake their claim to wealth, most hopefuls in the mining camps ultimately made little money. Faced with limited funds and resources, the miners could extend a small amount of purchased flour by mixing it with sourdough starter—a more affordable solution than buying a fresh loaf of bread.