Sourdough Starter

As many of you know, my family recently moved from Upstate NY to Charlotte, NC. One of the hardest things for us to leave was our amazing neighborhood. Sure the houses were nice and the streets were well maintained, but people are what make up a neighborhood, and what we left was simply the best there is.

I am not a baker. That said, I do know a little bit about making bread, and the history of the practice. As you scan the shelves at you local grocery store and marvel at the variety of choices before you, it is important to understand how bread today is very different than it was 100 years ago, and all the time before that.

As most people are aware, bread is basically made up of wheat, water, yeast and a few other ingredients. What most people don’t know is that until about 100 years ago, yeast didn’t come from a packet or a jar… it floated into kitchens and bakeries around the world on nothing but the breeze.

One of the many varieties you see on the store shelves, is something called “sourdough.” Sourdough isn’t just a flavor of bread, actually until only recently it was the only kind of bread.

There is something today we call “Sourdough Starter” that used to be the only way to make bread. Starter is nothing but flour and water. You can make your own by simply mixing water with flour and waiting. Yeast, that little single-celled fungus, is all around us… in the air, in the flour and probably in the water. When you mix the flour and water together and add nothing more but time, eventually the mixture begins to ferment as the “wild yeast” wakes up and starts converting sugar in the flour to carbon dioxide and alcohol.

Although you can make your own starter, it is a finicky process. The best starters are passed down from baker to baker, over months, years and even generations. The best part is once you have a good one going, you can divide, share and grow it almost indefinitely. Given proper care the yeast will propagate and multiply forever.

In the spring of 2002, our daughter Charlotte turned two, our son Lewis turned one and we were expecting number three (Oliver) in October. The little “Cape Cod” we bought in 1999 was nice, but with three kids, it was going to be tight.

I had always liked the neighborhood in our town called Penfield Gardens. My best friend growing up lived there, and I had many great memories from trick-or-treating with him to the summer we mowed lawns for cash before we were old enough for real jobs.


The sign at the entrance to Penfield Gardens

Better yet, many of the houses in the neighborhood had five bedrooms, a rarity in our part of town.

We stalked the Internet for listings and regularly drove through the neighborhood looking for signs that someone might be ready to sell. A few houses came and went, but one day in May a new one popped up on a Saturday morning… 143 Hillrise.

We went to the open house the next day at 3:00, by 4:30 we submitted an offer, and by 5:30 the house was ours.

We moved in the first week in August. It was hot as hell and Emily was by then seven months pregnant with Oliver. We loved the house, but we were unprepared for what would come next. At first we received several plates of welcoming cookies and we met the neighbors closest to us, but there was to be more… a lot more.

One day a knock at the front door revealed a guy from up the street who ran the men’s paddle tennis league on Sunday nights. He was there inviting me to join. I did and met lots of great guys as we played paddle, outside, throughout the harsh Rochester winters.


“Paddle” or platform tennis is played outside throughout the winter.

We were invited to join the “Take Your Neighbor Out To Dinner Football Pool,” which is a group of about thirty couples who get together all throughout the NFL season to lightly wager on games, but basically it is an excuse to stay connected during the time when people tend to stay inside for months at a stretch. Each week, the person who most under-performed with their pics, gets a giant flag placed in their front yard proclaiming them as the LOSER. At the end of the season, the entire group goes out to dinner together, gives awards and spends all the winnings from the season on wine women and song.

As time went on, older neighbors moved away and more young families with kids moved in. The elementary school all the kids attended was right in our back yard, so in the morning around 8:30 and again in the afternoon at 3:30, kids would walk through our yard to and from school. When it was snowy, the bus stop was at the end of our driveway.

On the first and last days of school, there would always be a celebration at the bus stop with parents, grandparents, coffee, juice and donuts.


A “last day of school” celebration on Hillrise Drive.

In the summer, packs of kids would drift from yard to yard, playing anything from capture the flag to complex Nerf gun wars. When it was lunchtime, kids ate wherever they happened to be at the time. As a “work from home” dad, I regularly cooked up a half dozen boxes of mac-n-cheese to feed the crowd.

Kids in the neighborhood didn’t care what grade you were in, or if you were a boy or a girl. If you were a kid and wanted to play… you were in. I know it sounds too good to be true, but this place is really that special.


Kids of all ages play well together in Penfield Gardens.

Our neighbor across the street has a loop driveway on a bend in the street. One Friday afternoon several years a go, they brought a few lawn chairs and a cooler out onto the driveway and enjoyed an adult beverage as neighbors came home from the work week. Within a couple of hours, three-dozen people had joined the fun, bringing drinks, snacks and kids in tow. That little impromptu idea became known as “Driveway Drinks” and it happens several times a summer to this day. It is never announced, just drive by and if you see it happening you’re invited.

One Friday afternoon one October, my kids were running in a Cross Country meet in the schoolyard behind our house. A few of the neighbors came over to cheer them on as they ran by the back of our yard. As they say… “Nothing draws a crowd, like a crowd.” So as we gathered and cheered each race, more neighbors and more kids joined the fray. When the racing was over we lit a fire in the outdoor fireplace. We poured some drinks and ordered some pizza for the kids. The next morning I put six pizza boxes and fourteen wine bottles in the recycling bin. You can fill in the rest, but the fact of the matter is nothing was planned and it was an amazing evening of family friendship, fellowship, and fun, made up of nothing but great people enjoying each other’s company.

In the fourteen years we lived at 143 Hillrise, we never sent our dog to a kennel when we traveled. Neighborhood kids would always take care of the dog, bring in the mail and keep an eye on the house.

My wife is a pediatrician and often behind a knock at the door would be a worried parent with a sick or injured child. She happily gave advice and minor treatment the same way every other professional in the neighborhood did with their own skills.

When an above ground swimming pool collapsed in the yard of a recently widowed neighbor, a dozen men from the neighborhood had it down, packed up and waiting for the garbage man within 24 hours.

I could go on and on with stories, but I think you get the idea.

As we shopped for our new home in Charlotte, we tried to gauge the neighborhoods as we toured the houses. Unfortunately the “neighborhood factor” is nearly impossible to measure.

The final weeks in Penfield Gardens were busy with packing, but there were parties to celebrate the holidays and send us forth on our journey with blessings and hugs. In a final gesture of neighborly support, several couples got together and paid to have our house professionally cleaned after the movers left, so we didn’t have to worry about it.


Me in front of the new crib.

Our new neighborhood in Charlotte has been quiet. Maybe it is because our house never had a “For Sale” sign in the yard. Maybe it’s because we moved in right after Christmas while people were away. Maybe it’s because, despite temperatures in the 50s, it is “winter” down here in the south and people stay inside. The reasons don’t really matter because I have a plan.

The place we called home for fourteen years is just a collection of streets and houses, just like a container on your kitchen counter. However when you add people, kids and time (or flour water and time) you end up with something alive, sustaining and almost magical.

In our hearts, the six Nazarians brought with us the “sourdough starter” that churns, grows, and feeds the neighborhood called Penfield Gardens. It is now our responsibility to share it with our new neighbors and watch it grow again.

Copyright © 2016 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved.

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8 thoughts on “Sourdough Starter

  • Your old neighbourhood sounds like it was a truly wonderful place to live. I hope you can make just as many good friends in your new neighbourhood.

  • Excellent blog, Steve. A similar pattern existed with Armenian-Americans in the early 20th century who made and ate a lot of yogurt. They brought starter with them in small crocks from the old country and passed it along to each other. The metaphor as applied to neighborhood dynamics is quite apt. Kind of like being the salt of the earth.

  • Sure enjoyed “sourdough starter” Steve !! Welcome to the South !! We left Penfield 23 years ago to move to Shallotte, NC– We had lived on Scribner Rd across from Bay Trail. Knew many folks from Penfield Gardens–it was a great place !! May you find much happiness in your new location!!

  • Team Nazarian added more to the neighborhood than you received, that is undeniable. Your new digs and neighbors have much to look forward to!
    Sunday “Picks” will be our chance to sprinkle some starter…

  • Steve, I stumbled about your blog entry. As the previous owner of 143 Hillrise Dr I know exactly how hard it was to leave such a great place. We moved when our children were 5, 3 and 1 so although we never got a chance to get to the “school age years” of the ‘hood, I can attest to what a great neighborhood Penfield Garden’s was (and is). All the best to you and your family as you “grow and stretch” in Charlotte! Have fun and enjoy! -Julie Benati, Atlanta GA

    • Julie,

      So nice to hear from you. It’s been a tad tricky, but the move is going well so far. Best to you and your family.


  • Hi Steve,
    Glad to be connected again, as I just found a string of your last few articles in my old e-mail account. New e-mail listed below.I thought you had stopped with the move! Many fond memories of Penfield Gardens on Hillary Lane. Back in the late ’70s I brought our sourdough starter from Denver and carried on the tradition for several years. I don’t have it anymore, but can still smell and taste the memories. Love to all as you spread the “dough.” Mrs. G
    Sending this on to Andy:)

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