Love or hate the stuff, Ruth Allman will win you over
About the time termination dust starts to fall in Southcentral Alaska, I find I’m always thinking of Ruth Allman. With the anniversary of her birth and passing both falling in those weeks where summer is sprinting out the door and autumn is waving hi and bye in the same swift motion, it seems fitting that this time of year prompts the undeniable craving for a fortifying heap of fresh sourdough hotcakes on a frosty morning. In this season and every season, it’s as good a time as any to serve, nurture, and share all of the life-giving and life-sustaining things around us, in the fervent hope that they will in turn nurture us.
Who is Ruth Allman? Ruth’s Tlingit name, as an honorary member of the Eagle Clan, is Kut’aan-Sa-Wu-St’aan, which means “waiting for summer to come.” If you haven’t had the pleasure of making her acquaintance, allow me to introduce you. There’s a good chance you’ve heard of her uncle, the famed Alaskan territorial judge, James Wickersham, whose influence during the Gold Rush years spanned from the Yukon, to Nome, to Fairbanks, to Juneau. It’s been said of him: “No other man has made as deep and varied imprints on Alaska’s heritage, whether it be politics, government, commerce, literature, history or philosophy.”
It can just as easily be asserted that no other woman can be credited with solidifying the legacy and link between Alaska and a substance that has been as essential as gold to Alaskan modern history and experience. That substance is sourdough.
Of course, like most people, I have only had the opportunity to meet Ms. Allman and her beloved Alaskan sourdough through the written word, mostly from her charming cookbook and collection of anecdotes. “Alaskan Sourdough” is a perennial best-seller. Plenty—and yet, I’d argue, not enough—has been written about Ruth and her role in securing the House of Wickersham as a historical haven in Juneau, and doing her part to make sure the fiery tales and feats of those tumultuous, turn-of-the-century times in Alaska did not disappear in the tidal wave of fast-changing culture and development.
Ruth was born in Boston but, in her words, was raised in the Alaskan territory by Judge and Mrs. Wickersham, whom she describes as “Alaskan pioneers of the 1900 vintage.” “I had heard about and had experienced much of the frontier life,” she writes in her book, “but only a limited amount of really roughing it.” She spent twenty years teaching art and music in the Juneau public school system, but finally got to experience remote Alaskan living in earnest when she married Jack Allman in 1949.
She and Jack, a pioneer and newspaperman, lived in remote mining cabins in Excursion Inlet, forty miles from Juneau, and eventually established the Tongass Lodge there. It is assumed this is where and when she honed her skills and deepened her breadth of knowledge in all things sourdough, as well as pioneering legacy and lore.
The Allmans were married only four years before Jack succumbed to cancer. Ruth cared for him until his death. She stayed in Juneau to care for her aunt, Mrs. Grace Wickersham, when she became terminally ill, barely a decade later. Renee Guerin Blood, a close family friend to the Allmans, wrote in a 2000 article for the Juneau Empire that it was at this juncture that Ruth had to find a way to both conserve her family’s invaluable historical legacy and also provide for herself and her aunt.
With the support of the surrounding community, the House of Wickersham was established and Ruth spent her remaining years making it her mission to share her stories, family artifacts, and delicious “flaming sourdoughs” with the public. The warmth apparent when others recount their interactions with her during these years clearly conveys Ruth’s passion and plain enjoyment of this role. As Ms. Guerin Blood noted, “Ruth’s storytelling amounted to an oral history of our state, which she shared with thousands of visitors from all over the world for over 25 years.” Ruth clearly felt called to share the stories of others, and she did so, without a hint of grief or greed. Her accomplishments are impressive, but there remains within the pages of “Alaskan Sourdough” a simple, lovely, crackling humor—sunshine and sweetness sprinkled in among the hardness that was her pioneering life.
Sourdough Cornmeal, Blueberry
and Cheddar Muffins
Makes roughly 1 to 1 and 1/2 dozen muffins, or 1/2 dozen muffins and one loaf of quick bread.
This recipe is an adaptation of one of Ruth’s suggested variations of sourdough muffins, and is our absolute favorite. The cornmeal gives a lovely texture and the pockets of gooey cheddar cheese with the blueberries offers the perfect sweet and salty balance. If you prefer to leave out any or all of the additions, feel free to do so. This is an easily riffable and forgiving recipe.
2 cups sourdough starter (fed, bubbling)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup oil
1 and 1/2 cup flour (separated)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup plain yellow cornmeal or masa harina
1 cup blueberries
1 cup small-cubed cheddar cheese *
*(do not use shredded – it will disappear in the muffins)
Heat oven to 375° and paper or grease muffin tins and/or loaf pan.
Pour cornmeal into a heat-safe bowl. Add 1/2 – 3/4 cup of boiling water and stir well to saturate cornmeal. Set aside and allow to swell.
Meanwhile, mix sourdough, sugar, egg, and oil. Add 1 cup of the flour. Dilute the baking soda in a small amount of warm water, then add to batter (the easiest way to do this is to mix the soda with warm water in a 1/4 cup measuring cup, stirring them together as you pour it into the batter). Very gently fold the diluted soda into the batter – over-mixing will kill your rise.
Take a minute to check your cornmeal; add more water if necessary (you should have a thick cornmeal batter, not a dough).
Gently shake the remaining 1/2 cup of flour into the sourdough batter and continue gentle folding motion until no flour pockets remain. Fold in the cornmeal, blueberries, and cheese cubes until evenly distributed. Fill muffin tins or loaf pan 1/2 – 3/4 full.
Bake muffins for 25-30 minutes; quick bread may take up to 45 minutes.