The story of the mother dough from Alaska’s Mother Lode and how it lives on today in Trinidad
Mad River Union
TRINIDAD – Bob Hallmark was the captain of The Jo, a fishing vessel out of Trinidad. In the 1980s, lots of boats went up to Cordova, Alaska to fish for crab.
“We’d go up at the end of April and come back in late September,” Hallmark said. “We used razor clams as bait. We’d go down 90 miles south to Controller Bay to dig them. They were so thick that you would just start a hole and then keep working that hole until you had plenty. Generally we’d dig one or two five gallon buckets full, then smash them and put them into jars. We needed to get that smell out.”
“Once I ate some but there was too much fat in them and I got sick,” he added.
What Hallmark did like to eat in Cordova was pancakes. Sourdough pancakes.
Sourdough is an iconic Alaskan way of raising dough, one that traces its roots back to the Gold Rush. Sourdough starters are carefully tended and jealously guarded. Many cities in Alaska claim that their strain of starter is the best.
Hallmark fished there from the 1980s until 1991. He was eating pancakes at his favorite cafe in Cordova when he heard the sad news that it was closing.
“What am I going to do without these pancakes?” he asked the owner. The owner gave him some of the sourdough starter to take back down to Trinidad.
Hallmark did just that and the tradition of sourdough pancakes at the Seascape, the restaurant on the Trinidad Pier, was born.
Now the restaurant is celebrating the hundredth anniversary of that sourdough. The Seascape’s chefs have been using the same starter for decades.
Steven Trump has worked there for 37 years, rising to the position of head chef. “We’ve had sourdough pancakes for all the years I’ve been here. We had a close call once but we’ve never lost the starter that came from Alaska.”
The late Joellen Hallmark started making the dough and now it’s made regularly by Chef Penelope Gurley. Gurley mixes up a batch every few days, only relinquishing the task to other chefs when she’s away on vacation.
“Penny makes the pancake dough about 97 percent of the time,” Trump said.
But his favorites are still the Seascape’s regular pancakes. “Our regular pancakes are the best pancakes in the world,” he said. “I’ve eaten pancakes all over California and Oregon and in Tennessee and ours are the best. They are homemade from scratch.”
Laying his opinion by the wayside, the sourdough pancakes at the Seascape are popular with both locals and visitors. Customers are always telling the servers that that’s why they drove from Redding or Crescent City or Fremont or... just to eat the pancakes.
Researching the hundred year anniversary of the sourdough starter was an interesting journey for this writer, because Hallmark’s vivid memories of Cordova did not, sadly, include the name of the cafe where he was given the starter.
First I called the public library in Cordova, always a good place to start. The librarian directed me to the museum. That helpful person suggested I call the local newspaper, The Cordova Times.
I spoke with Vivian, and after explaining my quest, she told me that she had “chills down her back.” In the very next issue of the paper they were planning to run the obituary of the cafe owner, Delia E. Triber, 1918-2017.
It read (in part):
“Delia was the owner of the Pioneer Café for many years and was most famous for her sourdough hotcakes. Today, the Pioneer Café, now the Cordova House, or better known by locals as the CoHo, is owned and operated by Dorene Wickham. Dorene used to work for Delia and continues to use the same sourdough starter Delia did all those years ago….”
Vivian was kind enough to email me the entire obit. And then she asked a stunning sort of question.
“Her best friend put the obit in, would you like her phone number?” she said.
Boy, those people in Alaska are so friendly.
I took the number and called Delia’s friend, Dolly Manley. She turned the phone over to her husband, Jim, who regaled me with great stories about Delia and the different cafes in Cordova, the history of the sourdough starter, and some helpful tips on maintaining a healthy starter.
Boy, those people in Alaska are really friendly!
Turns out that Delia’s father, Neil Finnesand, brought the starter from Chitina, Alaska to Cordova in the Gold Rush days. (Neil lived to be just three months shy of 105 years old, according to Delia’s obit.)
It also turns out that the starter can be frozen and brought back to life with some sifted potato water or it can be put on thin sheets of plastic and dried. All good to know.
When I told Manley about an article I’d written about The Doghouse Gang, a group of old fellas who meet for breakfast daily at The Seascape (Mad River Union Oct. 17. 2017), he said delightedly, “We have a group like that too,” and asked for a copy of the article to be sent to him.
Manley set down the phone and called out to his brother-in-law, Bill Weber, “How old is that starter?”
First Weber professed to not remember anything but eventually admitted that it “must be awfully close to a hundred years old.” Sounds good to me.
So if you haven’t tried the hundred year old sourdough pancakes in Trinidad, be sure to come and ask for the Seascape anniversary special, two sourdough pancakes (and they are enormous!), two eggs, and choice of bacon or sausage. I ate some last week and they were amazing, as always. I didn’t even feel 100 years older after the meal.
Janine Volkmar cooks soup and washes dishes part-time at The Seascape when she isn’t busy interviewing folks for the Mad River Union.