Shared from the 5/4/2020 San Francisco Chronicle eEdition

Mystery baker rises to meet sourdough starter need

Peter Hartlaub / The Chronicle

A Walnut Creek man who has stayed anonymous created a sourdough starter kiosk, distributing a 100-year-old starter to more than 650 people.

When a mysterious sourdough kiosk containing a 100-year-old starter appeared in Walnut Creek a few weeks ago, it didn’t take long for word to spread outside of the neighborhood.

The pandemic project quickly became a nearlyevery-waking-hour mission for the man who has been handing out hundreds of small cups of the starter, and insists he remain anonymous even as his project comes to an end.

“There are people driving in from Santa Cruz, Sacramento. There’s a bunch of people coming out from (San Francisco) today,” he said on Sunday, as he added 20 more 2-ounce containers to the bin. “To the point where it’s become a fulltime job for me to keep this up, and I can’t do it anymore. I’m exhausted. There’s flour all over my house. My house smells like a big sourdough pancake.”

Neighborhoods throughout the Bay Area have been lifted by gifts big and small since the shelterin-place started March 16, including sourdough starter on random San Francisco telephone poles, Little Free Libraries turned into food pantries, neighborhood newspapers written by children, and a bagpiper who performs from a Castro neighborhood rooftop.

But it would be hard to find an altruist who is more on-point than the so-called Phantom Baker, who has taken one of the cliches of the coronavirus era — finally getting around to making homemade sourdough bread with fermenting dough — and turned it into a pickme-up for neighbors near and far.

The starter has a wild history, dating to Alaska in the early 19th century, according to the “true California sourdough history” flyer that’s available at the kiosk. The starter was brought to the lower 48 states by gold miner Frank Biggerstaff, who in 1953 gave it to Frank Smith Jr., who passed it on to his son Frank Smith III of Napa. The Walnut Creek man received a batch from the younger Smith in 1999, and has kept it alive since — a process that involves a monthly reactivation.

After the sourdough starter came up while talking with some neighbors, the man decided to put the kiosk on a telephone pole in front of Buena Vista Elementary School. News was spread on Nextdoor, and later the News24-680 local blog, which gave the sourdough man the name Phantom Baker.

“The first time it got on Nextdoor was level one, and then when it got picked up by 24-680, that’s when it went Kardashian viral, and I couldn’t keep the bin full to save my life,” he said. “I’ve been refilling it about every two hours ever since.”

A.J. Leone of Pleasant Hill saw the kiosk on a morning run and brought her 7-year-old daughter, Amelia, back on Sunday morning to get some starter, which turned into an impromptu science and history lesson as they started reading the handout.

Leone, who loves the sourdough idea, said she’s seen free seeds in several places and found free lemon and grapefruit stands in their neighborhood.

“You would never do that before,” Leone said. “Nobody cared about sharing and doing stuff for a friend. It’s just really nice. It’s kind of heartwarming in a cold time.”

The Phantom Baker confirmed his identity to The Chronicle, but won’t identify himself to passersby, even as he’s filling the kiosk, which he does several times every day. He insists on remaining anonymous so the act remains selfless, but distributes an email and phone number to text with questions. He’s a tall and jovial presence, even with a bandanna masking half his face.

“Are you the sourdough person?” a man pulling up on a motorcycle asks.

“Maaay-be,” the kioskkeeper responds, before giving a minute-long sourdough tutorial.

The busiest day so far was Friday, when 200 people came to the kiosk. He expected to give away more than 650 containers of sourdough starter total before the weekend was over, and then it would end. The Phantom Baker, who is not a baker at all, runs a design/build contracting business and will resume full-time work Monday, when restrictions are eased.

“I didn’t intend for this to become what it has,” he said. “I just wanted it to be a fun thing for the neighborhood, to help bring everybody together, and give them something to do. It’s taken on a life of its own.”

Before the pandemic, the Phantom Baker and Frank Smith III were the last two people with the century-old recipe. Now he knows there are many hundreds. The recipe can live on for another century, he said, maybe even after the worst memories of the coronavirus pandemic are forgotten.

“I’m not trying to feed the world,” he said. “I’m just trying to make everybody feel good.”

Peter Hartlaub is The San Francisco Chronicle’s pop culture critic. Email: Twitter: @PeterHartlaub

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