Sourdough Goes Viral: Lucky Lady Bread shares her starter during COVID-19 crisis

When Stacie Kearney moved to Spokane in the Spring of 2016 with her husband Tim, who helped to open the northside location of Trader Joe’s, the California “Valley Girl” didn’t expect her bread-making hobby to go any further than the confines of her home kitchen. For the past six years, she has been caring for her beloved sourdough starter “Carl,” the unassuming but storied glob of microbes that has provided her with so much joy and good bread week after week. A year ago, after her friends convinced her to start offering her bread for sale, Kearney opened her small pop-up business, Lucky Lady Bread, selling a limited number of loaves on weekends at a small bakery in West Central.

Fast forward to Spring of 2020, and this little town the Kearneys now call home—just like the rest of the world—unexpectedly shut down due to the global pandemic we all know as COVID-19. The repercussions of this widespread closure were far reaching, and while people found themselves stuck at home trying to find ways to cope with a level of isolation they’ve never before experienced, Kearney found herself in a unique position to help out.

“I didn’t start this business to make money. I wanted to spread love and create a community,” Kearney remarks, while sprinkling flour on the surface of a rustic butcher block table she and her husband built together as her work table. Her fascination with bread-making was sparked during a visit to Alaska ten years ago, where she learned about the origin of the word sourdough: “In The Yukon and Alaska, a ‘sourdough’ is a nickname given to someone who has spent an entire winter north of the Arctic Circle. It refers to their tradition of protecting their sourdough during the coldest months by keeping it close to their bodies.”

Kearney first started baking as a way to save money by making homemade meals for her family. Strapped for cash, but not of time, she used that time to learn how to make “real” bread to serve on their dinner table. Six years ago, while browsing the internet for sources to purchase a new sourdough starter, she came across the website Intrigued by the story of Carl Griffith, who owned it, and the fact that the “Mother” starter had been around since 1847 and had ventured across the Oregon Trail, she sent a self-addressed stamped envelope to their PO Box. In turn, she received a small package of dehydrated starter, which she named “Carl,” after its current owner. It proved to be the strongest and healthiest starter she has ever used.

After moving to Spokane four years ago, Kearney baked bread to help herself cope with the feeling of isolation that came with living in a new town. With each loaf, her skills improved, and she started sharing her creations on Instagram. People started following her account, @luckyladybread, and she started sharing her bread with her new Instagram friends. When she officially opened her Lucky Lady Bread business about a year ago (a name she attributes to the fact that her birthday is St. Patrick’s Day), she gained a steady stream of customers who have also become her friends, one of whom is KXLY weekend news anchor Ariana Lake.

Once news broke of COVID-19 and the resulting shut-down of nonessential businesses in Spokane, people found themselves flocking to local grocery stores to stock up on what they felt they needed in order to get by, and, not surprisingly, pantry staples such a flour, sugar and yeast became extremely hard to find. Kearney found herself in a unique position to help out, because sourdough starter is “natural” yeast, and it is very easy to multiply and share.

Without giving it a second thought, Kearney created a post on Instagram, announcing her plan to share 1 tablespoon packets of her sourdough starter, set out in a basket in front of her gate, with a peg board detailing the simple instructions for feeding it to make bread. Originally planned as a one-Saturday-only giveaway, word of the event got out and people started messaging her inquiring about when she was going to do another one.

Soon after her first giveaway, Lake and KXLY News featured Kearney in their segment titled “Finding The Helpers,” detailing the helpful things people were contributing to the community during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her subsequent starter giveaway resulted in a long line of people, standing six feet apart, waiting along the sidewalk and up the concrete steps to the gate in front of her dainty little Tiffany-blue house. Kearney ran back and forth all day to refill her basket, pouring starter from her jars, one tablespoon at a time, until the last person got their packet. By the end of that day, the combined total number of starter packets given away over two Saturdays totaled more than 500.

The parallels of pandemic living and moving to a new town can be seen in the emotional impact each situation has on the individuals finding themselves “stuck at home” trying to find ways to make sense of their time alone. Bread-making, somehow, gives people a purpose, an escape from the mundane.
Kearney knows that feeling too well, and she sums it up perfectly in her KXLY interview with Lake: “During the pandemic, budgets are limited and folks are home with extra time. I felt it was the right moment to reach out to my community with something that would help their budgets, fill their days with mindful steps and bring warm bread to dinner tables across the region.”

People who have benefited from Kearney’s starter giveaway have been sharing their baking experiences on Facebook and Instagram, sparking a new hashtag, #luckyladybreadclub, with members coming up with their own names for their little pieces of Carl. Local mom and real estate agent, Sara Koenig, credits her sourdough starter for giving her a fun activity to do with her kids. Food blogger and photographer Noreen Hiskey, who named her starter “Clint Yeastwood,” has finally ventured into the world of baking— something that used to intimidate her because, “unlike cooking, you have to be more precise, and I hate following instructions.” (She has not bought a loaf of bread from the store since she started baking her own bread.) Wedding photographer, Ifong Chen, was bored at home because her usually busy wedding calendar was put on hold. She named her starter “Ah-Fu,” which means “true happiness” in Taiwanese. She has baked various things with her two teens, from cinnamon rolls to Taiwanese snack buns filled with pork. Lake named her starter “Sunny,” and has baked several loaves of sourdough bread, as well as herbed focaccia. I am writing this piece while waiting for my sourdough loaves to finish baking, from my starter I named “Kale” (so I can say that I put Kale in my bread). Never did I imagine that I would stare through the glass pane of my oven, for seventeen straight minutes, to watch my bread “spring” up.

Perhaps the most touching tribute so far comes from Instagrammer, @strongerthansarcoma, who writes, “This moment might have been brought to you by Covid-19, but it’s also brought to you by @luckyladybread. So crazy how this is exactly the life I pictured having here but never had because we were so busy… Y’all! I’m making tortillas and bread for my family. I’m so grateful for this time. Time to slow down and be bored but breathe in the fact that we have chickens which provide us amazing eggs. And time to research recipes for bread and tortillas… Pamper your family like in a way you’ve never done before. Get your kids involved. I kinda want to cry with gratitude for this time we’ve been given.”
The ironic similarity between a virus of unprecedented ability to destroy lives and a jar of bacterial microbes capable of filling tummies and bringing joy is their propensity to multiply exponentially. The use of sourdough dates as far back as ancient Egypt, around 1500 BC, and was probably discovered by accident. But the resulting, better tasting, better leavened bread has shaped the history of the global culinary table for centuries. We don’t exactly know how COVID-19 came to existence, but it has now devastated the lives of multitudes of people worldwide.

In the months since she starting sharing “Carl”, Kearney has given out over 800 live starters, mailed another 1400 packets of dry starter to hopeful bakers and now sells her Lucky Lady Breads and sourdough donuts weekly at the Wonder Building’s new Saturday farmers market. In a small way, Kearney hopes that sharing her sourdough starter generates a viral wave of positivity in an otherwise desolate time.

“I am a lucky lady to be able to make something from what has been my creative outlet. The term lucky reminds me to be grateful, to know that, in a lot of ways, I am a lucky lady to be doing this.”

Story and Photos by Ari Nordhagen