My family members are pet lovers.
It was my dad's mission to make sure that any hungry stray cat or dog living within a three-block radius of our house in Carbon was fed.
"It's not their fault they can't use a can opener," he'd tell my mother when she complained about the pet food bill.
My grandparents were no different.
Papa Lashbrook was known to bring home wayward strays and find them homes. Grandma Iva complained that he went to work with a lunch box once and came home with three tiny kittens snuggled inside of it.
We loved every animal that came into our lives. It was difficult at times because it can be tough to take care of something you know you have to give up.
Dad's garage often became a pet hospital when an animal was in need of medical attention. Looking back to those days now, it is surprising how many animals he saved.
I would watch the way he would comfort an animal in pain, often nursing then back from the brink of death. It was hard on him, but each time he would return the pet to their grateful owners or find it a good home.
My mother, who would be the substitute nursemaid to animals while he was at work, always complained of "allergies" when one left the garage.
A few times an animal couldn't be saved no matter how hard he tried. It was in those moments that he taught me one of the greatest truths of life.
"Animals show love without expectations, which is a pure love, a gift," he said. "We only had this gift from God for a little while and it was our responsibility to care for them. If we can save them then we give them a new life and a new home. If we can't, then we show them love until they become a gift to God."
I understood at a very early age that all of life, whether good or bad, is a gift.
Gifts are to be shared, as is love.
A perfect gift is one that allows you to share a gift that can be shared over and over again with someone else.
One special baking tradition, known to many veteran bakers as raising a "kitchen pet," let's you do just that. Sharing Sourdough Starter is a wonderful gift of love from your kitchen to someone else's kitchen, and so on.
Raising a batch of Sourdough Starter can be a difficult and challenging experience, but very rewarding.
I met my grandmother's "kitchen pet," which was named Charlie 3, when I was 10. He lived in a jar with his nametag on it in on the back shelf of the refrigerator, and she was very proud of him.
"I named it because it's alive," she explained when I asked why a 2-year old jar of goop required so much attention. "You have to feed Charlie 3 and pay attention to him exactly when he needs it or I'll have to start all over again with Charlie 4."
Shortly before her death in 1987, I opened the refrigerator to find Charlie 12 sitting in the back just waiting to be turned into warm bread. I don't think the other Charlies died, I think she gave them away.
Please remember to follow instructions for my grandmother's simple version of starter to the letter, so you are not growing a biohazard you will regret. It is a long process, four days to be exact, that deserves your full attention and commitment.
Choose a time you know you are going to be available to perform the tasks necessary to keep your "pet" alive. You will have to pay attention to your new pet and feed and water it at 12-hour intervals.
My kids go to school every morning at 8 a.m., so I started my first Charlie on a Monday morning.
You will need a large clean glass jar with a plastic lid to allow your pet to breathe a little bit. If you can't find one, choose a large pickle jar and cover the top with plastic wrap and a rubber band during storage. You will also need a clean towel and a rubber band.
To begin, measure and put into the jar 2 cups of all-purpose four and 1 teaspoon of active dry yeast. Mix together with a wooden spoon before pouring the 2 cups of hot water into the jar. Stir until well-mixed, cover with the towel and put rubber band around the top of the towel and jar.
Allow the mixture to set at room temperature in an out-of-the-way place for 24 hours.
Stir the mixture and let set another 12 hours at room temperature before stirring again.
Stir in a cup of all-purpose four and 1 cup of lukewarm water until well blended. Let set for 24 hours.
The starter, which smells like a really savory and rich beer, is ready for making bread. If you do not plan on baking at this time, move your pet to its new home in the refrigerator.
KITCHEN PET MAINTENANCE
Stir the mixture twice a week.
For each cup of starter removed from the jar, stir in one cup of flour and one cup of lukewarm water.
If you don't use the mix for two or more weeks, take your pet out of its home. Remove one cup of the mixture and dispose of it. (But instead of throwing it away, why not share it with a friend using a clean glass jar with a plastic lid for storage, and include the care instructions). Stir in one cup each of flour and lukewarm water then allow your pet to "warm up" by sitting on the counter overnight (at least 12 hours) before returning it to the refrigerator.
NEXT WEEK: You kitchen pet goes to work!