501 Life Magazine | Cooks in the 501: The bread lady
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Cooks in the 501: The bread lady

story and photo by Janna Virden

For many in the Morrilton First United Methodist Church and those lucky enough to get a loaf at a bake sale, a slice of Bea Thompson’s bread is a little slice of heaven. It is soft and slightly sweet, and when hot and buttered, absolutely heavenly. 

Most people don’t just eat a slice, but settle on eating two or three if other people aren’t looking and they think they can get away with being a little gluttonous. Bea, 94, affectionately known to many as “The Bread Lady,” has been making her famous sourdough bread since 1990 when she got a start from good friend Jean Lynch.

“I’ve never lost my starter and have given it to dozens of people,” she said.

Bea describes her 23-year-old starter as a “pet,” which needs care and attention. She keeps it in a gallon container in her fridge and stirs and feeds it at least once a week. In fact, if she is to be gone for any length of time, her family comes over to make sure that the sourdough starter gets a stir and a little bite to eat if needed.  

Sourdough starter is a living culture. If neglected, it can die. It is made from yeast, which is a living fungus found in nature and good bacteria (lactobacillus), plus some water and flour. When combined, these ingredients make a natural leaven and a very good bread. Sourdough bread can be traced back to ancient Egypt, but is now made all over the world.

Bea said she really doesn’t know how many loaves of bread she bakes in a year. She supplies her church with a loaf of bread every Sunday to be given to visitors and two for communion Sundays.

“Traditionally, the bread and wine offering comes from the people, and when the bread is lovingly made by someone’s own hands, this makes the communion experience special,” said the Rev. Todd-Paul Taulbee of FUMC Morrilton.

For years, Bea has also supplied the church with enough loaves of bread to feed the congregation at potluck meals. Not only does she supply her church, but she also makes enough loaves of bread to be sold at the local hospital auxiliary bake sale. Bea has been a member of the St. Vincent Morrilton Ladies Auxiliary for 27 years and makes more than 30 loaves of bread to help raise funds for the hospital. She also gives away bread on a regular basis to family and friends.

“It pleases me,” she said. “I enjoy giving it away. I enjoy the look on people’s faces when they get a loaf of homemade bread.”

Bea’s Bread

Bea wasn’t sure how to make a starter because hers started 23 years ago. Recipes for starters can be found in most cookbooks or online. This is how she feeds her starter to keep it going.

Feed the starter:

1 cup starter
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 cup flour
3 tablespoons of potato flakes

Mix the starter with the remaining ingredients and put in a bowl or container with a lid that has a hole in it. Leave the mixture out of the refrigerator for at least eight hours. The starter should be fed once a week, but stirred everyday. Put it back in the refrigerator after feeding.

To make the bread:

1 cup starter (from the refrigerator)
1/2 cup oil
1 1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
6 cups of flour

Mix the liquid ingredients and then add the dry ingredients to the mixture. Knead until smooth. The dough can be put in a large bowl and covered with a towel and left to rise until doubled (Bea said she lets hers rise all day). Take the dough and knead it once more. Next, form into loaves and let them rise all night. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes. This will make three loaves of bread. Bea said when she takes her loaves of bread out of the oven, she butters the top of the loaves just to make them taste better. She said the loaves can be wrapped in aluminum foil and placed in a freezer bag and frozen if needed.