Posted on April 18th, 2011
Last summer, we burned our tomatoes.
It was a sorry end to an ill-conceived experiment, like most things we set out to do in our first year of living and eating in Alaska. Seven months earlier, my husband and I had fled north from the sucking unemployment vacuum of the Willamette Valley, drawn by the promise of a fresh beginning on the last frontier. Our new home in south-central Alaska was the land of the midnight sun, and a friend claimed she’d grown a cucumber the size of her thigh the summer before, there. I had visions of abundance, of zucchinis running rampant over the backyard, of melons the size of my head, of a garden like the one I’d left in Portland, filled with heritage names I couldn’t pronounce that would feed us through the summer and fill rows of Mason jars to last us through the winter.
Cheechakos, they call us, here: foolhardy newcomers unprepared for the harshness of Alaskan life. Things we didn’t prepare ourselves for: too many to name. We arrived deep in the heart of January, the second cruelest month in Alaska (April, with its unwelcome spring blizzards, is the first). The first thing I saw was our backyard in snow to my waist; the second was the rows of empty fruit and vegetable bins at the grocery store, a lonesome broccoli head waiting for its brethren to arrive on a barge from Seattle that had been delayed for days by winter storms. Where to shop? we asked our landlord, who helpfully gave us directions to Costco. I cried in the parking lot, an economy bag of frozen berries melting in the back seat next to the dog. I felt suddenly and irrevocably far away from the land of farmer’s markets through November, of a perfect Italian plum picked straight from the tree in our backyard in August, of the smug self-satisfaction of a locavore diet where farm-to-table might require only a five-mile drive, rather than a 3,000-mile sea voyage.
Still, in our first months here, we resolutely tried to cling to our Oregon ways of eating. In February, though I was starved like a ship’s mate for fresh fruit and vegetables, I resolutely ignored oranges from Florida and avocados from Mexico. We sought out restaurants that advertised locally sourced fare, but evenings out soon devolved into a game of name-the-Costco-ingredient. One weekend in May, we perked up at an advertisement for the first farmer’s market of the season and pedaled bravely through the windy streets to a church parking lot where a handful of booths offered freshly-baked bread, homemade jam, and vegetable starts — but no actual vegetables.
Undeterred, we reverted to self-reliance. We scouted out nurseries and bought our own starts, which we planted in pots since the ground was still frozen on Memorial Day. Then came a summer so rainy and cold it rivaled an Oregon winter, a summer where nothing grew, save a handful of thyme in our hopeful, I-think-I-can garden on our back deck. Week by week, we watched each plant wilt and wither away. Finally, we brought our most extravagant purchases, a trio of soggy tomato plants, inside into a south-facing sunroom, willing them to grow. Yet, even then, we just couldn’t win: like a blade of grass under a magnifying glass, the windows intensified what little sunshine the summer leaked through its clouds, and our tomatoes shriveled and browned as if they were in the Sahara. One sad dinner in August, we ate the sole fruit of our efforts in two small bites, then put the plants back outside to rot.
It might have been that moment when I realized that, in Alaska, I had to re-learn how to eat. If you want to eat cheaply but wonderfully here, you eat just what the land can provide, no more. Tomatoes don’t easily grow here, nor do peppers. Forget about fruit trees or orchards. Concentrate, instead, on the basics: like Ireland and Russia before us, Alaskan farming relies on the simplicity of the root vegetable, that cold-weather survivalist. A pile of potatoes grown just thirty miles north in the Mat-Su Valley accumulates week by week on our kitchen counter, sprouting green little eyes faster than we can cook them into soups and stews and curries. One of the vegetable bins in our refrigerator broke under the weight of stockpiled carrots, so sweet we eat them unpeeled with the taste of Matanuska River silt on our tongues. And lettuce, the surprising stalwart of the sunny, cool summer nights here, blossoms in every home garden.
But the most flavorful things we eat in Alaska can’t be found on farms or in stores. Tiny, tangy blueberries that taste like small cloudbursts, eaten straight from hand to mouth off the calf-high bushes that blanket the lower slopes of the mountains in late summer. Tart and hardy stalwarts, like low-bush cranberries and crabapples, that we stew into jams to be eaten on homemade bread on long winter nights, when we need a memory of what the sun feels like in our eyes. Tightly-curled fiddlehead ferns, plucked in spring from in-between the trees of Alaska’s endless birch woods. Alaskan silver salmon, fresh out of a dip-net, flash-frozen and then passed out to all the neighbors. Caribou, reindeer and moose sausage, made by hand by my most petite female friend, who treks each fall up to the Alaska Range to shoot a winter’s worth of meat.
Moreover, what food the land gives us up here is a gift meant to be shared. The first time I was offered five pounds of fish, I waved it away, thinking the gifter was just being polite. The second time it happened, via a late evening knock on the door and a neighbor’s teenage son, I was told I couldn’t say no, so I took the three freezer bags full of halibut and sauteed a fillet that night in browned butter and a squeeze of lemon juice. My husband and I nearly wept at the first bite: moist, flaky, and still tasting of ocean–as sublime a piece of fish as I’ve ever eaten. In return, I baked my neighbors an apple pie with a soggy crust, handed out with the tag line, “I can’t fish, but I can bake!” They took it, smiling, but puzzled. Because in Alaska, as I know now, you give food without the expectation of receiving anything in return. Food taken from the land is shared out of abundance and necessity, out of the pride in the catch and the tradition of self-reliance that put it on the table.
I’m an Alaskan now, a state of being which dictates that I must aspire to the sourdough. There’s a double meaning to this term. On the literal side of things, every Alaskan worth her salt nurtures a sourdough starter, which can survive, dormant, in even the coldest bush cabin in December. Alaskan sourdough is not as quick on the tongue as its San Francisco cousin; it’s a mild thing, added for the slight tang of freshness and loftiness it gives to pancakes, biscuits and breads. Sourdough starters here are passed along through generations, from mother to son to daughter, and every roadhouse on a quiet bend of highway will tell you that their pancakes were made with the oldest sourdough starter in the state. And so sourdough means something else here, too: it’s used to describe something, or someone, who’s weathered their share of Alaska winters, who is wise to the ways of the demands the land makes on us in order to survive; a person who arrives in this strange, beautiful, mountainous land with the intention of staying just a few months and ends up, like most everyone does, staying for years and years.
Indeed, sometimes it’s hard to think about leaving Alaska, now that the taste of it is in my mouth. And what is that taste, exactly? Alaska tastes like the lemony tips of spruce trees, nibbled in spring. It tastes like akutaq, the “ice cream” of the Arctic, made with whipped seal oil and frozen berries. It tastes like salmon smoked on cedar, like cracked king crab dipped in butter and salt, like fresh snow eaten from a gloved palm on a long ski day. It tastes like what eating, in its purest and simplest form, should taste like.