- Julia O'Malley ©2018 The New York Times
This time of year, when the sun doesn’t edge over the mountains until midmorning and starts to sink only a few hours later, this city feels a little like one big, icy strip-mall parking lot with a tremendous mountain view. It’s so cold that the steering wheel hurts to touch. Life plays out under streetlight instead of daylight, and the rest of the world seems twice as far away as it did when the leaves were green.
Talk to anybody and the conversation veers into two intertwined ideations: vacation and food.
Alaskans are lusting after fresh fruits and vegetables right now, fantasizing about the pepper and snap of an arugula stem and the sweet acid of a mango. They crave simple things that shoppers in the Lower 48 — where grocery stores are restocked daily with produce whisked in from greenhouses and farms — can get their hands on with just a short drive or a swipe on an app.
Even in this cosmopolitan city of 350,000, people who like to cook spend the moonlit mornings before work scrolling through Instagram pictures of faraway blood oranges and heirloom tomatoes as if they’re stalking crushes.
For Carlyle Watt, the executive chef and head baker at Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop, it’s a ripe pear.
“It would be a D’Anjou or a Bosc, something run-of-the-mill,” he said on a recent afternoon as snowflakes feathered down outside the bakery window. “I would touch it and it would just kind of yield to my thumb, and then I would take a bite of it right there in the store and I would have to make a little slurping sound, so not all the juice would run down my chin, but some would.”
A feeling of deprivation is part of the psychological cycle of life in Alaska. In summertime, farmers’ market tables overflow with greens, and garden zucchinis swell to the size of small dogs in the all-night light. But now is the season of austerity and anticipation. Though each day brings a few more minutes of light, the root-cellar stock has dwindled down to last summer’s dry-skinned beets, gnarled carrots and potatoes with eyes. All those blocks of frozen sockeye in the chest freezer don’t have the same appeal that they did in November.
The grocery store isn’t much relief. About 95 percent of all the food Alaskans eat comes from somewhere else, according to the Alaska Food Policy Council. The bulk of it travels by highway to Seattle, then floats roughly 1,600 miles north by sea, a trip that can take a week inside a dark container.
By the time they get here, tomatoes have become ghosts, their flesh pinkish and watery. Avocados are hard but rotten around the pit. Boxed, prewashed lettuces often arrive with an odor of decay. But fresh food is still expensive, and there isn’t always enough — especially on Sunday afternoons, when whole swaths of the produce section are frequently bare.
Fruit and vegetables come to one of Alaska’s largest grocers, Fred Meyer, in just two or three weekly shipments, said Steve Lacy, the food safety manager. The challenge of keeping food fresh and costs down, and dealing with unexpected delays caused by weather or shipping breakdowns forces grocers to troubleshoot constantly, he said.
Between shipments, stores can’t always keep up with the demand. “Out of stocks,” the grocery business term for empty shelves, are a fact of life. The farther from Anchorage shoppers are, the more often they encounter them. “There’s just no way around it,” Lacy said.
But resourceful Alaskans find a way. Pineapples peek out of carry-on luggage. Meyer lemons arrive from relatives by FedEx. An Alaskan might forgo a latte to pay $5 for a single perfect Sumo mandarin orange, flown in by New Sagaya, the city’s largest gourmet market.
Leah Glasscock-Sanders, a recess attendant at a charter school in Wasilla, an Anchorage suburb, always plans her shopping in the early mornings to get the best selection. Even so, she sometimes can’t find what she needs.
“It’s cleaned out,” she said. “There might be five bell peppers to choose from when I get there, and they would all be of a quality I wouldn’t purchase.”
All of this deprivation can lead to unusual relationships. Maybe there’s a “peach guy” you meet in a parking lot, and you trade $70 in cash for a case of what’s in his trunk. Or, if you live way up north, you may plead on Facebook for someone, anyone, to tuck an avocado into a pocket when he gets on a bush plane to your village. And you may think about it for days until it arrives, as you watch Giada and the Barefoot Contessa on cable.
And then, after you thank whoever brought you the avocado with some caribou meat from your freezer, you may cut it in half and share it with your best friend, keeping it a secret from the children.
It was about three years ago when Kim Sunée, a memoirist and cookbook author, entered into an inventory-related texting relationship with some supermarket produce workers. Soon she was bringing the green-aproned men a quiche or a pan of lemon-raspberry rolls with cream cheese frosting. Now a little buzz in her pocket tells her when the store has a clutch of fresh organic figs, or white asparagus or pea shoots or passion fruit.
“You have to cultivate these relationships when you are living in a place like this,” she said.
Sunée still spends good money on mail order (ask her about shipping pastrami-cured salmon and bagels) from the New York deli Russ & Daughters. Once, she carried a leg of prosciutto di Parma all the way from Italy.
“Let’s just say I’ve smuggled back some things,” she said.
Maya Wilson moved to Nikiski, south of Anchorage, from California in 2011 to help pastor a church. The grocery store was more than an hour away, and she started a blog, Alaska From Scratch, tapping into her feelings of isolation, and making recipes for things she craved but couldn’t easily find, like pumpkin spice coffee creamer and pillowy Lofthouse sugar cookies.
Her blog audience grew every day, and her Instagram feed now has more than 54,000 followers. “The Alaska From Scratch Cookbook” is due out this week.
Isolation stokes her imagination, she said; cravings motivate her. They make Alaska a perfect laboratory for writing recipes. No pine nuts? Use pistachios. No lemons? Try oranges.
“I cannot tell you how many times I envisioned a recipe and I went to the store and I couldn’t find the ingredients,” Wilson said. “I was so spoiled in California. Alaska has made me such a much more self-sufficient human being.”
It used to be worse. Maybe 50 years ago, most winter vegetables and fruit came frozen or in a can. Many Anchorage children first encountered cherries, for example, in canned fruit cocktail, waxy and pink.
Allison Warden, an artist and rapper who lives in Anchorage, is Inupiaq, with roots in the far-north village of Kaktovik. She lives with her mother, and they share a freezer full of wild foods: caribou, walrus, seal, whitefish, duck, seal liver and whale, mostly supplied by family.
When money is tight in winter, Warden finds herself eating traditional proteins and rice, but her fantasies are full of tropical fruit. She still remembers eating her first mango, when she was 28, on a trip to New York.
“It was the most amazing thing ever that I never thought I could ever taste,” she said.
Kate Consenstein, who owns a communications business in Anchorage, believes in eating seasonally, but then something comes over her when she glimpses an exotic fruit among the waxy apples and leathery oranges in Safeway, like a four-leaf clover in the grass.
“When you live in Alaska and, like, a dragon fruit waves at you from a stack at the grocery store, I run at it,” she said. “I’m moved by its gravitational pull. I want that sweet brightness. I want it in my mouth. Then I get to the register and it’s 20 freaking dollars. And I am like, so be it.”
Watt, the chef at Fire Island bakery, is originally from South Carolina. He decided years ago to lean into Alaska’s extremes, rather than resist them. His approach to winter cooking is to embrace the austerity and master what’s left in the root cellar and freezer. “You learn what potato to get in order to get that perfect crispy exterior and the buttery interior,” he said. “You figure out that roasting a whole carrot until it turns black is delicious.”
Alaska summers, short and lush, are electric, the long days packed with activity. In winter, he said, you get to catch your breath and revel in the slowness. You study the incremental return of the light, enjoy anticipation, get drunk on spring when it comes. Once you understand how all that works, you can call yourself Alaskan.
“This is your penance,” he said. “You get through it. Then you’re rewarded, slowly at first with a few radishes and maybe a little bit of greens, and later with, like, everything. You are paying your dues in order to be a local in the summertime.”
Spicy Chorizo and Red Lentil Soup with Kale
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Time: 45 minutes
4 links fresh (uncured) Mexican-style chorizo, casings removed (1 pound)
2 tightly packed cups chopped kale
1 medium onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
2 stalks celery, sliced 1/4-inch thick
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, more to taste
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 quarts low-sodium chicken broth
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, with juice
1 cup red lentils
Crusty bread, for serving
1. Set a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the chorizo and cook, breaking the sausage into small pieces and stirring occasionally, until the chorizo is browned, about 8 minutes.
2. Add the kale, onion, carrots, celery and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are just starting to become tender, about 5 minutes. You should hear a steady sizzle from the pot; adjust the heat as needed. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Add the chicken broth, tomatoes and lentils, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and gently simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes, or until the lentils are soft.
4. When ready to serve, taste and adjust the seasonings. Serve hot with crusty bread. Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 7 days.