The hardy Alaskan homemaker can “depend on the bracing, exhilarating outdoor life to whet the appetite for plain, wholesome food” – which, in the depths of winter, can mean canned or frozen provisions such as tomatoes, beans, sauerkraut, salmon and moose meat.
So pronounces “For Wilderness Wives,” an early 1950s booklet from the University of Alaska’s Cooperative Extension Service. It was distributed to women like my mom, a new bride in 1954 and a new resident of the exotic and somewhat foreboding interior of what was then the Alaska Territory and its Army base, Fort Greely.
I found the mimeographed pamphlet, nestled among various cookbooks, while cleaning out my parents’ house in Wisconsin. Its vanilla-hued cover shows a sketch of a cozy cabin banked with snow. My mom’s copy also bears a brown smudge, probably chocolate. She’d have braved a blizzard for the stuff.
A few things have changed since the bulletin’s publication, including statehood in 1959 and an evolution in gender norms (the title wouldn’t fly today). Alaska’s population has grown from around 129,000 to over 731,000, scattered in a state more than twice the size of Texas.
But there’s still an awful lot of wilderness, and the Alaskan spirit of adventure, fortitude and self-reliance remains very much intact. A keen interest in subsistence living – combined with a short growing season, few roads and a vast and challenging terrain – keeps the extension service focused on teaching food preservation.
“Our pioneers are back, but they’re a much younger population, people living off the land and off the grid,” says Roxie Rodgers Dinstel, a Fairbanks-based home economist for the extension service. She says they can use guidance on foraging, freezing, drying and canning.
Much of the information in “For Wilderness Wives” remains relevant. The 28-page guide has plenty of tips: on nutrition; on choosing dried foods such as beans, peas and cereals; on treating fresh water to make it safe for drinking (1 to 2 teaspoons of chlorine bleach to 50 gallons of water, letting it stand for at least 15 minutes). It also has a dozen or so basic recipes for soup, ragout, hot cakes, rice – ingredient lists, really, with the barest of instructions.
“There’s a section here on blowfly control … that’s exactly what we do now,” Dinstel says. The booklet suggests hunters keep flies from landing on warm, fresh meat by covering it with cheesecloth, sprinkling it with black pepper or “glazing meat surface with blood collected in body cavity for this purpose. The blood dries rapidly to leave a hard crust which the blowfly cannot penetrate.”
Dinstel says she and other extension staffers have updated parts of “For Wilderness Wives” over time, expanding details and moving the information online “for people who can’t come to our classes.”
“We also left a lot of [information] by the wayside,” she continues. For instance, the extension dropped the instructions for making soap, which called for borax, lye and “clean fat.” (“Reindeer fat is hard like tallow,” the old bulletin reads. “Seal oil is soft and should be combined with hard fat.”)
“It’s very easy to hurt yourself when you’re dealing with lye,” Dinstel says.
In the old bulletin, author Lydia Fohn-Hanson urges eating and putting up Alaska’s native berries and wild greens in warm weather, “because they are often rich in ascorbic acid. Sourdock, fireweed shoots, willow greens, scurvy grass, lambs-quarters, rose hips, currants, blueberries and cloud berries are some of the wild plant sources of vitamin C.”
To that list, Dinstel adds dandelion greens, chickweed, wildfire weed, even seaweed. “One of our agents did a class on canning kelp,” she says.
Today, almost anything available in the Lower 48 can be found in Alaska’s larger “hub” communities. Even in midwinter, Fairbanks’ Co-op Market Grocery & Deli has “a big selection of organics from A to Z – asparagus to zucchini,” says Brad St. Pierre, its produce manager. Such items, almost entirely imported from the Lower 48 at this time of year, supplement the locally grown goods – some organic – in which the co-op specializes. St. Pierre says he can arrange to deliver co-op foods by air freight for an extra dollar a pound. Earlier this month, potatoes at the co-op cost $1.69 a pound and kale – available in three varieties – started at $2.49.
Food often costs more in Alaska to begin with, says Bret Luick, who runs the extension service’s quarterly survey of market prices. Transporting food into “the bush” – any place inaccessible by road – can get costly. “And the choice of food is usually dismal in more remote areas,” he adds.
“It’s a huge piece of the local lifestyle to grow or gather your own or buy locally,” St. Pierre says. “A lot of people have fruit cellars and freezers. And most people in the bush are going to harvest their own protein.” In other words, they hunt – at this time of year, for birds such as ptarmigan and grouse, or big game such as caribou and moose. “If you get a moose, you have meat for a year,” St. Pierre says. A 1,600-pound bull moose can yield 500 pounds of meat.
Food preservation in Alaska is different from what Dinstel experienced while growing up on a Texas ranch, she says. “We canned green beans and tomatoes,” she says of her life in the Lone Star State. “Up here, I can a lot of fish and meat. I do a lot of moose canning. … The process of pressure canning cooks the meat. It’s a convenience food,” she says. (Never mind the labor – the hunting, gutting and cutting – of getting it into the jar.)
Some of Dinstel’s canning takes place on the tailgate of her pickup truck. “When my family fishes, we can a lot of times on the river bank,” she says. “The first thing I do is break down a cardboard box, and that becomes my cutting board.” She has a camp stove for processing, she says, noting her technique appears on an extension DVD.
“Part of the adventure of pioneering is to improvise and make the best of what you have,” Fohn-Hansen wrote in the 1950s guide. “To be miles from a market stimulates inventiveness and resourcefulness.”
My mom, once resettled in Wisconsin, was sort of resourceful in the semi-wilderness of family camping trips: She brought along Tang for us to drink at breakfast. She didn’t do much food preservation beyond freezing fish and game. But she preserved her copy of “For Wilderness Wives” as a souvenir of her Alaska years.
Cracker crumbs form a delectable crust on these salmon patties. This recipe has been adapted from the Portland (Ore.) Fire & Rescue service, which offers a selection of "firehouse" favorites online.
- 1 can (14.75 ounces) pink boneless, skinless salmon*
- 1 can (5 ounces) boneless, skinless salmon*
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 small onion, minced
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- 3/4 cup cracker crumbs (divided)
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 1 to 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- ¼ teaspoon dried dill
- 3 tablespoons butter, oil or combination
- Fresh lemon slices
Drain the salmon, reserving 3 tablespoons of the liquid. In a medium bowl, flake the meat with a fork.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, melt butter. Add onion and garlic; reduce heat, partially cover with lid or tented foil and cook until soft, 5 to 7 minutes minutes.
Add onion mixture to the salmon. Stir in reserved salmon liquid, half of the cracker crumbs, eggs, parsley, mustard and dill. Mix until well blended. Shape into 6 to 8 patties of uniform thickness.
Pour remaining cracker crumbs into shallow bowl or plate. Coat salmon patties with remaining crumbs. Place on plate covered with plastic wrap. Refrigerate 20 to 30 minutes or until chilled.
When ready to eat, heat butter in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add salmon patties (do in 2 batches if necessary to avoid crowding). Cook until browned, about 4 to 6 minutes on first side; carefully flip patties with a spatula and brown on the other side.
Serve with fresh lemon slices.
* If desired, substitute 2 cups of fresh, cooked salmon for the canned fish.
The moose and caribou that roam Alaska's wilderness serve as a protein source for some residents. The animals' meat yields a flavorful stew, especially when prepared with beer, as in this recipe from Ken Vaughn, a fan of Alaskan Amber from Alaskan Brewing Co. in Juneau. The stew is thickened with barley flour, available from natural-foods markets, select supermarkets and online.
- 1/4 pound bacon, chopped into small pieces
- 4 tablespoons barley flour (divided)
- 1 1/2 pounds moose, venison or beef stew meat
- 1 large onion, coarsely chopped
- 1/2 small head cabbage, finely chopped
- 2 bottles (12 ounces each) amber or lager beer
- 1 1/2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1-inch chunks
- 1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
- 1 large rutabaga, peeled and diced into 1-inch cubes
- 1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
- 1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
- Salt, to taste
In a large Dutch oven or similar pan with a tight-fitting lid, cook the bacon until it is just starting to crisp.
Shake the stew meat with 2 tablespoons of the flour, and add to the bacon and drippings. Brown the meat on all sides. Add the chopped onions and cabbage. Cook until the onions have softened.
Add the beer and 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 1 1/2 hours until meat is tender, but not falling apart.
Add potatoes, carrots, rutabaga and parsley. Cook until the carrots are just barely soft. Add the remaining barley flour (mixed with a few tablespoons of water). Stir gently and adjust the seasonings to taste. Serve immediately.
Moose and other wild game yield lean meat. If you're using beef marbled with fat, you may want to skip the bacon.
Yeast makes these hotcakes tender and light. Top with syrup, powdered sugar or preserves. Recipes for buckwheat cakes and "sirup," as it's called in the original recipe, appear in "For Wilderness Wives," an early 1950s booklet from the University of Alaska’s Cooperative Extension Service.
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 2 cups light or dark brown sugar
- 2 cups water
- 1/2-1 teaspoon maple or other flavoring, if desired
- 2 cups buckwheat flour*
- 1 cup flour
- 2 1/2 cups water (divided)
- 1 package (1/4 ounce) dry yeast (2-3 teaspoons)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- Vegetable oil for frying
For syrup, in a large, heavy saucepan over high heat, combine sugars and water, stirring to combine. Cook until mixture has thickened slightly, at least 10 minutes. Stir frequently. When syrup has reached desired consistency, remove from heat. Stir in maple flavoring or other desired flavoring. Let cool slightly.
In a mixing bowl, combine flours, 2 cups of the water, the yeast and salt for hotcakes. Whisk to make batter. Cover bowl and set in warm place overnight or until mixture becomes frothy.
In small bowl, combine the baking soda with the remaining 1/2 cup of the water. Stir to blend.
In heavy skillet over medium heat, place 2 to 3 teaspoons of oil for frying. Pour enough batter to form pancakes roughly 3 inches in diameter. Do not crowd the pan. When edges begin to brown, in 2 to 3 minutes, flip cakes and fry remaining side until golden brown.
Transfer cakes to a plate. Serve with syrup or other desired topping.
*Buckwheat flour is available at natural-foods markets, select supermarkets and online.