Alaska is known for its breathtaking beauty. It’s America’s last frontier – vast and wild. Winters can be incredibly harsh while the summers, with their never-ending sunshine, are fleeting. Alaska is home to opportunities and experiences that don’t exist in many other places. This is unmistakably evident in the food culture and how residents eat.
Throughout the state, Alaskans rely heavily on a mix of non-perishable factory foods and local bounty that’s hunted, caught or gathered. Many Alaskans live “off the grid” meaning there is no road system to get to their homes which can make the availability of store-bought food a challenge – either logistically or financially.
It’s not unheard of for grocery items to be more than three times the cost of what you would find in a “Lower 48” city within the contiguous United States. In Utquiagvik, Alaska’s northernmost city, a gallon of milk is $9.49 while a head of iceberg lettuce will cost about $5.99. Those two items alone will set a shopper back nearly $16 while the same items retail for about $5 total in Seattle, Washington. In many rural villages, children drink more soda pop and sugary beverages than water or milk because of its ease of access and affordability.
Up north, there are a number of shelf-stable staples found in just about any home, including pilot bread, Spam, Tang, Crisco, macaroni and cheese, and powdered milk. In fact, Sailor Boy Pilot Bread, a tough, salt-less cracker, sells 98 percent of its product in Alaska.
Alaska grocery retailers must quickly learn the traditional culinary expectations or face the ramifications. A manager of one of the state’s only warehouse clubs likely will never forget what he described as a near-disaster when he stocked the facility with farmed salmon.
Residents are recognized for their independence but they also must be interdependent on the animals and the land to flourish. For many residents, subsistence - living off of the land - is more than how traditions are handed down, it’s their way of life. Alaskans eat more wild salmon per capita than do people anywhere else in the world.
Alaska’s growing season is short. However, long, sun-filled days create thriving conditions for edible plants, mushrooms and certain cold-weather crops. Common favorites include blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns, nettles and leafy greens such as cabbage.
Residents have been able to flourish for thousands of years through their connection to the land. The landscape shapes the subsistence culture, whether it’s harvesting Sitka black-tailed deer in the coastal rainforest or caribou in the tundra, hunting waterfowl in the wetlands or searching for bowhead whales in the sea ice.
In Alaska’s coastal villages, about 50 whales are subsistence-harvested each year. That amounts to 600-1,000 tons of food which make up at least half of a community’s diet for the whole year. However, for Alaska Natives, what has always been a welcome bounty is now threatened by climate change. Thinning sea ice is making it harder, and sometimes impossible, to pull up whales which puts their main source of food in jeopardy.
In rural communities, whale, moose, caribou or other animal meat is often stored in ice cellars, which are underground “freezers” carved into permafrost – ground that stays frozen throughout the year. Rising temperatures are thawing many of the structures, causing flooding, collapse and food spoilage. The photos below show ice cellars in rural Alaska taken by Katie Orlinsky. The first is a 2018 example as the cellar should look. The second, taken in 2014 shows a melted and flooded cellar.
Food security is a challenge across the state. Cost, hunger and logistics are the invisible aspect of food culture in the last frontier. In some communities, generator failure due to delayed maintenance or disruptions to the fuel supply have led to lengthy power outages that cause massive reserves of hunted meat to spoil and leave residents in need of emergency food relief.
Even with needed electricity, it’s estimated 20 percent of children live in homes where there may not be enough food. Alaska is the only state where federal food subsidies, such as SNAP, allow for the purchase of tools to procure food -- items such as hooks, nets, fishing line, ice augers and more.
The state’s remote and rugged terrain has attracted people from around the world seeking a unique way of life. In Anchorage, the state’s largest city with 295,000 residents, the schools are among the most diverse in the nation with more than 100 languages spoken. This, too, is reflected in the food culture.
Whether it’s whale meat coated in Shake n’ Bake, moose Ragu cooking on the stove or kimchi burritos served at a local restaurant, just about anything can be on the dinner menu. Meals are diverse and creative to meet the availability of food and the palate of residents. It’s not rare to find a local recipe for a cake made with no eggs, milk or butter, or even a Spam birthday cake.
How food is produced, preserved and shared within Alaska communities is as unique as the ecosystem in which residents have thrived for thousands of years. Those traditions, paired with imported shelf-stable staples, make the Alaska culinary scene alive with the spirit of experimentation and adaptation.
Food PR & Communications president Mary Deming Barber lived in Alaska for 24 years and wanted to share the story of Alaska’s food culture with her readers. She was inspired by the Anchorage Museum’s exhibit, What Why How We Eat, to ask Heidi to write this post.
About Heidi Embley
Heidi Embley started her professional career sharing stories of others and now uses the skills she’s honed over the past 18 years to help others effectively share their stories. She owns her own PR business and volunteers her time with several local nonprofit groups, mostly supporting them from inside with the heat turned up in winter months. Heidi graduated from high school in Anchorage and earned a degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. Go Ducks! She is married and has two kids who keep life fast-paced and full of laughs.
Watch this slide show to learn more about eating in Alaska. Photos: Nearly $10/gallon milk in Utquiagvik; a seal cookbook from the Shismaref Day School; examples of typical outdoor gear used by hunters and fishers; cold weather seeds; wild edible plants.