When we started thinking about the food challenge in February, it was amazing how many things we assumed we could not get or grow in Alaska that it turns out are readily available. I (Cathy) attended a weekend intensive course on Alaska native plants, and those things that we had thought of as weeds suddenly filled a whole new niche. When I walked out into my front yard on the Monday after the class, I saw salad, greens on par with asparagus or spinach, roots that later in the year could provide winter root vegetables, as well as a pharmacopia of medicinals. The spiciness and flavor of many of the plants (which we had used to make our meal on the final day of the intensive) do not replace, but supplement, the spices we thought we needed to import. I see a summer of foraging ahead if we really want to replace the imported fruits and vegetables we usually buy all winter.
This is the pledge that Randy and I came up with for this year of eating locally:
We pledge to:
Eat Alaskan-grown food to the greatest extent possible for one year beginning June 21, 2011.
Increase our knowledge of native Alaskan plants to increase the amount of food acquired through foraging.
Learn to replace foods regularly purchased from outside by identifying foods in Alaska that comprise a viable substitute.
Learn the nutritional composition of these local food to verify the diet is healthy and sustainable.
Exceptions include condiments, herbs and spices not available in Alaska, coffee, maple syrup, oils (when we can’t use local butter as a replacement) and sugar (where we can’t use local honey as a replacement).
Wow, are we spoiled. After actually logging what we eat for the food challenge I’m still comfortable that we eat pretty local. Day one was 95% local, day 2 about 80% and so on, well above the 70% or so we expect for the long haul. The spoiled part come when I look at the non Alaskan ingredients and how far they’ve come. Rice from California, sugar from South America, pine nuts from China, olive oil and balsamic vinegar from Italy and a raft of spices from the four corners of the globe. As I look at the variety of food in our life I am thankful, and awe inspired by it’s diversity, but I am also aware of the huge amounts of energy used to transport these goods and the stunning amount of resources that are consumed in the packaging alone. I began eating as locally as possible because fresh tastes best, but as I think and learn more, I realize how important it is to eat local as much as possible so we can save those resources used to ship up cheap carrots and potatoes that aren’t very good, and use them for the important stuff like cumin and fine olive oil.
Looking at all the things we might need to do without during the Alaska Food Challenge, Randy and I decided to plant some experimental crops. We were able to get a community garden plot out on Elmendorf Air Force Base, and planted hulless oats and wheat along with our usual potatoes and parsnips. If we’re lucky on weather, we’ll have oatmeal for the winter! Wheat is available locally, but we decided to try it, since we had the space, and the wheat.
Another thing we use all winter are canned and dried peas and beans. We found a pea that is made to be grown and dried on the vine that is supposedly suitable for Alaska, so planted 4 15 foot rows. Ed Hume seeds has a similar type of bean with a 63-day growing season, so we’re trying them, germinating them in large black pots in the warm garage, and leaving them in the pots for growing up the garden fence. We are hoping the black pots will absorb heat and help the beans along, and will also be able to cover them in plastic, using the fence for support, if things get too cold and wet.
Our last experiment of the growing season is asparagus. I was inspired in part by Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, but would never have thought to try it if I hadn’t found some asparagus plants at Lowes that claim to be hardy to -30 F. We’ll see what happens, but it will be a year or two before we get anything from the planting.
Matt stands at the pantry, staring at the remnants of store-bought food that remain. ”It’s going to be a cold reality once this all runs out.”
“Yeah, it will be different,” I agree. But inside, I can’t wait until it is all gone. Read more….
It’s one hour before the start of the kick-off party, and I can’t go into my garden to harvest greens for the frittata because a news crew is in there broadcasting live about our event. So I help Matt set up some tables as the sky threatens to rain. Costco was out of EZ-up tents, so we are crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. Luckily the sprinkles never materialize and the news crew retreats temporarily to their mothership van. They will never notice a few missing spinach leaves…
Matt helps finish the frittata and light the grill for the salmon as people begin to arrive. Everyone is excited about what they brought to share, and the tables begin to overflow with Alaskan bounty. We begin by letting everyone explain what they brought. The dishes are as creative as they are varied. Root cellar carrot casserole, dandelion coffee, fettucine with smoked salmon and fresh tomatoes, deviled eggs, rhubarb pudding cake sweetened with honey, wheatberry salad, popped barley, and more. My mouth is salivating as each dish is lovingly described, where the cook obtained the ingredients, and how they made it. Besides salt, pepper, and a little olive oil, all of the ingredients are Alaskan.
The sun comes out a little, as if appreciating the efforts we have gone through to convert this Alaskan sunshine into food. We begin to feast. Conversations are rich with people sharing information about their ingredient sources and techniques. We compare the progress of our gardens and lament already-missed opportunities for wild foraging. There is a buzz of excitement as we consider the opportunities for adventurous eating in the next year.
After we eat, we share our pledges; how we intend to commit to eating local food for the year. Some are simple: “I will go to the farmer’s market before the grocery store.” Or “I will eat all-Alaskan breakfasts, and try my best with the other meals.” Others are more in-depth. Matt and I wrote a whole page describing why we are embarking on this challenge and how that informs what we will eat.
Every person has put a lot of thought into their food habits and diet and has seriously considered how to add more Alaskan food. It’s not so important whether people are ready to give up coffee and sugar, but that they are ready to make some change, big or small. We are all inspired by each other’s commitments and convictions, and are ready to begin our food adventure!!
Here is our pledge:
We pledge to make every effort to eat all-Alaskan and as close to home as possible for an entire year starting tonight, June 20th, 2011. We are doing this to lessen our carbon footprint from the food we eat as much as possible, to prove to ourselves and others that it can be done thereby demonstrating how abundant food is in Alaska, and to support and enhance our local food system.
In the spirit of this challenge, we will adhere to the following guidelines:
1. Waste-not: Whatever we start with in our cupboards is fair game… we haven’t stocked up, but that does include a couple liters of olive oil, a few pounds of sugar, flour, dried beans, etc. Whenever we run out of something we will try to come up with a substitute or do without.
2. Exceptions: Items such as baking powder, salt, and pepper which are impractical to do without (or find locally) and aren’t significant weight-wise to our food carbon footprint will be allowed. Also allowed will be things like cheese-making cultures, mother-of-vinegar, beer and wine making supplies which will allow us to make our own products as long as we source as many of the ingredients locally as possible.
3. Socialization: We love to socialize and entertain, so for each all-Alaskan meal we serve up to a friend, we can eat a meal at a friend’s house or out at a restaurant without insisting it be all local. This will allow us to make friends instead of loose them.
4. Support Local Producers: In order to enhance our local food system, we will support local food producers whenever possible. If products are not made with 100% local ingredients, we will work with those producers to find local sources.
We met with other food challenge participants in the formative stages of the challenge. As we started thinking of the reality of eating solely Alaskan foods for one year, we started analyzing what we ate, and figuring out how we would continue to have it, or an equivalent, in our diet. At each meal we would ask, which of these things are from Alaska? Which could have been (i.e., it is available locally, even if we had not bought it locally)? What can we do to make this local? Can we grow this ourselves?
Meats, poultry, eggs, seafood and many dairy products are readily available in the nearby Matanuska-Susitna valley, a prime farming area of the state. Additionally, we tend to bring home at least 50 pounds of salmon fillets from our fishing each year, as well as a freezer-full of caribou or moose when we get lucky on the hunting front. We are not particularly worried about our protein and dairy sources during this coming year.
March 2011 – Bread and Pasta
One of our first challenges was bread and, by extension, pasta. We already made our own bread, but purchased the whole wheat flour in a local bulk food section, we knew it was not Alaskan. So we picked up a small bag of barley from one of our food challenge compatriots, and set about learning how to make barley bread. The results, while tasty, were rather rock-like in consistency. Although coupled with whole wheat flour, we could get a nice loaf. We had been told that there was no Alaskan wheat available, but on a trip to Fairbanks, I discovered that was not accurate. I purchased a pound of local wheat and ground it at the shop where I purchased it. It made a fine loaf of bread. Randy then started calling around, and the agricultural extension agent in Delta Junction helped him locate a farmer with wheat to sell. We teamed up with other AFC members to get a good price, split the cost of shipping, and now have 150 pounds of wheat to last through the fall. The only thing in the bread that is not local is the sugar and yeast, which we still purchase from the grocery store.
Next challenge was crackers or chips. We tend to have happy hour snacks comprised of salmon dip and chips or cheese and crackers, and wanted a good substitute. We discovered the Fanny Farmer Baking Book held a small selection of cracker recipes, as did Mary Randolph’s 1825 cookbook, The Virginia Housewife. We found that the water crackers turned out well, and also found a recipe from Steve Reinhart of the LA Times that worked quite well.
April 2011 – Dips, Fruits and Veges
Now that we’ve figured out the crackers, let’s move on to the dips – we usually use cream cheese, but neither that nor sour cream are locally produced. We are now experimenting with yogurt, which we produce ourselves from local milk, as a substitute in these dishes. Another common dip ingredient is mayonnaise, made with egg and oil, we realized oil is also not produced in Alaska. (One farmer in Delta Junction does plant and harvest rapeseed, and presses it into oil, but uses it for animal feed, not for human consumption.) Whereas butter or applesauce work as oil substitutes in many recipes, neither is adequate for making mayonnaise. Hmmm – does oil have to be an exception?
Vegetables are abundant in Alaska, especially through the summer season. With a large garden and a root cellar, we are able to grow almost enough of our root crops to last through the year, and those same crops are available for purchase from Mat-Su growers in the event we have a bad year. Greens and non-root vegetables can be blanched and frozen, cabbage can be made into sauerkraut. All these are things we’ve been doing for years, so we’re comfortable in our preservation techniques. WE’re optimistic that we can grow and preserve vegetables for the year.
Fruits, however, we have a tendency to purchase, apples, bananas, oranges, for example, make up a large part of our winter shopping list. So we sat down to figure out how much fruit we eat, and what we would need to do to replace what we normally buy. Apples actually are available in Alaska, although they are pretty hard to get. Our idea: buy apples and make applesauce, pie filling that can be frozen, and place some apples in the root cellar, where they might keep for at least a few months. As we counted the number of portions needed in a day from October through the following June, we estimated that 32 gallons need to be collected and somehow stored. We grow, or can buy locally, strawberries, raspberries, currants and rhubarb. We know we will be able to buy or harvest apples. To fill in the rest, we plan to forage for blueberries, currants, and low-bush cranberries (lingonberries). All these should be freezable, and some can be stocked as jams, jellies or chutneys. One challenge, though, is how to make the jams and jellies without sugar. Although honey is readily available, sugar is not grown locally. We also plan to try dehydrating some of the fruits, which can be reconstituted into a jam, if necessary.
April 25, 2011 – Pasta Making
First try at pasta-making with fresh-ground whole wheat flour. The recipe we tried was just egg and wheat. We’d been given a pasta maker, but no instructions or recipes, but the pasta turned out bland yet pasta-like. We’ll get better with practice, I’m sure. It was just fine with spaghetti sauce.
April 27 – Pizza
Made a 100% whole wheat pizza crust and covered it with almost all-Alaskan ingredients, chicken, spinach, mushrooms, goat cheese from the MatSu valley and a pesto sauce (oil not from Alaska – there are those pesky oils again!
The crust worked beautifully and had a good flavor. We did add ¼ cup gluten to the 2 cups of freshly-ground whole wheat flour.