Thankful for Local Food
Copper River Record November 2017
By Robin Mayo
At my family Thanksgiving in Fairbanks, the table was filled with Alaskan harvest. A locally grown bird, sheep from the Wrangells, Tanana Valley Moose, a Hubbard Squash so big it needed to be butchered before it would fit in the oven. From homegrown mashed potatoes to pumpkin pie made from scratch and salads fresh from root cellars, nearly every dish was predominately homegrown.
But when I stopped by Fred Meyer the next day, it was clear from a cruise through the produce and meat departments that a storebought Thanksgiving meal in Fairbanks would be almost completely imported from the lower 48. Alaska grown spuds were the only typical Thanksgiving staple available that I could see.
When it comes to local food, Alaska is a paradox. I don’t know a family in the Copper Basin that doesn’t hunt, fish, garden, or gather to fill their freezers, but statewide 95% of our food travels thousands of miles before landing on our tables. And the long term trend is actually going down, in the 1950s a much larger share of our food was produced in-state. There were more local dairies and produce farms, and a much smaller population to feed.
I’ve toyed with the idea of being a “locavore,” one who eats only locally grown food, even for a short while. Aside from pure laziness, the biggest barrier is the 3 C’s, essential food groups including Caffeine, Chocolate, and Carbohydrates. The first two I’d have to give up cold turkey, and for carbs options would get very limited, potatoes and barley. It would be a great experience for a month or two in the summer or fall, and a severe challenge in the winter and spring.
One thing is clear, because Alaska does very little food processing aside from seafood, eating only Alaska-grown food would be incredibly healthy. Almost everything would need to be cooked fresh from scratch. One would have to pass on most poor choices, and eat lots of fish, wild meat, and vegetables. To satisfy a sweet tooth you’d have honey and birch syrup. And depending on how picky you were on every single ingredient being grown in state, you might have to give up beer and wine, and be forced to get by with vodka.
A friend suggested a way to eat locally without going to extremes. She made a personal resolution to include something local in every meal. It is a nice reminder to throw some frozen blueberries onto my morning cereal, or grab a carrot to go with lunch, once again making meals more nutritious as well as homegrown.
Here in the Copper Basin, we are incredibly lucky to have locally grown food available for purchase. Wengers Country Store in Kenny Lake almost always has their ground beef and sausage for sale, and sometimes other cuts of meat. They also carry barley products from Delta, Alaskan milk, and potatoes. VanWyhe Family Farms is one of the largest pork producers in the state, and Terry usually has meat for sale if you give him a call. The IGA carries Alaska Grown carrots and potatoes. Locally grown honey and other goods can be purchased this season at holiday bazaars. And of course in the summer, an abundance of produce is available at farmers markets in Glennallen and Kenny Lake.
Copper River Record publisher Matt Lorenz is working on getting his self-contained hydroponic grow unit running smoothly, and should have locally grown lettuce available starting in the new year, so watch these pages for news of that enterprise.
Whether a whole meal or a tiny taste treat, be sure to make local food another blessing to celebrate this holiday season.
Even the dessert table can be locally grown—local pumpkins, apples, and blueberries are included in this assortment of pies.
Homemade Granola—The Perfect Food?
Copper River Record October 2017
By Robin Mayo
The classic question is “If you could eat only one food from now on, what would it be?” Most days I’d choose granola. It feels a little like junk food because of the sweet crunch, but it can be a wonderful complete food. A bag in your pocket is a perfect munch for hiking, or a bowlful with milk makes a meal.
Homemade granola is incredibly easy, delicious, and economical to make. Plus, your house will smell great. I find that storebought granola is too sweet and tastes stale when I’m used to homemade.
If you are a person who loves to follow exact recipes, this recipe is going to make you crazy. But there are so many variables, and so many tastes, I’m just going to give you the framework and let you design the perfect granola.
Grains, nuts, and Seeds: In a large bowl, assemble about 6 cups of rolled grains. Oats are classic, but many other grains can be found in a suitable form. When choosing oats, go for the old fashioned, not the quick. Now add approximately two cups of nuts and seeds of your choice. Pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and coconut flakes can be put in whole, larger nuts such as walnuts or almonds should be coarsely chopped or slivered so they are similar in size to the rolled grains. Tiny seeds such as sesame, flax, and chia can also be added.
Drizzle: In a small saucepan, mix together ½ cup oil and ½ cup sweetener. Any healthy oil you prefer can be used, I prefer a mixture of coconut and olive oils. For the sweeter, honey is awesome, but you could also use maple syrup, rice syrup, agave, or brown sugar. Warm the mixture just enough that it gets very liquidy and completely mixed. You can also add cinnamon, vanilla, or other spices to the syrup. Adding a pinch of salt also seems to enhance the flavor.
Drizzle the warm mixture over the dry ingredients, mixing thoroughly. This proportion will make a slightly sweet granola that won’t stick together in clumps. If you want a sweeter, chunkier mixture use up to a cup of oil and a cup of sweetener.
Preheat the oven to 250o, spread the granola in a couple of shallow pans, and bake. Stir about every 15 minutes, and bake until it is perfectly brown, about 45 minutes to an hour.
Stir as it comes out of the oven so it won’t stick to the pans, and cool completely before storing in jars. If you want fruit, now is the time to mix in a cup or two of raisins, dried cranberries, chopped apricots, or whatever you choose. Some recipes add the fruit before baking, but it burns easily so I prefer to wait.
6 cups rolled grains
2 cups nuts or seeds
½ cup oil
½ cup sweetener
Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl. Melt together oil and sweetener, drizzle over dry ingredients and mix well. Spread in large pans and bake at 250o for about an hour, or until brown, stirring every 15 minutes.
Hope you picked lots of blueberries, they are the perfect topping for homemade granola! Marnie Graham Photo, 2011
Smoked Salmon to Go
Copper River Record October 2017
By Robin Mayo
You catch the fish. You clean the fish. You fillet the fish. You brine the fish. You smoke the fish. You pack the jars and run the pressure canner. You unload the canner and line up the jars on the counter, listening for that immensely satisfying “ploink” that means the jar has sealed. You remove the rings, clean the jars, and fill your pantry with bounty.
If you are wise and humble, you are now finished. But perhaps you succumb to the sin of pride and post some pictures on facebook. A cooler full of silvery fish. Fillets glistening ruby-orange. A dusky interior shot of the smokehouse. Lines of jars on the counter.
And the next thing you know you are inundated with requests from far-off family and friends, wanting a taste. You now have one more step: ship the fish.
The two greatest inventions ever for Alaskans who wish to keep in touch with the outside world without breaking the bank are the Alaska Airlines Companion Fare, and the USPS Flat Rate Box. I still remember how excited I was when I discovered that half a dozen pint jars of salmon fit perfectly in a medium flat rate box. It is elegant, efficient, and most importantly, affordable. For $13.60, you can ship anything that fits in the box, anywhere in the US. If it weighs more than two pounds, this is the best bargain around. The heaviest flat rate box I ever received was filled with cool old horseshoes, a lucky shipment for sure.
For most situations, I am a “good enough” kind of person. I don’t sweat the details, and strive for simplicity. But for packing jars of smoked salmon for mailing, my motto changes to “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing!” When in doubt, use more tape and bubble wrap. Double up on everything. Did I mention tape and bubble wrap?
This is a great way to recycle materials, including bubble wrap, padded envelopes, and anything else cushy. When sending care packages to my wayward daughters, I use fresh socks, purchased by the bundle at Costco. Make Matt Morse happy and use plastic grocery bags instead of sending them to the landfill. You can definitely use some of those Amazon Prime boxes which seem to multiply in the shed. Corrugated cardboard is amazing stuff, as it lends strength and cushioning. It is always good to add something absorbent, in case of disaster. For this I favor back issues of the Copper River Record, so the recipient gets some excellent reading material as well.
Start with two medium sized flat rate boxes, available for free at any post office. Fold the bottom of one and tape it well. Line the box with a large plastic bag, such as a kitchen-sized garbage bag. Fold but do not tape the bottom of the second box, and slide it inside the first box, so you now have a double-thick box with a layer of plastic in between. Cut a rectangle of cardboard to fit inside the bottom of the box.
This trick works best with wide mouth, straight sided pint mason jars. Narrow mouth pints are a little taller and leave less room for padding, but I sometimes send them anyways because I like to get rid of them. If you use wide-mouth half pints, you can stack them in pairs and send a whole dozen.
Make sure each jar has a metal ring, well tightened. First, wrap only the exposed glass sides in small-gauge bubble wrap, or other similar cushy padding. Add another layer which covers the metal ring as well, and folds over to pad the top and bottom of the jar. Secure the whole bundle with plenty of tape.
When all the jars are individually wrapped, it’s time to pack the box. Cut strips of corrugated cardboard and put them between the jars, around the edges, and anywhere else they will fit. The jars should be packed snugly, but not too tight, and there should not be any movement if you shake it. Try closing the box before deciding if you need another layer of cardboard on top of the jars.
Fold the flaps and tape up the inside box, trim and seal the plastic bag, then tape up the outside box. I’ve never had a flat rate box rejected because it bulges a little, but it will be the strongest if the flaps meet. Address the box, and finish it off with plenty of strong tape around every axis. Save another fifty cents by printing your own shipping label at USPS Click and Ship.
I’ve never had a failure when shipping salmon this way. But sometimes you don’t want to ship so many jars, you just need a bombproof way of shipping a jar or two. For this purpose, I make each jar into a padded and leak-proof bundle. Several layers of bubble wrap, covered by a full edition of the Copper River Record, folded and taped so all sides are covered. This is packed in a gallon ziplock bag, then put into a larger carton along with whatever else you are shipping. Make sure the jar can’t shift in the larger box. I like to roll the jars up in sheets of corrugated cardboard which are cut to fit the dimensions of the box. Once again, a redundant layer or two is much preferred over a mess of fish oil and broken glass. One box I am presently packing includes jars of smoked salmon and a laptop computer, so you could say the stakes are high.
Is all this hassle worth it? Your relatives will love you, and attempt to reciprocate by sending you ripe peaches, or some other local treat. This will probably be somewhat less successful than your salmon mailing escapade. Your friends will want to visit. Ask them to schedule the trip for fishing season next year, so they can help tend the smokehouse, and listen for the “ploink.”
Each jar is individually wrapped
By Robin Mayo
“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” This quote from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry neatly sums up the Wild Plants Weekend we recently hosted at Kenny Lake Community Hall. Eighteen wild plants enthusiasts, some local and some from across Alaska, foraged in local gardens, fields, and woods, then concocted a wide variety of foods and medicinal preparations from our harvest.
Many of the plants we used were humble ones, commonly considered weeds, nuisances, or even dangerous. At this time of year most gardens are not yet producing much food, but in at a Chitina home we harvested abundant chickweed, lambsquarter, fireweed, and mint. Devils Club is common in the temperate rainforest south of the Chugach, but a few plants can be found in the Chitina area, and we harvested that as well.
Janice Schofield, who led the workshop, learned to wildcraft foods while living in a remote area of the Kenai Peninsula. Gardening proved to be challenging, but she found in her dooryard, the surrounding forest, and the beaches a multitude of friendly plants. In 1989 Janice published “Discovering Wild Plants” which is considered by many to be the bible for Alaskan wildcrafting. She now lives in New Zealand, but visits Alaska often to teach, learn from local traditions, and revisit her old stomping grounds. Her work includes wisdom from Alaska Native traditions.
At the end of the weekend we shared an abundant feast, including chiming bell spring rolls, dandelion fritters, and spruce tip salsa. Students also made insect repellant, salves, lotions, tinctures, and decoctions. In this case, what was essential was under our feet, just waiting to be discovered.
Photo on Left- Janice Schofield explains the benefits of Arnica, which is abundant this year in the area.
Photo on Right- Michael Moody, Cynthia Buchanan, and Darlene Wright and Darlene write work on processing a tableful of locally harvested wild plants
Aspiring and experienced foragers, wildcrafters, and adventurous cooks are in for a treat! Janice Schofield, Author of “Discovering Wild Plants: Alaska, Western Canada, the Northwest” and “Alaska’s Wild Plants: A guide to Alaska’s Edible Harvest” will be presenting a workshop at Kenny Lake June 16, 17, and 18th. We last hosted Janice for a weekend in 2013, and it was an incredible experience for all the participants. Janice lived in the Homer, Alaska area for many years, and now resides in New Zealand. Her deep knowledge and respect for natural plants and holistic living are inspiring.
On Friday night, Janice will give an illustrated lecture for all participants, at Kenny Lake Community Hall, which will also be open to the public for a small fee. Janice will present a unique perspective in regards to changes in the ecology of plant communities and the situation with invasive plants. Are these plants just enemies? Are there more thoughtful ways to respond? What do they have to teach?
The weekend workshop will be a hands-on exploration of useful wild plants native to Interior Alaska. As well as classroom time, there will be field trips to different habitats for identifying and collecting plants, and afternoons in the kitchen learning preparation techniques for medicinal and culinary uses.
Janelle Eklund summarized the 2013 experience: “Plants like fireweed, plantain, and yarrow were there for the picking. With our bags and baskets full we headed back to the hall to make our concoctions and recipes….lotions, salves, herbal oils, teas, pesto, chips, sauerkraut, salsa, crackers, lasagna, and wild herb patties.”
This year’s workshop will also include the little known tradition of making oxymels, vinegar and honey based herbal concoctions which extract the active components from herbs, and make them more palatable.
There will be a $200 fee for the weekend workshop, which will be limited to 20 participants. The fee includes handouts, ingredients, and facility use. Spaces can be reserved with a $50 deposit. There is a registration form on the WISE website, www.wise-edu.org/wild-plants-workshop.html
Photo Left- A green drink created by 2013 workshop participants Janelle Eklund Photo
Photo Right- Janice Schofield, center, wears leather gloves while harvesting Devil’s Club. Yes, it does grow in a secret corner of the Copper River Watershed. Janelle Eklund Photo
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.
Wrangell Institute for Science & Environment
WISE is a