Friday, November 14, 2008

On Becoming a Good Alaska

If anyone had told me I would be writing about becoming a good cook 25 years ago when I chose woodworking class instead of home economics in middle school, I would have thought them completely crazy. I was the person who ate ramen noodles raw (uncooked!) because I was too lazy to cook them. I now live in rural Alaska where one needs to cook if one is to be healthy and not spend a fortune on processed food from the store. Here is my journey to this point where I now consider cooking one of my hobbies, and what role living in Alaska has played in that transformation.

"You're a good cook!" is a phrase I now hear regularly when people come to visit and I get to feed them, but it is a title that I am uncomfortable with. It doesn't quite fit how I see myself, though it is definitely something I want to be. I guess if enough people tell me that, I might start believing them. However, it comes down to one's taste, and that is one of the first things I have learned.

When I look through recipe books now, I no longer assume that just because someone else says something is divine that our family will find it so. In fact, I find some cookbooks next to useless because they are filled with things that we would not like, or even if we would like, I do not care to prepare. I always thought the problem was me, but my growing awareness of and experiments with food have taught me that there are just some foods that do not appeal to our taste buds. Rather than being upset with my family for not liking a food, I make note in the cookbook and do not make it again, moving on to another recipe that we might like.

A few things set me on the trajectory of cooking more. The first was a well-supplied kitchen. I will admit it, I am cheap. The pots and pans in our kitchen are all wedding presents from 15 years ago or hand-me-downs from someone else's kitchen. We invest in a cheap teflon frypan every year or two, and that has been the extent of acquiring anything in the kitchen. When we moved to Alaska we lived with the people we were renting from for 2 1/2 months. Along with seeing someone else cook, I inherited their kitchen supplies. It was an eye-opener for me to realize how useful some things could be. For example, a wire rack is called for in cooling baked goods. I doubt I ever would have bought a wire rack for myself, but now I find myself pulling it out several days a week! Or how about the joy of drinking from glass glasses instead of plastic cups covered with scratches and cracks? Juice tastes clearer and colder when drunk from glass, and is worth it for the pleasure it brings. Serving dishes and serving spoons always seemed excessive wastes to me: "Plop the pot down on the table and eat up" was my attitude. But again, I feel better about eating and enjoy the experience when it is nicely arranged, so I began to use the serving dishes our landlord had in their cupboards.

Filling our freezer with meat--moose, beef, salmon, halibut & clams--was the next impulsion to learn to cook better. I doubt I'd cooked more than one steak in my whole life before coming to Alaska. Ground beef and boneless, skinless chicken breasts were my forte. Being given all this meat meant I had to cook it! Google saved me! Every time I pulled a package of meat out of the freezer I would run to my computer and figure out what to do with it! Brisket, t-bone, top sirloin, roasts were all strange words to me. Marinade?? Rub?? Huh? It has been a learning curve trying out different recipes to find what we like--and what cooks the way the recipes says it should! I have always been the type who wanted my meat charred or I wouldn't touch it. I have discovered that meat is better with a little pink inside, and I've coached my hubby in grilling it right so that it is more edible--actually, a delight--to eat. I regularly use my herbs and spices now...and use them up! Just a year ago I didn't even use them, much less how to!

The desire to be healthy was the next impetus to learning to cook. My aunt and cousins are health food fanatics, as are a number of other people I have met up here, so it has provided a community of sorts to learn about how to eat good food. I have a hard time picturing eating in Michigan the way we eat here. It just doesn't fit somehow. Up here, it is not unusual to eat the product of a hunt, dig clams, fish, pick berries and all the other subsistence living activities that make for healthy eating. It is much more deliberate and conscious here: the more we put away, the healthier we will be. We barely touch the surface of subsistence living (it takes time, skill and special tools), yet we are part of the history of this place--the roots of life in Alaska--when we put things away for the winter. And we are all so conscious of the food we put into our bodies now. My husband, a lifetime McDonald's and soda addict, has given up both of those--a miracle I never thought I would live to see. We belong to an organic food co-op to take advantage of organic food at lower-than-local prices. Living in Alaska has changed the way we see and experience food.

The sometimes outrageous prices for food has led us to seek more economical means of feeding our family. Anchorage food prices are comparable to the Lower 48, but as you head south on the Kenai Peninsula, prices get more expensive. The same item in Homer could cost $1-$6 more than in Soldotna to the north. Buying in bulk has become a way of life to make up for the long periods between trips to Anchorage, so we learn to cook and eat what we have, becoming creative as we run out of things and anticipate the next trip to Costco. A week ago, all our meat was nearly gone (2 steaks and some ground moose left in the freezer!). We kept holding off getting groceries, knowing my husband was going to be in Anchorage this week to re-supply. It will be such a relief when he returns with the Durango loaded with food to last us till the next trip to Anchorage.

The long distance from restaurants has definitely made a difference in my motivation to cook. In Michigan if I didn't feel like cooking, we would just run to town and get some fast food. No sweat! With a 30 minute drive to Homer (more in the winter) and few restaurants that are open evenings, it is simpler and less time consuming to pull a steak out of the freezer and pop it on the grill. Actually, I have learned to think at least a day or two ahead, keeping a running menu in my head so I can thaw the appropriate vegetable or meat. I have thaw times down to a science, so I know exactly when to take something out of the freezer to have it thawed by time I'm ready to cook it. Meals are planned around my schedule, so if I'm not going to be home till late, dinner may be brisket, stroganoff, a roast, or stew in the crockpot. Days that I am home I can cook something that requires more prep time. Leftovers are coveted as we all negotiate who gets what for their lunches the next day.

Two attitudes had to change in order to overcome my dislike of cooking. The first attitude was my abhorrence for dirty dishes. I joke about when my husband and I were first out of college and we would go for 2 weeks without washing dishes (just wash enough to eat). We finally hired someone for $5/hour to come in and wash, dry and put away our dishes once a week, because by golly, I wasn't going to be one of those wimpy women who does all the cleaning and cooking. I no longer hoard my dishes, not wanting to dirty them. It makes cooking so much easier if I actually use what's there! Now we've got kids old enough to load and unload the dishwasher, and we've come to a fairly comfortable medium of who washes/cleans up.

The other attitude that had to change was this: I have always seen cooking as a subservient thing--a lower status--in the home. I've gotten over my control issues, image issues and low value issues, so cooking is now something I can truly enjoy--without the negative connotations. Now I can say, "I like to cook," and be proud of it rather than embarrassed at what someone might think. Of course, all the other factors above led to this. We're forced, in a way, to cook, so it was either change my attitude or be unhappy. Changing my attitude was easier than being unhappy in this case.

As I often say, not everyone in Alaska has the same experience I have had. Not everyone that moves up here becomes a good cook--or even cooks that much. But the special chemistry that has worked between me and Alaska has given me a new hobby that fills me with pleasure as I cook, eat, and feed my family well. It has become a labor of love. And my greatest joy of all is seeing my kids interested in cooking: trying experiments with food, making up recipes, tasting different spices, and sharing time in the kitchen as a family. What an awesome gift to give them: the love of preparing food.

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