Tuesday, September 26, 2017

On life's little culinary joys in remote Alaska

The New York Times ran this story in the "Food" section about 10 days ago, "In Alaska's Far-Flung Villages, Happiness Is a Cake Mix."  Here's an excerpt that highlights the gist of the story:  the importance of simple--or perhaps not so simple--pleasures in a place with few amenities, culinary or otherwise. 
Elsewhere, the American appetite for packaged baking mixes is waning, according to the market research firm Mintel, as consumers move away from packaged foods with artificial ingredients and buy more from in-store bakeries and specialty pastry shops. Yet in the small, mostly indigenous communities that dot rural Alaska, box cake is a stalwart staple, the star of every community dessert table and a potent fund-raising tool.
The story quotes Cynthia Erickson who owns the sole grocery story in Tanana, an Athabascan village of 300 in central Alaska. 
Cake mixes are the center of our little universe.  I have four damn shelves full.
Journalist Julia O'Malley describes another remote Alaskan locale, Gambell, population 681, thusly:
Traveling out here, where huge bones from bowhead whales litter the beach, takes a 90-minute jet ride north from Anchorage and another hour by small plane over the Bering Sea. In this vast, wild part of America, accessible only by water or air, there may not be plumbing or potable water, the local store may not carry perishables and people may have to rely on caribou or salmon or bearded seal meat to stay fed.
And the story includes lots of rich detail about how local folks--all women--become the local "cake lady." One of the concotions described was a lemon-blueberry cake, that appeared to be decorated with chocolate chips.

Another woman, this one in Unalakleet, described a white sheet cake dressed up thusly:
I mixed orange Jell-O with two cups of bright orange salmonberries. I poured it on top of that cake and I threw it in the fridge.  People were just like, "Wow, can you make that again for me?”
O'Malley also describes cake walks, which are often used for fundraisers, as when people die and money must be raised to help pay for burial expenses.  She also tells a really interesting tale of how at least one of the remote bakers games amazon.com, buying cake mixes at a bargain price (compared to what they sell for locally).  When delivery of the cake mixes is delayed--as they often are--she gets refunds on her Amazon Prime account, thus helping finance her cottage industry, tricking out mixes.  

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