Friday, January 9, 2009

Happy New Year! Local Food ALASKA Edition (Photos)

This photo is purely for those interested in Alaska... it was taken about 11:15 am. As you can see, the sun was just about to break the horizon. There were just over 3 hours of official sunlight on Winter Solstice and the lowest temperature we experienced was 60-below (highest was right around zero).

Well, we returned this week from Fairbanks, Alaska where we spent two-and-a-half weeks with Kevin's sister and her family (including her four-month-old twins) and my in-laws (who have been living there most of the year helping out). In addition to spending quality family time, we also have had a long break in our local eating pattern. Our exemption for travel is, of course, necessary as we would find it difficult to either truck all the food we require along with us or to find it in a new place and so we enjoyed a few weeks of eating whatever we wanted. However, we did manage to find some sources of local foods - even in the dead of winter in interior Alaska! But more on that in a minute.

The first night we were there we went to hear two speakers at an installment of an alternative energies lecture series that Kevin's sister, Gwen, has organized. One of the speakers, Bernie Karl, discussed a variety of germane topics but the one fact he shared that struck me was this (paraphrased): the state of Alaska has only a two-day supply of food available in grocery stores and restaurants at any given time. TWO DAYS. I wonder how long Illinois' supply would last, knowing that we import something like 90% of our foodstuffs.

While we were there we experienced this first-hand... one day between Christmas and New Year's, Kevin's mother went to the local (very large) grocery store to pick some things up for dinner. She returned saying that there were no fresh vegetables to be had. The produce section of this store is actually quite large and varied (when stocked). We ate frozen veggies.

We did have several opportunities to eat some truly local (and truly wonderful) foods. Even before we arrived, my father-in-law had been talking about saving for us a jar of his own blueberry jam, made with blueberries he had collected himself. We were glad he did save it; we enjoyed it immensely as we spread it on our pancakes one morning!

There are lots of yummy berries to be had in the fall in Alaska. When Kevin's mom came home for a visit at the end of September, she brought us a container of low bush cranberries she had picked just as the first snow of the season was falling. I warmed them in a pot until they just started to burst, added a little honey and cinnamon, and served them for dessert with a dollop of yogurt. In addition to his own frozen blueberry jam, Robert proudly presented us with a jar of low bush cranberry jam he had purchased at the farmers' market just down the road. We enjoyed that one evening for dinner on sliced ham left over from Christmas.

The source of my food is always present as a thought in my mind (it already was long before we started our experiment) so I continued to pay attention to my options while grocery shopping in Fairbanks. I was happy to see that I had a number of good, local options - not all from within 100 miles but at least from the state). The store (Fred Meyer, now owned by Kroger) had a full selection of milk from the North Star Dairy in Delta Junction, AK. I could also get Alaska-grown carrots and potatoes and, of course, wild Alaskan salmon.

I think Robert (Kevin's dad) was having fun preparing for our visit because he also produced from the freezer some locally wild-caught caribou and moose in the form of stew meat and loin, respectively. Erika (Kevin's mom) made a killer goulash with the caribou and Kevin sister, Gwen, made some excellent ginger-marinated, thinly sliced and pan-fried moose loin.

It seems that even area restaurants are interested in serving local foods. We didn't eat out much (only twice) but we noticed on menus, even at a Thai place, that the use of local ingredients was highlighted (even in winter when they used local potatoes, dried and frozen berries, etc.).

Finally, our foray into local food in the deep Alaskan mid-winter was successful on the grounds of Chena Hot Springs Resort, just an hour outside of Fairbanks. Kevin's sister used to work there, developing all sorts of fascinating systems to harness existing resources and generate electricity and other things helpful at a completely off-grid resort. I could go on all day about the cool technologies she helped to develop there, specifically using the geothermal resources which are hot but not hot enough for traditional geothermal technologies (170-degrees vs. 220) but I won't. I'll just include the link to the resort:

The resort is owned by Bernie and Connie Karl (yes, one of the men we heard speak the first night) and one of the cool things to see and experience there is the greenhouse that can boast having the largest interior and exterior temperature differential in the world. In the winter it can easily be 40 or more degrees below zero outside (and it was while we were there) and stays a muggy 80 degrees inside; and it's all heated with the warm water coming out of the ground! Anyway, they grow hydroponic tomatoes and salad greens year-round. We were able to sample some of both, harvested the day we ate them, while it was over 40 degrees below zero outside. You may be interested in the Chena Hot Springs website not only for the food but also to see photos of their hot pools and sculpted ice hotel.

Now we are back home and sticking to our Rockford-area diet. Tonight we had seared pork chops (raised in Pecatonica at Open Range Products and processed in Seward at Eichman's), steamed broccoli (from the freezer, grown at Angelic Organics), and sauteed fingerling potatoes (Tomorrow's Harvest CSA) with crispy garlic (Stan Johnson at the Edgebrook Center Farmers' Market). We enjoyed it with a Wollersheim wine (Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin) and had fresh apples for dessert (Bushel and Peck's Local Market - apples grown at Gahl's Apple Orchard in South Beloit).

Earlier this week we had beef and bean stew with vegetables and fresh-baked bread for dinner (I added baby Brussels sprouts to the leftovers the next day), apple cider cinnamon bread for breakfast, and I made a couple of loaves of apple-cinnamon stuffed Challah for Neva to take to preschool and Kevin to take to work. As usual, we've been enjoying cheeses, milk, and yogurt from southern Wisconsin, eggs from Pine Row Farm in Roscoe and Angelic Organics in Caledonia, and other frozen and dried veggies from our own supplies.


UU Jerri said...

How fabulous a trip! Which estate grown Wollersheim wines are you favorites? What is the other winery that is within your guidelines?

I plan on doing blueberries from the U.P this year.

UU Jerri said...

Have you been to Alaska in the summer?

Lenae said...

Hi Jerri -
The Wollersheim estate-grown wine we drink is the Domaine du Sac. It's the only one I can get nearby (without going to the winery). You can't buy it in Illinois but they carry it at the Woodman's in Beloit.
That said, wine from our area just can't yet compare to that from California... not that we don't keep trying them! (nor do we have another choice this year).

And, yes, we've been there at all times of the year (Kevin's sister has lived there since 1994 so we've had many visits. It's beautiful in any season!

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