Tag Archives: Alaska

Ganesha’s Plate of Sweets: Upside Down Blues Cake

5 Jan

Upside Down Blues Cake with Sweet Cream

“Blues is a natural fact, is something that a fellow lives. If you don’t live it you don’t have it. Young people have forgotten to cry the blues. Now they talk and get lawyers and things.”Big Bill Broonzy

I’ve been thinking about Ganesha quite a bit lately, the pleasant, elephant-headed god from the Hindu canon.  I’m a big fan of Ganesha’s—he is the Remover of Obstacles and the god of new creative ventures.  And frankly, it makes me happy to look at him:


Color, a sense of humor, and joy. A good symbol for the Divine in my book.

Ganesha is sometimes portrayed with a mouse at his feet, or sometimes he is actually riding on top of the mouse.  Some scholars claim the mouse symbolizes the desires we must all overcome to receive moksha, or liberation from earthly suffering. The image that keeps occurring to me is of Ganesha riding atop an airplane. It doesn’t take a Freudian to see what’s going on here: unmet desire leads to suffering and my greatest unmet desire is to travel more, hence, the airplane.

Cut to: yesterday morning.  I was enjoying some quiet time in the bookstore as a reward for going 10 days at home with my two kids without killing or maiming either of them.  (I’m not the cupcake-baking-playdate-arranging variety mom.  I bake, but not as a craft activity with my kids.  I would sprint across molten hot lava to save either of them, but staying at home with them 24-7 is insane.  Mothering is something I do best after 6-8 hours at work.) Of course, I’m in the cooking section and I notice a few new foodie volumes on the shelf, one of which is Ginger and Ganesh: Adventures in Indian Cooking Culture and Friendship by Nani Power. It turns out I’m not the only divorced mother of two with an English degree and an interest in food writing.  Just when you think you stand out in the crowd…

I read the first few chapters, and although I think Powers is a kindred spirit, I decided to leave the book on the shelf and take with me the idea that Ganesh as a symbol keeps popping up in front of me for a reason.  And perhaps I should pay attention.

The folks over at Swaha International, an orthodox Hindu organization, say that the “greed and covetous nature” of the mouse is such “that it steals much more than it can possibly consume – hoarding what it cannot eat – and often times, forgetting all about the hoarded food.” I’m not so sure I see the mouse as any greedier than others in the animal kingdom (a raven almost pecked my eyes out over a cheeseburger on Christmas Eve), but the point is one I take to heart.  I often focus on my unmet desire to get out of Alaska to the extent that I don’t appreciate the fullness of the life I have here.  This blog, in fact, is an exercise intended to help me stay focused on the here and now.  I have a pretty rich life, and the truth is, I travel more than most.  As a matter of fact, the Hot Boyfriend and I are packing right now to head for a long weekend in Anchorage.

Later, when I arrived home, I realized that perhaps an offering of sorts was in order.  One that recognized my unmet desires and my willingness to look beyond lack, towards fulfillment.  In one of his hands Ganesha often holds a modaka or a plate of sweets, which represents the rewards that life offers, and so I figured a desert was in order, and most likely would involve Alaskan blueberries as symbolic of my willingness to love this place as much as I can.  And as for the mouse, Ganesha did not destroy desire, he offered it a place at his feet.  So knew I’d have to include something gritty, maybe something from home.  My desire for travel isn’t always about exploration, sometimes it’s about the fact that I miss my family so much, and the South, and the food, and the communion, that I physically ache.  True to Southern form, one of the few things that makes me feel better is straight-up, broke-ass, drunker-than-a-skunk, life-can’t-git-much-worse blues.  Not the slow whiny stuff, but the gritty, guitar driven stuff.  So I decided that cornmeal and some kind of liquor might have to make an appearance.  Ultimately, what I came up with is the following recipe.  It’s not a sticky, gooey, cloying desert.  It has body and flavor and grit.  It’s best served with ice cream or sweet cream.

Upside Down Blues Cake

  • 3/4 cup corn meal flour
  • 1/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 cup blue corn meal
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1/2 cup baker’s sugar
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 cup milk

Blueberry sauce

  • 2 cups wild Alaskan blueberries (or fresh, or frozen)
  • 1 cup Triple Sec liqueur
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1/4 cup fresh squeezed orange juice

For the cake mix: combine the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl.  In a separate bowl, cream the butter and sugar and then cut it into the dry ingredients.  Mix the milk and egg yolks and then fold it into the rest of the mix. It should resemble a very loose cookie dough.  For the sauce: boil the blueberries, orange juice, and triple sec until a thick syrup forms.  Add the honey and set aside to cool.

Preheat the oven to 400ºF.  Grease a bundt pan (other regular sized/shaped cake pans should work) and add the blueberry sauce first, then using a spoon (or your fingers) place the cake batter lightly into the sauce, being careful not to submerge the batter.  It will look something like this:

Bake for 20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.  It will look something like this after baking:

Finally, cover the pan with a large cake plate, hold on tight and flip it over.

And if you’re lucky, Ganesha will love your offering and clear the obstacles from your life.  Or, at the very least, your Hot Boyfriend will think it’s delicious and kiss you passionately in your kitchen, removing the obstacles of clothing that get in his way. And well, if that doesn’t happen, at least he will clean his plate.

Fairbanks, AK: Hipsters and Foodies Need Not Apply

30 Dec

Summertime is civilized and delicious. Memories of local fare from Rosie Creek Farms at the Tanana Valley Farmer's Market

In Alaska, no matter how hard you try to maintain your sense of “civilization,” ultimately the natural world overwrites the man made world: snow and ice cover up the lines on the roads and drivers follow the grooves left behind by braver pioneer drivers; parkas, hats, gloves, and scarves cover up whatever fashionable or hideous clothing you have on underneath; snow blankets both the pristine and the unkempt lawn; and even the nicest of cars gets pretty ugly come spring break up.

In a recent conversation with the Hot Boyfriend (he’s smart too) about contemporary Alaskan Culture, he remarked that at its heart, Alaskan culture is about giving one another space.  I’m inclined to think that this has more to do with the number of folks living in cabins with no running water, which creates a unique “musk”, but really, I think HB is right.  Apparently, there was once an attempt to start one of those “Jackets Only” supper clubs back in the 70’s.  I find this hilarious.  If there is one consistent truth about living in this place, it’s that Alaskans wear whatever the hell they want, whenever the hell they want to wear it.  You want to wear dirty CarrHart overalls and Bunny Boots into the nicest restaurant in town? Go right ahead. How about that ironic Cap’n Crunch t-shirt with your skinny jeans and bomber hat in church? No one will bat an eye, and more importantly, no one will think you are “hip” to anything other than the local second hand store. Only novel, never-before-seen cold weather gear (like the snow skirt I saw recently) will get you a second glance and maybe a question or two.  This freedom extends to houses: neighborhoods in this part of the world are a hodgepodge of McMansions, what we call Handi-Man Specials (houses cobbled together by a do-it-yourself-er (usually with some combination of spray insulation and blue tarps), rustic cabins, a gutted out trailer, and maybe a duplex or two in between.

“Space” is a concept that we Alaskan extend to one another as well: everyone here has a story, and I swear to all that is Holy, that every story is interesting. You are safest in assuming that no matter how boring an Alaskan seems on the outside, the stories she will tell you after a few beers will blow your mind.  As a result, the idea of “hipster” really has no bearing here.  You can dress like a hipster, think like a hipster, and talk like one, but that will only get you labeled as a Lower-48er, an outsider, a temporary Alaskan.

And lately I’ve been thinking about the “Foodie” (thoughts inspired by the screamingly funny episode of South Park mocking the Foodie), but I think maybe that label doesn’t hold much water here either. Those kinds of labels, Foodie and Hipster, only arise after some subset of like-minded people begin to think they are a special subset of people, that they are entitled to elite status as a result of their maniacal interests and obsessions. Once I came out of the closet about my obsession with food (it’s become hard to hide it) I realized how many other Fairbanksans have something interesting to say on the topic. Fairbanks has always been, and remains by economic necessity, a locavore community.  Who hasn’t had moose tacos or salmon cheese cake in these parts? The muskox stew a friend (let’s call him the Mathematician) served at a dinner party one night was to die for.  On my very first date with the Hot Boyfriend we gathered gallons of blueberries and a mutual friend made a blueberry pie for desert, after we ate a stir fry made from vegetables that still had dirt from his garden on them. I know more than a handful of people who raise and kill their own chickens and not because they’re Locavores, but because this is a place where raising your own chickens makes sense.  In reality, this is Foodie Heaven, but you can’t call yourself a Foodie, because there is no subset.  We’re all foodies here.

One of the many giant berries we gathered in Seldovia, AK

Your idea of the Civilized Self gets overwritten, just like the lines on the road, by your life here in Alaska, which is inevitably tied to the unique geography of the place. So, yes, I’d love to commit to this label of Foodie, and eat out every weekend at the restaurant of the hottest Rock Star Chef in town, but the chef at the Lemongrass is the same chef that was cooking great food there 10 years ago.  I’d love to make a fig compote and serve it to elegantly dressed dinner guests, but I can’t get any damn figs here and most of my friends are too busy chopping wood or hauling water.  And really, the more I think about it, Alaska may have overwritten me… urban life seems foreign to me now, an exotic life.  There’s a saying around here: Fairbanks never really grows on you, it just makes you unfit to live anyplace else.

Cabin Curry: How to Avoid the Outhouse at -25F.

19 Dec

The outhouse at the Kitchen Vixen's cabin.

Thai Curry, Round 2: Last night I visited my friend, a well known (but paradoxically private) poet who will henceforth be known as the Kitchen Vixen.  The Vixen lives, like many people in Fairbanks, in a cabin with no running water and an outhouse.  I love cooking with her in the cabin because, although there is no water, there is a phenomenal collection of cookbooks, old issues of Gastronomica, and plenty of Le Creuset cookware.  I brought over some of my booty from the Asian Market in the hopes that I could make another Thai curry, and that, this time, it would not send my American intestinal tract to the outhouse.  Especially since it was -25°F last night.

Yellow curry in a delightful bowl from the Tanana Valley Farmer's Market.

Here’s the recipe we managed to throw together:

Yellow Thai Curry with White Shrimp and Green Beans

  • 15-20 peeled, raw white shrimp
  • 1 small, finely julienned ginger root
  • 3-4 keffir lime leaves
  • 1 clove garlic, sliced
  • 1 large handful of fresh green beans, ends removed, cut into 1 inch pieces
  • 1 large lobe of shallot, julienned
  • 1 can of coconut milk
  • 1 tbsp of yellow curry paste (I used Mae Ploy brand)
  • 1/4 cup peanut oil
  • 1 tbsp Marukan seasoned gourmet rice vinegar

1. Get the peanut oil extremely hot (peanut oil is preferred both for taste and because it has a high smoking temperature, which means you can get it super hot before it begins to smoke and subsequently catches your cabin on fire).

Slightly more than caramelized? Maybe.

2. Add vegetable ingredients except for a smidge of the ginger and 1 or 2 of the lime leaves.  Turn the heat down when the ingredients begin to caramelize.

3. Add 1/2 the coconut milk, curry paste, and the peeled shrimp.

4. Let it simmer while you throw another log on the fire.

Chop wood. Drink wine.

5. Add the rest of the coconut milk, ginger, and lime leaves.

6.  Serve over rice, or, if you forgot to bring the rice (like I did) eat it as is.





Caveats: First of all, let me say that this recipe is good, but I’m not going to claim it’s genius. I have a lot to learn about the proportions and cooking order of Thai ingredients.  Also, I’m the kind of cook who thinks cooking from recipes is The Man trying to stifle my creativity; therefore, I have to learn the hard way sometimes.  And that often means making food that can be improved upon. By all means, if you have suggestions for this recipe, fire away.

In other news: It turns out the Hot Boyfriend couldn’t get home for Christmas, which means I will have company for Christmas.  He’s hoping I will cook his grandmother’s  Ham Balls, which I will share with you so long as I don’t utterly destroy a cherished family meal because I refuse to follow directions.

Where Can I Get Durian Fruit In Fairbanks, Alaska?

17 Dec

First of all, it’s still -37°F here, and we are down to 3 hours and 44 minutes of light.  The sun will rise a paltry 2.1° above the horizon today.

Second of all, I got quite the culinary shock yesterday.  After all the bitching I did in my last post about the lack of novelty here, I’m eating my own sour words for breakfast.  I remembered the other day that many years ago there was a tiny, shoebox sized Asian Market in an ugly but useful part of town.  It turns out that the Market is now slightly larger but located in the arse end of the industrial section of Fairbanks; but the best adventures are the ones that take you into uncharted territory.  Sometimes you end up with the Holy Grail.

Here’s a short list of what I found in this poorly marked storefront: durian fruit (no kidding! It was frozen, but who cares? Durian, by the way, stinks to high heaven but apparently tastes really good), balut (what’s that? a fertilized duck an embryo inside, boiled and eaten in the shell), loads of octopus, beef blood, pork blood, keffir lime leaves (this was my favorite find), salted black beans (like the ones in Korean restaurants), saffron flowers, fish balls (not testicles, more like meatballs), gunpowder tea, and tasty little anchovies that had been fried to a crisp and coated in sugar and sesame seeds.  I could go on.

So why does a Market like this exist in the Tundra? The Asian population in Alaska is at 5%, which is higher than the national average.  There are, by my estimation, in a town of less than 100,000 (we are, after all, the Fastest Growing Small Town In America!!), 11 Thai, 8 Chinese, 5 Korean, 3 Japanese, and 5 generic Asian restaurants.  I’ve always wondered why this is.  Here is Bob’s theory, the white, Alaska-born part-owner (his Vietnamese wife is the other half) of the Asian Market: In the days of yore, when men were men and few women had little interest in roughing it in the Wilds of Alaska, some men decided that they would mail-order their wives.  Most of the orders were filled by places like Thailand and Korea.  I can’t imagine what some poor, young Thai girl in the 70’s thought when she first stepped off the plane into “America” and found herself in the Circumpolar North.  She probably started a restaurant so that she could afford the plane ticket to get the hell out of here and back to Thailand.

Also, Bob reminded me, there are two army bases and one Air Force base in town, both of which increase the Asian populations here and the familiarity of Asian food on the local palate.


So, last night I brought home a significant booty:

And with that, I made a delicious but paltry imitation of Thai food.  Just because you have the ingredients doesn’t mean you will get the proportions right.  I have a lot to learn about Thai cooking, but at least I have a source for the ingredients now.  Next entry: “How to Cook an Octopus”

Eskimo Ice Cream and the Appeal of the “Exotic”

13 Dec

“I want to shake off the dust of this one-horse town. I want to explore the world. I want to watch TV in a different time zone. I want to visit strange, exotic malls…I want to live, Marge! Won’t you let me live?” -Homer Simpson

I teach college English in this little one-horse town (or, should I say, one-moose town). I teach a World Literature course most semesters, and during a recent class discussion we monkeyed about with the idea of animals as symbols.  At some point we came around to the special case of dead animals as symbols, in other words, food as symbol.  And since we’re dealing with literature from many different cultures, most of my students were referring to the foods in question as “exotic food.”  But it isn’t exotic if you live there, is it?

This is diced raw whale skin and attached blubber. I found it tasty, like a savory chewing gum.

After having lived in Alaska for over 15 years, I’ve eaten a number of foods outsiders consider exotic or at the very least unusual: muktuk (diced, raw whale skin and blubber), aqutak (sometimes called “eskimo ice cream“, many variations but most made from animal fat, sugar, and wild berries), salmon cheesecake, fireweed honey, and even bear meat (which was just terrible).  None of these things are part of my main diet.  Fairbanks is as Westernized as any Alaska town can get, and I have wonderful access to almost any kind of foodstuffs I could ever want.  Except for figs. There are never any figs.  And oddly enough, we have 11 Thai food restaurants here.  11.  Foreign cuisine is actually somewhat plentiful, but one can only visit those 11 restaurants so many times until they too become as appealing as visiting the outhouse at forty below.

Growing up in the South, there were things we ate that outsiders to the Bible Belt might consider exotic: boiled peanuts (I would have given one or two of my toes to have had a batch of these while pregnant), collard greens, grits, a handful of salty peanuts thrown into a cold bottle of Coke, and all manner of pickled meats and meat byproducts (pig’s feet, calf’s brains, eggs).  But it’s a modern world, and honestly I can get all of these things, except for the boiled peanuts, at my local grocery store.

I would revel in my access to unusual Alaskan and Southern foods, but when you have regular access to these things, they lose some of their appeal.  My lust for travel, for novel experiences rages unabated most days.  It’s 10:30 a.m. right now and the sun has yet to make an appearance here.  My office window only reflects the indoors back at me; it isn’t light enough for a window to be a gateway, only a mirror.  I’m sick of seeing myself, sick of what I already know.

In honor of my boredom, I offer you a recipe for aqutak.  It’s a recipe one of my students from Chevak gave me over the summer, and she remarked that this is the “white” version of akutaq, claiming that real akutaq uses animal fat and seal oil, not anything store bought.

This is a nice mix of berries we gather every fall in Alaska.

Agutuk (or Akutaq) Eskimo Ice Cream

  • 1lb boiled, shredded halibut (or other white fish if you don’t regularly go halibut fishing in Homer, AK)
  • 3 pounds Crisco shortening
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 gallon of wild hand-picked berries from the arctic (or from your freezer section if you don’t live in Alaska)

Combine the shortening, oil, and sugar and whip into an exotic frenzy. Mix in the fish and berries and wear a parka while eating for authenticity.

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