"The Whale & the Cupcake: Stories of Subsistence, Longing & Community in Alaska,” by Anchorage writer Julia O’Malley, is one of the latest entries into the increasingly popular genre of the cookbook memoir. Only instead of telling her life through her cooking, the author uses 11 recipes, and their back stories, to reveal the lives of Alaskans.
The chapters of this slim paperback have appeared as stand-alone articles in publications as varied as The New York Times, Al Jazeera America, Edible Alaska and Alaska Magazine, so each section has a distinct tale to tell and recipe to offer. But to read them gathered together is to realize that while Alaskans may live in wildly different circumstances and climates, one unifying factor is how creative we are in combining the locally wild-sourced fruits, vegetables and wildlife, with the boxed and canned goods from Outside. The culinary influences of our indigenous cultures, combined with the foods and cooking styles brought along by our many immigrants (both from other states and other countries), and the difficulty in finding fresh ingredients readily available in other places, have resulted in a fusion food culture unique to this state.
O’Malley has a relaxed and respectful writing style, and lets the people preparing the foods tell their own stories. Pretty much no matter what your favorite food, there will be a chapter with some connection to it. My favorite — possibly because I love cake above all other desserts (perhaps above all other foods) — was the one on how cake mixes, which are sneered at by foodies, hold a special place in the hearts of villagers. Depending on the weather, you may not be able to find eggs, milk or butter in remote areas, but with the help of Betty Crocker and mayo or a bottle of soda, you can produce a cake. And cakes are not just for family parties, they have helped women earn a living while saving people’s lives, and sending folks on a dignified farewell to the next life. As O’Malley explains, “Fund-raisers known as cakewalks — a variation on musical chairs — are held to send whole basketball teams to the Lower 48, support people through chemotherapy or pay for coffins.”
If you think these stories are not your stories, think again. If you’ve gone hunting, substituted caribou or bear for beef in a casserole, eaten moose head soup at a potluck, brought your famous salmon dip to a party, made a chocolate sourdough layer cake, or bought Spam musubi when you were last in Anchorage, you are part of the story. If your Thanksgiving turkey sits alongside whale flipper, wild blueberry pie, pumpkin pie and akutuq (Eskimo ice cream), you are part of the story.
One of the sadly predictable results of living in this state is that over time, we lose the ability to be awestruck by the astonishing variety — in geography, cultures, life-styles and foods. If you have had the great good fortune to have lived and traveled to all the places featured in “The Whale & the Cupcake,” reading this book will remind you of the foods both shared and distinctive to the various cities, towns and villages. If you have not traveled much, this book will whet your appetite for seeing more of Alaska. Until then, there are recipes that will give you a taste of what you have been missing.
Linden Staciokas is a freelance writer, gardener and cook who lives in Fairbanks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. (for health/food column)
“The Whale & the Cupcake: Stories of Subsistence, Longing & Community in Alaska”
By Julia O’Malley
Anchorage Museum and the University of Washington Press
Dulce de Leche Poppy Seed Cake
From chapter one, “In Alaska’s Far Flung Villages, Happiness is a Cake Mix.”
2 tablespoons melted butter or shortening, for the pan
2 tablespoons almond flour or all-purpose flour, for the pan
1/3 cup dulce de leche
1 cup water
1/2 cup canola oil
1 box yellow cake mix
1/3 cup poppy seeds
2 to 3 tablespoons powdered sugar, for dusting
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush the Bundt pan with melted butter, and then flour the pan with almond flour.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs and the dulce de leche until smooth, using a hand-held electric mixer or wooden spoon. Add the water, oil, cake mix and poppy seeds, and mix until the batter is well combined and not lumpy. Do not overmix.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 38 to 40 minutes, until the cake springs back when pressed lightly on the top with your finger. Remove it to a cooling rack for 5 minutes. Invert the cake on the rack, remove the pan, and let it cool.
To serve, place the cake on a serving platter and dust with powdered sugar.