The Biggest Little State in the North
Alaska, briefly, as seen through the eyeholes of a humble Lower 48-er.
September 25, 2015
The terrain stretches and shrinks as J pinches and drags the mouse around the map.Army green blocks merge with brown contours and flat blue. One flick sends us zooming across the Alaskan peninsula, scanning. Little red digital pins huddle together, overlapping one another, in the major cities: Juneau, Anchorage. Elsewhere, in the middle of forests, standing alone on hills we can only imagine, a few others.
“What are you looking for?” I ask.
“Somewhere where we can actually get away,” he says, squinting. He zooms in further, to a green inlet surrounded on all sides by the Gulf of Alaska. One solitary red pin, teetering on the edge of Kasitsna Bay, hours away from anything resembling a city, reveals itself. There it is.
It will only take five hours by plane, four hours in a car weaving through mountains, and an hour or so on a ferry boat to get there. In an odd and determined quest to discover evidence of a food movement in a state people tend to forget about, this is where we will go first. Seldovia.
The utter lack of sound at night is impossible to wrap your head around at first. So is the darkness, total and enveloping, which doesn’t arrive until well past 10 pm. The trees creak, the wind sluicing through them conjuring visions of a rushing river that does not exist.
The only book that has been left here, in the physical manifestation of that little red pin we saw so many weeks ago, is The Old Man and the Sea. It’s a fitting choice for a 450 square-foot cabin on the side of a quiet mountain, in a town with a population of approximately three-hundred and fifty. There is one road in and out of what constitutes downtown, and from where we are it is eight miles of dusty track, lined with berry bushes and fireweed, before you arrive at a collection of storefronts along the dock.
We’ve come to Alaska because I once worked with a guy who grew up here—a fierce cook who would show up with his brother’s homemade foie and bear sausage, or maybe it was moose, after his trips home—and the idea sounded grand and somehow brave at the time. Majestic, maybe, the way mountains often seem to city folk.
While it’s true that the collective mind of the Lower 48 tends towards remote, rugged abundance when pondering Alaska, it doesn’t take long to notice that most things come from somewhere else. The grocery in town, The Crab Pot, is one of those places that has everything and nothing. The shelves are a mishmash of things with prices sharpied on by hand. Pears in a plastic clamshell are tucked in the fridge alongside cartons of milk, Ziploc bags full of salt are found by the fly hooks. It’s brand name or no-name.
Our first restaurant stop turns out to be a contentious one among the locals. It’s traded hands a few times, gone through some controversial menu changes. There are rumors— whispered with scandalized offense—of frozen fish in the kitchen. It may or may not be in an upswing under its new owners, from what we hear. Small towns! The Tide Pool Café is empty today, save for Tamara, the lone waitress, and a cook who remains hidden in the bowels of the kitchen. Slices of cherry pie line the display case, unclaimed. We order battered cod, and take two ceramic mugs of coffee to the picnic tables outside.
Fish launch themselves out of the cerulean water along the docks and slap back down…stillness for a moment, then another one pops a few feet away. Far away to the right, towards the mouth of the harbor, a lithe figure glides through the current. We ask Tamara when she returns with the fish.
“That’s Odie,” she says, shading her eyes and peering out at the spot where we point, two deranged kids at an aquarium. “You know it’s him because he has a huge head. I can’t believe you’ve never seen an otter before!”
(We have of course seen an otter before, just not one lazily backstroking in a harbor, fuzzed belly to the clouds.)
Frozen or not, the cod is pretty killer, mostly due to a batter wrought from a local Amber Ale. Raised as I was on the gnarled hard-crunch of Northern California fish and chips, this version, crackly (even while doused in vinegar) and clinging close to the filet, rules. Tamara refills our mugs three times while we watch the sky bluster around and lick the salt off our fingers.
When the time comes to head back to the mainland, we call the only taxi in town, rather than hiking eight miles with our luggage in tow. It turns out to be a dusty station wagon with a blinker on top, HALO CAB spelled out in black letters. Out pops Perley Morrison, sinewy of forearm and springy of step despite the ashy gray of his beard. “Perley?” we say.
“Like the Pearly Gates!” he says.
Halo Cab was a solution to a problem not many realized the town had—reliable public transportation. It only came about recently, because Perley Morrison came about recently.
Morrison’s son, who had been living in Seldovia, passed away in 2008 after a car crash. He came to not only bury his son, but raise his infant granddaughter, Nevaeh. Two months later, his wife passed. He decided to settle down in this little town where so much had happened to him so fast. He remarried, to a woman named Bobby Gese; little red-headed Nevaeh grew older. He’s been here ever since.
The previous cab driver on the island, he explains, was an unreliable drunk. You never quite knew if he was coming to pick you up or not, and he sometimes made drives into town with a beer tucked between his legs. He and Gese saw an opportunity, and they’ve been part-time cabbies for two years now.
Morrison, as he tells it, is a jack of all trades and a master of none. He craves the slow pace of the deep wilderness, quotes Andrew Carnegie at length, and here’s what we didn’t see coming: he’s now gunning to become the first commercial rabbitry in the state.
Rabbits, because Seldovia is a meat-starved community, Morrison says. The car jolts over a pothole. Fishing town though it is, substantial protein is hard to come by for most of the year; black bears are around, but moose aren’t, and neither are reindeer. Flying in something as extravagant as steak, or taking the ferry into the nearest town to buy it, are both prohibitively expensive for the residents of this tiny place—half of whom are seasonal, anyway.
But rabbits? Rabbit meat is ranked number one in heart health, he says, leaning in the curves of the road. The birth cycle of rabbits is fast enough to ensure a rolling supply. They live inside. They preserve well, in terrines, or patés. Not to mention, their manure is like crack for the earth—potent enough to make a difference as a fertilizer, but not high enough in nitrogen to do the kind of damage cow manure might. To let the community know he had product to move, Morrison slapped a flier up in the Post Office. “Get the Scoop on Rabbit Poop” it said. The sign-up list below became affectionately known as the “shit-list.” It worked. He can’t keep said shit in stock.
He studied all this for three years, reading everything he could from his house on the bay, and set to work building a processing facility next door. The space is full of rabbit cages and stainless-steel stations, the smell of bleach ghosts the air. The rabbits are of the New Zealand variety, white with pink eyes. There are a few bucks and twice as many does, and separate cages for the resulting litters. The funk of sawdust and excrement settles in our nostrils.
He has designs on cruise liners, fancy restaurants all over the Pacific Northwest—circles where rabbit is already accepted as a fine dining provincial staple. If not quite world domination, Hare-E Rabbitry is poised to become a local phenomenon. His neighbors need not worry about being shut out as demand climbs; his rabbits are meant to feed Seldovians first, and he’s vowed to price them to this community. (He emails me later to mention he's pondering a food truck he could drive around the state to bring rabbit meat to the people. "Kentucky Fried Chicken, here I come," he writes.)
He has already given two rabbits away as beta testers, one of which went to the proprietress of the café he sends us to, a few doors down from his.
Amon, of Amon’s Coffee House, Gallery & Gifts, is barefoot behind the counter when we walk in. She has blue moony eyes, and long, strawberry-blonde hair, and a mile-wide grin. Her espresso machine is a sporty cherry red. She chatters excitedly about the rabbit Morrison gifted her, which even her three-year old loved (seared, with vegetables), as she pulls fresh shots for our coffees.
Perley Morrison, and his rabbits.
A humpback whale shoots out of the water alongside the boat and arches through the air, National Geographic style, and the driver cuts the engine. Every passenger crowds to the edge of the deck, eyes trained on the surf, squealing. Way to be, Alaska.
The engines cough to life, and the onyx-blue sea bucks and roils beneath us as the ferry charges once more towards Homer.
Reunited with the car we had ditched in the ferry parking lot a few days ago, mildly sea-sick, still pumped about the whales, but facing a five-hour drive back to Anchorage, we pick the first restaurant along the pier and stumble in. Four different tables walk in, sit, and walk out. Blissfully unaware of the what they seem to see, I order King Crab legs on impulse, the prices swimming before my eyes. Two scantily-crossed thorny stems arrive on a platter that takes up half the table. The meat is perfect and sweet, sliding out the shell in-tact, and while J chews on limp breaded halibut filets, I annihilate the bounty of the Bering Sea.
“Market price” on those puppies turns out to be $65. YOLO, I guess.
No matter which way you drive in Alaska, mountains stare down in bulky silence. Snatches of milky blue river flash between trees, blurred by speed. Sometimes there is a kayak with two men bobbing calmly up and down, fishing poles aloft, eyes on the watery depths. Sometimes there is nothing but massive moose ass hoofing it off the road. J drums on the steering wheel when the radio fuzzes out of range.
In Anchorage, we eat at Guy Conley’s Fat Ptarmigan twice. Mostly because we are suckers for pizza, but also because they have a rad local beer list and cherry cream sodas and it’s fairly close to where we’re crashing. The first time, Conley is manning the pizza oven, throwing dough like it’s nothing, staring out at the murmuring calm of the dining room. The pace seems manageable, predictable. The second time, it’s slow, and Conley is working expo, so I sidle up in a minimally creepy fashion. I want to know what someone who has been exposed to food scenes we might call progressive—he spent five years working in places like Portland, Oregon—makes of this place.
He doesn’t hesitate to define the food scene here as in its infancy. Born in Fairbanks but raised in Anchorage, he’s the kind of cook who hates tweezers and wanted his restaurant to feel like it could be a modern, modest pizzeria in any city. (It mostly works, but the giveaway is the option for reindeer sausage.) He’s not really sure what it would mean for Anchorage to have “arrived,” or what that would look like, but it’s clear it’s heading somewhere. He’s been back for 15 years, and to hear him tell it, and it’s a totally different beast than the one he left. Asian influences are really taking off, since residents of Asian descent are consistently the second largest ethnic group here. The culinary result is not unlike an exercise in time-capsuling: coconut milk, star fruit, mango salsa, wontons, lemongrass, all appear in some fashion on most menus. Anchorage might be living out New York City’s early aughts fusion heyday, but it means it’s progressing.
Ginger, for example, the restaurant next door he helped open and run for seven years, had a lot to do with moving the culinary conversation forward. The local news declares it a place that feels like LA or New York, which means there’s an ahi tuna tower, chicken in lettuce hand wraps, and a Szechuan-coconut crusted Snake River Farms Wagyu strip. By occupying a thematic space, it’s evocative of a certain place in time, but lacks the dogmatic microterroir-driven ideology that reigns on the coasts.
This is most clearly the case at the special occasion spot in town we’re told is unmissable: Marx Bros. Café. It was hailed as “the best restaurant in Alaska,” by the Anchorage Daily News…in 1991. It is still packed most nights, despite its price tag, because it is a beloved classic.
Marx Bros. is a house, technically. Fourteen tables are arranged in the parlor, and the server station is tucked under the master staircase. This place probably crushed it in 1991, which I know because the style of the offerings doesn’t seem to have changed since. It is a French-style menu with Alaskan trappings. A salmon mousse lands at the table alongside ours, a rectangular slice of what looks like Neapolitan ice cream cake without the chocolate, garnished with caviar and pointy toasts. Steamed, pristinely unseasoned veg line entrée plates. The tableside Caesar they are known for is as good a show as it always is, but eating your way through a mountain of romaine is a slog, which we all tend to forget. Old-school certainly works, with flawless execution. Without it, it’s simply behind the times.
The rockfish en papillote comes dressed with a scallion wine sauce that seems to have curdled in the humid embrace of the parchment. The rockfish is dry. It is at this point in the meal when I wonder whether Marx Bros. Café is frozen in time because they choose to be, or because no one is asking them to do otherwise. If the impulse towards innovation arises from a combination of customer demand and youthful curiosity, but there is no semblance of that demand, how does a community of restaurants enter the modern fold? Is curiosity enough?
Rustic Goat, on the other end of downtown, is reaching for what they call an all-American comfort ideal. M83 and Bloc Party play over the speakers, and it nails a very certain niche—peaches on pizza and a small plates section, with a ubiquitous beet salad. The beer list is healthily stacked with IPAs, like the fridge of someone who has just discovered they are a beer person. The design is slick and highbrow, vaguely Seattleite—hefty wooden beams, tall windows, metal stools—with a shiny new open kitchen. The service is less Midwestern hospitality and more casual urbanite, friendly girls with ponytails and wide smiles, outfitted in all black. In the online reviews we skim from the car, some people declare it a major step forward for Anchorage. Some say they’re full of themselves and can’t back up their own hype.
[A word about pizza, actually: it’s everywhere. Perhaps the notion of experimentation is best supported by the humble pizza—a concept familiar enough not to spook trusting, simple eaters and yet broaden their horizons. All one needs as proof that Alaskan chefs are itching to advance is their treatment of it: Wood-fired. Peach-laden. Honey ricotta. House-made pepperoni.]
The most elegant presentation of fish comes unexpectedly, at a brewery. The salmon poke at Seward Brewing Company is not buried under a pineapple-mango salsa. Instead, it's delicately studded with black sesame and crowned with simple julienned radish. That’s it. It’s quiet and well-executed. The reindeer dog is not quiet, by contrast. Dressed in bacon and beer cheese on a pretzel bun, overflowing alongside house potato chips, it’s a gut-blaster. But! While it could have been wrapped in poor man’s bacon, pork belly has instead been hard-seared and scattered on top like the middle-ground between bacon bits and lardons. The slaw, a staple on most plates we encounter, is not left to puddle in it’s own weird mayo-cabbage juices. It’s cumin-scented and citrusy. There are little touches everywhere on the menu that signal some variance of a thoroughly upscale attention to detail.
Chef Erik Slater, it turns out, has Washington culinary chops in his blood, along with a stint through Thailand. He currently holds a spot on the Chefs Congress, and serves on the board of the Alaska Culinary Academy down the street.
The only thing I can think, for the rest of the drive home, is how terrifyingly easy it would have been for us to breeze past it and be none the wiser.
So, sure, we set out for the far North hoping to find a brilliant culinary recluse somewhere in the mountains, with a restaurant mirroring the kind found in the deep wilds of Sweden or Denmark. We didn’t quite find it. What we did find was a community of cooks slowly feeding off each other’s discoveries and creative impulses. But that’s the thing about hidden treasures, isn’t it? They don’t have to present themselves to exist.
Alaska is crazy big, if you haven’t heard.