“In a modest boardinghouse on an Alaskan island just 30 miles across the sea from Russia, a handwritten order form hangs on the refrigerator. There are photos of cakes a few women in this village can make for you: rectangles of yellow cake and devil’s food enrobed in buttercream, with local nicknames piped out in pink. Happy Birthday Bop-Bop,one reads. Another, Happy Birthday Siti-Girl.” J. O’Malley, New York Times
“Eating in rural Alaska is all about managing the expense and scarcity of store-bought food while trying to take advantage of seasonally abundant wild foods. Cash economies are weak, utilities and fuel are expensive and many families live below the federal poverty line.
To offset the cost of living, Alaska Natives here rely on traditional practices of hunting, fishing and gathering… In a good year, they fill freezers with moose, berries, caribou, salmon or marine mammals, depending on where they live. In a bad year, they have to buy more from the store.
The offerings in village stores often resemble those in the mini-marts or bodegas of America’s urban food deserts at two and three times the price.
Food journeys in via jet, small plane and barge. Milk and eggs spoil fast. Produce gets roughed up. Among the Hostess doughnuts, Spam and soda, cake mix is one of the few items on shelves everywhere that require actual cooking. As a result, tricking out mixes has become a cottage industry, and many villages have a Cupcake lady with her signature twist.
Some bake as a hobby, while others do a brisk business selling cakes in places where getting to a bakery requires a plane ticket. In the far north, bakers make cake with fondant photo prints of Inupiat whaling crews and serve it with mikigaq, fermented whale meat. On the western coast, mixes may be prepared with sea gull eggs. In the interior, pineapple upside-down cake is eaten with a salad made of lard, sugar, berries and whitefish. Some recipes call for nothing but a mix and a bottle of Sprite.
In Unalakleet, 300 miles west of Tanana on Norton Sound, Donna Erickson is a noted cake lady. Her most famous creation was born in a rush to get to a community potluck. She made a white cake and poured it into a sheet pan because she knew it would bake quickly.
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 she said. People were just like, Wow, can you make that again for me?
Rural Alaska has some of the highest rates of accidental death and suicide in the country. When there is tragedy in Unalakleet, bakers bring cakes to the school multipurpose room and lay them on a big table with corresponding numbers. Popular flavors include salmonberry, tundra blueberry and low-bush cranberry.
Then the cake walk begins: People buy a ticket, then circle the table while music plays. When it stops, somebody draws a number out of an old coffee can. The person standing by the corresponding cake wins that one and the money goes toward healing someones family, Donna Erickson said.
It’s a festive environment even though it’s a sad time.
You should see the cakes; they are so beautiful. Village bakers are so brilliant.”