On the Trail of Alaskan Cuisine

SALMON, halibut, and crab. Alaska's association with this trio of seafoods is legendary. But, just as there's more to California cuisine than avocados and oranges, food from the ``last frontier'' is not limited to underwater critters.

What else do they eat in Alaska? I began my quest for a broader definition of Alaskan cuisine at the gift shop of the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.

On the cookbook rack, one particular title caught my eye: ``The Riversong Lodge Cookbook: World-Class Cooking in the Alaskan Bush'' (Alaska Northwest Books, 1993), by Kirsten Dixon, a Cordon Bleu (Paris) graduate. The cover is handsome, but most intriguing was the concept of ``world-class cooking'' at a fishing lodge 70 miles northwest of Anchorage that's accessible by only float plane or barge.

Culinary specialties

My husband and I later arranged to visit Riversong on the final day of our recent 10-day trip. When digging for further background on the lodge, we tapped a key source: Anchorage Daily News food critic Kim Severson.

Over a delightful lunch at Jens', one of her favorite haunts in the city, Ms. Severson raved about Riversong, suggested other places for us to eat and explore, and enlightened us about the coming-of-age of Alaska cuisine.

``The state is starting to have a sensibility about its own foods,'' she says, explaining that it has traditionally borrowed from the cuisine of Northwestern states, such as Washington and Oregon, but that the trend in regional cooking that has spread throughout the lower 48 states has finally migrated north to Alaska.

Alaska can boast not only ``the best seafood in the world,'' but also cabbages that grow ``bigger than your head,'' thanks to the nutrient-rich soil and all-night sun during the summer months, she told us.

She listed other native crops: root vegetables, berries (a favorite of Alaskan bears), fiddlehead ferns, and green sorrel. Also available is a bounty of venison, caribou, moose, and reindeer. We found that the latter often appears in the form of breakfast sausage and is served with another culinary specialty of the region: sourdough pancakes.

The most memorable batch we tasted was at Trapper John's Bed and Breakfast in Talkeetna, an unpretentious and colorful community of 500, which is the climbers' gateway to Denali, also known as Mt. McKinley. When the general-store owner jokingly introduced herself as ``Ruth Ann,'' we confirmed its lesser claim to fame: as the town that the hit TV series ``Northern Exposure'' was modeled after.

At Trapper John's B&B, our warm and spirited hostess, Greta Perkins, served welcome stacks of paper-thin sourdough pancakes made from starter she had acquired from a friend a few years earlier.

She loaned me her dogeared copy of ``Cooking Alaskan,'' a 500-page tome written, simply, ``By Alaskans'' (Alaska Northwest Books, 1983). The chapter ``From Cache & Cupboard'' touches on Alaska's love affair with sourdough, which dates back to the state's gold-mining days when a pot or crock of starter was always nearby during prospecting expeditions.

En route to Riversong

Several days and many syrupy heaps of hot cakes later, we finally took off from Anchorage to Riversong Lodge in a six-seater float plane. During the 40-minute flight with Rust's Air Service, we covered miles of wilderness - forests, ponds, and rivers; we spotted grazing moose on the ground below and majestic Denali (native American name for ``The High One'') in the distance.

We had set out to taste the ``world-class'' cooking of Kirsten Dixon at her family's 10-year-old rustic log-cabin retreat on the Yentna River. But not so fast.

We were greeted by a small motor boat driven by enthusiastic Jim Sehl. ``Welcome. I'll be your fishing guide for the day,'' he beamed while passing out hearty handshakes.

Within moments after Jim delivered us to the riverbank, we shed our life jackets, and swatted a few of the state's notoriously pesky mosquitoes, the Dixons had us signing up to fish in nearby Lake Creek.

`World's best fishing'

Lake Creek brims with five varieties of spawning salmon - Chinook (King), Chum (Dog), Sockeye (Red), Coho (Silver) and Pink (Humpy) - they told us. ``This is the best fishing in the world, you may as well get out there,'' Ms. Dixon urged.

We realized that elaborate meals are only part of the Riversong experience and that, for some guests - especially a gregarious group of Austrian men, who were there the same day - getting one bite on the river adds more to their enjoyment than an entire meal at the table.

We were fortunate on both counts. As bald eagles loomed in the cloudless sky above, beavers patroled at nearby banks, and the birch and spruce parted to reveal snow-capped mountains, King salmon tugged on each of our lines in the shallow waters below.

Back in the dining room, we feasted on simple but sublime country-style cooking created by Dixon and her team of three sous-chefs. Grilled fare - shrimp on skewers, Hawaiian Ono tuna, marinated veal chops, and bell peppers dazzled the eye in a painterly presentation along with pulled pork in a barbecue sauce, potato salad, three-bean salad, and angel-food cake with raspberries.

The spread was surprisingly fresh considering that all Riversong provisions - with the exception of salmon, of course, and several varieties of homegrown herbs, vegetables, and edible flowers - are shuttled in daily via float plane from Anchorage.

Impromptu meals

There's no menu. Riversong's remoteness calls for a spontaneous system of meal planning that's dictated by weather, what's in season, and intuition about the palates of guests on hand.

Last summer, Riversong averaged about 25 guests per day. Some hop over from Anchorage for an afternoon; others travel from as far away as Europe and Japan and may stay for a week.

Dixon strives to cook with Alaska's indigenous foods as much as possible, but she also dips into offerings from the Northwest and Hawaii. She describes herself as ``a regional cook within the limitations of a harsh environment.''

This niche has served her well. Esquire magazine recently named her ``one of America's 10 best young chefs,'' and she wowed foodies recently when she was a guest chef at New York's James Beard House. One local critic referred to her as the ``only Alaskan chef who's dined with Julia Child.''

Last year she published her first cookbook, which includes 160 recipes that are grouped by season and interspersed with lore about life on the river.

In an interview on the lodge deck, Dixon remarked that at the same time she is gaining recognition, the state of Alaska is asserting its culinary identity.

``We're at an exciting point in Alaska,'' she said, explaining that as cruise ships and an international airport have made the state more accessible to the world, the cuisine has become more sophisticated and ethnically diverse.

Alaska's growing accessibility has also boosted the caliber of its restaurants. Several folks we spoke with recommended a string of gastronomic temples in Anchorage, many known for award-winning chefs: in addition to Jens', the Marx Brothers Cafe, the Crow's Nest, and the Corsair.

Dixon explained that Alaska's tourist demographics are shifting: R.V.s (or ``land whales'' as some natives call them) seem to outnumber backpacks, pointing to the heavy influx of casual sightseers and the shrinking numbers of rugged adventurers.

A `dogged approach'

During these changing times, she and her soft-spoken husband, Carl (who tends to the fishing operation and builds guest cabins), have not only expanded their business, but also home-schooled their two daughters and acclimated to backcountry life. In recent years this has included cohabiting with a black bear sow and her two cubs, who forage nightly in the camp's dump.

The secret to their success? ``Our dogged approach,'' says Dixon, with a definitive bite into her shortbread cookie. ``We would never accept that we wouldn't do well.''

The allure of a little world-class cooking in a tranquil and bucolic setting certainly hasn't hurt either.

Just then, we heard a triumphant shout from across the river. A grin broke on Dixon's face, and she said knowingly: ``Ahhhh. Someone's caught a fish.''

* In addition to the two cookbooks already mentioned, we also recommend `Alaska Sourdough,' by one of the state's foremost sourdough historians, Ruth Allman (Alaska Northwest Books, 1976).

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