Eating Like an Alaskan?: Quarantine Reflections on the Anchorage Museum’s “What Why How We Eat” Exhibition

Abigail Adams
Central Connecticut State University

I’m writing from my dining room table and the CostCo bulk carton of matzoh peeks at me from a kitchen cupboard. I’m reminded of Sailor Boy Pilot Bread. Interbake Foods manufactures these simple, tough, oversized crackers in Richmond, Virginia and sells 98 percent of them in Alaska.

I’ve been eating essentially the same menu since March 12. There is some variety—I am an anthropologist and my larder is stocked with the basics for world-curious cuisine. But I’m not a foodie and I’m happy treating food like a uniform. My mind is on other decisions now. Except for a pharmacy foray for Easter candy and milk, I shopped four times for groceries during the two months of Connecticut’s “Stay Home Stay Safe.” I was focused on teaching online and trying to save my department–and higher education while I’m at it.

And I can’t stop thinking about Alaska.

This time last year, I had just returned from the AFHVS/ASFS conference in Anchorage, which included an evening reception at the Anchorage Museum and tour of its spectacular What Why How We Eat exhibition. That is where I first saw the Pilot Bread now evoked by my own stores of shelf-stable matzoh.

Pilot bread!

The exhibition closed this January but lives on in the The Whale and the Cupcake: Stories of Subsistence, Longing, and Community in Alaska (University of Washington Press/ Anchorage Museum, December 13, 2019), written by Julia O’Malley and edited by Julie Decker, Director, Anchorage Museum.

I missed posting in FoodAnthro last summer about the exhibit, but I am seizing this moment now, given the resemblance between my/our COVID-19 subsistence strategies and Alaska’s regular food reality, realities that were curated beautifully in the Anchorage Museum exhibit.

The exhibit was interactive to its very core. We missed the urban harvest classes (I could use those urban harvest classes now!), cooking demonstrations, bike tours to community gardens, recipe swaps and workshops, but I jump-scared when I opened a cabinet in the exhibit’s first room and a Native woman began speaking to me: it was a video but it took me a moment. This space was a working kitchen, with cabinets, fridge, freezer and drawers filled with videos, photos.

That first area highlighted another key exhibit theme, “the changing story of food culture in Alaska — from the subsistence whale hunt in Point Hope to the Halal market in Anchorage…. one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the US., thanks, in part, to an influx of refugees…”.

The kitchen utensil drawer paid homage to the Alaskan and traditional skills of self-provisioning. It was really a toolbox, with unique items for processing wild foods, canning, dining on crab, etc. The next room was a journey through the different landscapes, traditional harvests and subsistence work where people live close to the land and the weather to catch and process food: caribou, whale, crab, salmon. 

And the new Alaskans, their foods and experiences, were integrated throughout the exhibit. The exhibit designers made the kitchen “work” for all Alaskan peoples, for example, they stocked the shelves with a variety of culturally-favored carbs. Another room featured Everyone Is Welcome Here, a 2018 project by artists Sergio De La Torre and Chris Treggiari, which “used food as the lens for exploring the immigrant and refugee experience in Alaska.” There was also exhibit space for Alaskan fusion cooking and creativity, resonating with the “multi-cultural” condiments of my quarantine cabinets. During last June’s conference, we met and ate with many of these “new” Alaskans as well, thanks to Liz Snyder, UAA professor, conference organizer, co-director of the Food Research, Enterprise, and Sustainability Hub and one of the exhibit co-developers.

Shelves of culturally-favored carbs, photo credit Emily Yates-Doerr

Beauty informed the exhibit, not a surprise, given curator Francesca DuBrock’s usual métier of fine art. At one point, I stood entranced by a wall that I thought was an art installation: an enormous-format arrangement of seed packs—including fictive seed packs for edible wild plants that Alaskans regularly forage. Behind me, hydroponic wall panels planted with mint and salanova lettuce grew, adding to the smells and aesthetics of the space. The exhibit was also acknowledging the growing numbers of Alaskan farmers. This spring, along with record numbers of US-Americans, one of my sources of delight during the dark coronavirus isolation was sorting through seed packs, planning the vegetable and cutting gardens that now grow around me.

Grocery prices across Alaska Photo credit: Emily Yates-Doerr

After visiting Alaska during the summer weeks when the state’s soaring temperatures and searing forest fires made national news, I took home the example of Alaskans’ food resilience in the face—in the teeth—of climate change.  I posted in FoodAnthro, “We are all facing harsh, stark, extreme environmental change, and Alaskans may be well-positioned to weather the Future that is coming.”

I did NOT foresee this pandemic Future! But the museum presciently tackled Alaska’s fundamental food insecurity, and its exhibits were instructive for our current COVID-19 moment. I wrapped up this blog post listening to a radio essay about skyrocketing food prices in the coronavirus lower 48.  One of the exhibition’s closing walls showcased the price of groceries in different Alaska communities. A gallon of milk in Anchorage costs about $4 while the same gallon would cost closer to $10 on the North Slope. If a natural disaster disabled the Port of Anchorage, Anchorage grocery store food shelves and cold cases would be bare in just five days.

That natural disaster arrived, in the form of the coronavirus. The pandemic plopped Alaska’s food dependence squarely in the middle of its residents’ plates. Faced more than panic-picked-over grocery shelves; food supplies to remote communities stopped when the small-plane business that serves those communities went COVID–bankrupt. One grocer made “the 14-hour boat trip to Costco every week to supply his small remote city with groceries amid the pandemic.” Alaska’s fossil fuel-dependent economy and state budget (already struggling since the 2014 slide in oil prices) crashed, directly due to the pandemic. Last summer, as I celebrated Alaskans’ resilience, flexibility and subsistence skills, I overlooked Alaska’s contribution to the global climate crisis.

But I did not miss it completely: during our conference, our incredible University of Alaska hosts learned that their university budget was to be cut by 40%. Appropriately, the metaphors deployed by the media were food metaphors, as in Governor Dunleavy ordering the university to “trim,” as in “trim budgetary fat,” when in truth he was ordering a butchering.

His solution? Essentially economic stimulus payments. Dunleavy proposed nearly doubling the Alaskan Permanent Fund Dividend to residents, the yearly dividend that Alaskans receive from the state’s formerly enormous oil wealth.

In the end, UAA’s budget cuts were 7% and Alaskans received the same dividend as the $1600 of the previous year. But as I received my pandemic economic stimulus payment this Spring (my own… Pandemic Dividend?) and watched my university’s enrollment and budget tank, I look once again at the matzoh in my cupboard.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, applied anthropology, ASFS, Pandemic

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