Monday, January 15, 2007

Childhood Food Memories

I feel very blessed to have had the childhood I did, although for years, I did not appreciate it! I was born and grew up in Alaska, living in mostly Native American-populated villages. My parents were Salvation Army officers (ministers), doing mission work with the various native tribes. When I was older, they built a house by hand (no power tools), and they had a little farm, living nearly completely off the land. Because of this environment, I have had rich and varied experiences that many my age have not, and can understand and relate to the lives of my ancestors who lived pre-electricity, pre-running water, and pre-supermarkets.

Coming along hand-in-hand with these experiences was the assortment of foods that I enjoyed. I was born in Kodiak, whose native peoples were heavily influenced by the Russian culture. Here my parents learned to make pirok (salmon and rice pie, flavored with onion and hardboiled eggs), and kulich (Russian Easter bread - a heavy bread full of eggs and dried fruit, baked in a coffee can). Living on a minister's salary was not easy. I may be mistaken, but I believe that at that time, The Salvation Army paid its officers stationed in Alaska and Hawaii the same salary as those in the "Lower 48." This was disproportionate, since the cost of living in those two states is much higher, due to shipping charges being passed along by retailers to the consumers. I well remember eating pancakes and salmon frequently at the end of every month. In fact, salmon, so outrageously priced at my local supermarket, was as common as hot dogs are for most people during my growing up years. My parents owned a succession of several small outboard boats long before we had a car, as it simply was more practical to have a vehicle one could use on water to bring home the bacon--er salmon--with. For most of my childhood, we lived in or near the village of Klawock, on Prince of Wales Island, the third-largest island in the U.S. (after Long Island, New York, and Whidbey Island, Washington). The road from Klawock to Craig, a larger town mostly populated by Caucasians, was a treacherous 7-mile logging road remnant, and it was more convenient and less time-consuming for my parents to boat down than drive. Prices were slightly lower in Craig, and so they often did their shopping there. Later on, they would order by telephone to a grocery store in Ketchikan, and have their goods shipped over on a freighter that came to P.O.W. Island once a month.

Besides the many varieties of fish (salmon, halibut, coho, red snapper - some of which I helped Dad catch), there were clams, crab, and seaweed harvested from the sea. My favorite treats were the seaweed that would be spread on sheets on the rooftops in the summer to dry, and smoked salmon (nearly everyone I knew had a smokehouse). The kids I knew growing up loved Indian Cheese (fermented salmon eggs) with eulachon oil (a candlefish), but it was too strong for me. And speaking of kids, many would go salmon fishing on the bridge that spanned the mouth of the Klawock River where it fed into the bay. Fish that were considered "too small" were rarely tossed back in the water, but left to rot on the bridge or roadside. Dad often tells how when we moved to Northeast Washington and he saw the price of salmon in the supermarkets, he would remember all the rotting fish on the bridge, and silently mourn! I hated live crabs...they always looked malicious...and you had to put them in a large pot of water and slowly boil them to death. Once a crab crawled out of a pot Mom had on the stove, and I remember her shreiking and pushing it back in with a broom handle!

In addition to the bounty of the sea, the land gave as well. I don't really remember Dad going hunting, although I know he did. I do remember eating venison once in a while, although some may have been given to us by neighbors. I loved the way my mom prepared venison in a kind of barbeque sauce. In the fall, it was very common to see deer carcasses hanging off people's front porches to drain all the blood out of the meat before cutting it up.

Dad once shot a bear on our front porch--which is a blog for another day!--and he and Mom made delicious sausage from the oily meat, which I loved to eat for breakfast with waffles.

I fondly remember picking elderberries, blue huckleberries (erroneously referred to as blueberries by area residents), thimbleberries (a favorite of mine), and salmonberries (a wild raspberry with colors ranging from yellowish-orange to maroon). Mom and Dad made the best jams, jellies and pies. I did hate picking salmonberries, as they had thorns and their thin whip-like branches always seemed to slap me in the face when I followed Mom into the berry patches, with old coffee cans hung by our necks with strings to leave both hands free for picking. I remember always being a little nervous about black bears when berry picking, and to discourage any in the area, we would always sing loudly in the berry patches. When out playing in the woods, sometimes I would snack on wild currants, but I never remember anyone picking any to make jam or anything else with it. After my parents started their little farm, Mom experimented with drying ground salmonberries on waxed paper in our egg incubator, and came up with some great fruit leather.

Wild asparagus, a green about four inches high and a quarter-inch in diameter resembling the domestic asparagus, could be found near the beaches, and I liked it with butter and salt. But I disliked goose tongue, another wild green that looked like long, wide blades of grass. When steamed, its texture was too soggy for my liking.

The growing season was short and very wet (160 - 180 inches of rain a year), so mostly root crops flourished in my parents' garden: potatoes, carrots, turnips and radishes. There were also peas, lettuce, cabbage, kale and rhubarb. Dad tried strawberries in a barrel, but they never amounted to much. He had a green thumb, and grew beautiful roses, tulips, morning glory and honeysuckle, in addition to the vegetable garden.

On the farm, which we liked to refer to as the homestead, we raised goats, rabbits, pigs, chicken, ducks, and geese. Dad brought in Pygmy goats, because the miniature adults could be shipped in dog kennels in the small engine planes that delivered to the island. That way, he didn't have to wait for (goat) kids to grow up before breeding, milking, or butchering. Some friends of ours owned a restaurant and lodge; being from Texas, they had a barbeque pit for preparing their famous Tex-Mex foods. Dad bartered and was able to have a whole goat barbequed over the pit for several of the most delicious meals I've ever eaten! Of course, we drank goat's milk, and the folks experimented a bit with cheese-making, which if memory serves me right, ended up being a bit like Feta. We had two pigs at two different times, and each time Dad and Mom made wonderful sausage, as well as bacon, ham, head cheese and cracklings. The first time we had rabbit, they didn't tell me what it was, but kept making comments about how the "chicken" had four drumsticks! Of course, we had plenty of chicken, duck, and goose, along with eggs galore.

Mom made good old-fashioned sourdough bread from an old Alaskan recipe, sweetened with molasses and raisins (which kept the bread moist). She would bake it in coffee cans, a good half-dozen loaves at a time, then wrap them in foil or plastic bags to keep fresh. She made this bread for years, even after we moved to Washington, and it was a favorite Christmas gift among the neighbors from our home.

My parents felt it was important to starting incorporating elements of Dutch culture into our home. As a white child in a village of Indian children, I learned a great deal about the Tlinget culture at school, where we had "blocks" - elective classes in native dance and song, mythology, language, and crafts (beading, blanket making, and woodcarving). While this was certainly an enriching education, they wanted me to understand that I had my own heritage of which to be proud, and this was probably the beginning of my interest in genealogy. They determined that between them, I probably was nearly half Dutch and half English, with a bit of Heinz 57 thrown in for good measure. Being from Western Michigan, heavily populated by Dutch immigrants, they were familiar with the Dutch culture. One of the many things they did was to find a cookbook of traditional Dutch foods. Favorites included vijfschap (Five Kinds) - a beef stew with five kinds of vegetables and fruit (potatoes, onions, carrots, celery and apples) - and olie bolen (literally, "oily balls"), what we know as donut holes.

My all-time favorite treat growing up (and even now) was banket (bun-KET), a traditional Dutch pastry with almond paste filling. My grandfather would make it and send it in our Christmas package from the relatives on my mother's side of the family. A huge box would arrive, plastered over with sheets of stamps. Grandpa worked for the US Postal Service in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and he, along with my dad and myself, collected stamps. The box was a gift in itself! After Christmas, Dad would carefully cut the cardboard, then place wet towels over the stamps to soak them off, later to be mounted in our albums. Inside the box, everything was packed in the Sunday comics, another treasure in itself. We were not regular subscribers to the nearest paper, The Ketchikan Daily News, and even then, its comics were in black-and-white. The Grand Rapids Press, however, had Sunday comics in full, glorious color! At the top of the carefully wrapped and packed Christmas presents would be the banket, wrapped in foil and still semi-frozen. Dad would cut the pastry into one-inch diagonal slices, and we would enjoy every bite. There never seemed to be enough!

In 1997, I wrote my grandfather, and asked him for the banket recipe. At that time, he was 81 years old, and I figured I may not have many opportunities to ask him. As a matter of fact, he lived another 9 1/2 years, passing away just a few days ago, on January 6th. Every year when I make this treat for my family and friends,I think fondly of my grandfather, and next Christmas, it will be with a mixture of loss and joy. I've included the recipe here, in this very long blog, as a tribute to my grandfather. Although complicated, time-consuming, and expensive (almond paste is not cheap!), the results are worthy!


4 c. sifted flour
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. baking powder
1 lb. margarine (good quality)
1 c. cold water

1 lb. kernel or almond paste (kernel is cheaper and tastes as good, says Grandpa)
2 c. sugar
2 whole eggs and 1 egg yolk (save white for glaze)
1/4 c. flour
2 t. vanilla

1 egg white
granulated sugar

To make pastry, crumble or chop margarine into flour, salt, and baking powder mixture until mixed fine. Add water and mix well. Form dough into flat ball; wrap in waxed paper and chill overnight.

For filling, crumble or chop paste (a blender or food processor can be used, says Grandpa, but I used a hand pastry cutter). Add sugar and flour and mix. Add two whole eggs, egg yolk, and vanilla and mix well. Form into a flat ball, cover or wrap, and chill in refrigerator overnight.

Divide pastry and filling into 8 equal parts each. Shap pastry dough into an oblong ball. Roll the ball away from you on a floured pastry cloth into a strip about 3 inches wide by 12 - 14 inches long.

Take one piece of filling and roll with palm of hand into a long rope a little shorter than the pastry strip. Roll the filling onto pastry. Brush one edge and the ends of pastry with water, fold the ends over the filling, and roll the pastry around filling toward moistened edge. Press lightly to seal and place each finished roll lengthwise on an ungreased cookie sheet, seam side down. Put 4 rolls on each sheet.

Beat egg white and brush on top of rolls; sprinkle with sugar. Prick rolls with fork at one-inch intervals. Bake in preheated oven 425* about 25 - 30 minutes or until light brown. Makes 8 rolls.

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