Alaska Cultural Connections: Food And Culture

Some people crave ice cream or fresh vegetables or pasta. Others prefer dried fish or caribou. As part of our series exploring culture in rural and urban Alaska, APRN’s Anne Hillman found out how strong links between food and culture are common throughout the state.

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Paul Wilkins stands in his tiny kitchen in his East Anchorage home, chopping herbs to spread on his homemade breadsticks.

“It’s buffalo wing sauce with jalapeños and cilantro and mozzarella cheese,” Wilkins said.

He’s testing a new recipe to share with his friend for her birthday.

“Cooking is one way to make people happy, to make people enjoy things,” Wilkins said.

Food brings people together. He says cooking, and food, are also part of his identity.

“I guess I define myself by what I like to do and food is part of that because I like to cook different things and taste different things and eat different things,” Wilkins said.

It’s also part of his cultural identity. He cooks lasagna and manicotti because his Italian mother prepared it throughout his childhood. He’s learning more about southern foods from his father’s side of the family. But not everyone has that family connection.

“There’s tons of kids that grow up just eating at strip malls and McDonald’s and Red Robin,” Wilkins said. “They’re great restaurants but I’m sure a lot of that in some families, some of that home-cooked meal history is lost in a lot of ways. I would guess.”

That can happen even in areas of Alaska without restaurants.

“When I was a teenager, in high school, I was going away from my food. Like any other teenager going for the candy and the chips. All that,” Dorcas Nesoluk said.

Dorcas, from Nuiqsut, says she stopped eating whale and caribou, traditional Inupiaq foods, and eventually she started feeling less healthy. It was a mantra repeated by Inupiat of all ages – “if we eat too much food from the Outside instead of local native foods, we get sick.”

When Nesoluk had her baby, four years ago, she decided to go back to eating traditional foods.

“I give it to my daughter, my little three-year-old. I grew up with it so I’m letting her grow up with it. She loves it. She can’t get over it. That’s how we all are raised – eating off the land,” Dorcas said.

Nesoluk and others stressed that for the Inupiat, food is directly tied to culture. And like all cultures, it’s constantly evolving and being influenced by outside sources. Hazel Kunakanna says that people certainly don’t just eat raw maktak, they incorporate food traditions from outside of Alaska.

“You know, like my grandma, she used to like it fried with onions and stuff. And then some people like fry it and fry their maktak like a stir-fry with rice.” “And you put soy sauce on it?” “Yeah, you could put soy sauce on it,” Kunakanna said.

And just because she’s committed to eating and teaching about native foods, it doesn’t mean she’ll eat everything, like caribou head.

“My grandma used to always like eating tuk-tuk head. They cooked the brains with the tongue and you know you boil it. I never tried it before but most of my kids like it because my husband grew up with it.” “But you don’t do it?” “uh-uh! I don’t even.” laughter “How come?” “I grew up with my grandma, with all my Inupiaq food, but me, I just don’t eat it,” Kunakanna said.

April Philip, a student at Ilisagvik College in Barrow, says she would love to eat more of her native foods from Bethel. Her Yupik family sends her dried fish and akutaq, but she often only has time to microwave a Hot Pocket and get to class. And though eating her native foods ties her to her family, it’s not the same.

“My Yupik family for instance, they’re not around. And you don’t hear the normal words you would hear at the dinner table. But I do feel, I do feel like closer to home,” Philip said.

Back at Wilkins’ home, he pulls the breadsticks out of the oven and turns on his friend’s favorite music. Just like Philips and others around Alaska, he feels the same relationship between culture and food.

“The food that people eat partially defines the way their culture has evolved over millennia, really,” Wilkins said.

He says that it’s already helped define the culture for many Alaska Natives and only time will tell how it will define Alaska’s urban areas.