Alaska Native hospital patients thankful for traditional foods program that serves up seal soup, agutuk and more

Platters of food on a table.
Pickled fiddlehead ferns, beach asparagus, moose soup and other Indigenous foods served to patients at Alaska Native Medical Center. (Shirley Young/ANMC)

Food can be comforting, and the comfort food at Alaska Native Medical Center is a link to tradition, home and family for hospital patients needing those connections more than ever during the pandemic.

The Anchorage hospital’s traditional foods program was the subject of a recent story in The New York Times by Alaska writer Victoria Petersen.

Petersen says the mostly donated, harvested foods are helpful in the healing process, and the program also feeds into a traditional cycle of reciprocity.

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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Victoria Petersen: Comfort food was a big theme of the article. Everyone, you know, mentioned that these foods are their comfort foods — they’re what they go to and lean on when they want to feel better. And another component to all of this as well is that all these foods are donated. And so it’s a whole system of gathering the food, eating the food, making the food. And this program, the Traditional Native Foods Initiative at Alaska Native Medical Center, it encourages that entire system. So it encourages people to go out and gather and hunt, as they normally do, and would and have for thousands of years. And then it also encourages that sharing culture and the reciprocity culture of, you know, providing for your elders and people who need care and that are in the hospital — to partake in the foods that they’re used to and help them feel comforted.

Casey Grove: What are some of the traditional foods that are being served at the Alaska Native Medical Center?

A woman in a chef uniform and wearing gloves plates pickled fiddlehead ferns.
Amy Foote, executive chef at the Alaska Native Medical Center, plates pickled fiddlehead ferns for a patient. (Shirley Young/ANMC)

VP: There’s a whole slew of things. And Amy Foote, the chef there, changes the menu depending on what comes into the kitchen. And so it varies from time to time, but I know that they have hooligan and salmon pretty regularly available for folks. You know, seal soup. They also have like beach green salads or beach asparagus salads, lots of berries. They always have agutuk. Fiddlehead fern pizza was another one they mentioned. Amy definitely gets creative. She tries to come up with different ways of incorporating these traditional ingredients.

CG: So with more restrictions on visitors and hospitals, and I’m thinking of, you know, family members who’d be part of somebody’s support network if they were ill or hospitalized, did this program become more important to people because of the pandemic?

VP: Yeah, I asked almost everyone I talked to that. Because with COVID, hospital visitation has been basically nonexistent. And almost everyone said the same thing, which is like, it helps to bring in food that makes you feel more comforted and comfortable, and that this program has been a bright spot in a very dark couple of years now — or almost couple of years — with the pandemic, and not being able to have visitors in the hospital. So if they can at least bring some smoked salmon on Pilot Bread to a patient, it’s a helpful thing.

CG: Victoria, you’re from Alaska, this piece was for The New York Times. And I wonder, were there things that seemed obvious to you as an Alaskan that maybe weren’t obvious or that you had to explain to your editors?

VP: When we talk about traditional foods, in Alaska, some things come to mind, you know, including salmon and seal, and all these animals and plants that we have here locally. But then there’s also things like fry bread and Pilot Bread, which are, you know, brought on by colonization here in Alaska, and weren’t things that Alaska Native people have had for thousands of years. They’re relatively new. And so, Pilot Bread specifically is a very Alaskan thing, and I had to kind of explain in the article, “Pilot Bread… which is a type of cracker.” Most Alaskans probably know what Pilot Bread is, but I don’t think hardtack crackers are very popular Outside.

I just really enjoyed writing this story and looking at the situation from another angle. I think, with COVID reporting, I did a lot of that at the beginning of the pandemic when I worked for the Peninsula Clarion, and it was very new then, the pandemic. And as time has gone on, it’s just been kind of hard to watch and difficult to report on. And so finding a bright spot in that has been nice to write about, and a lot of the feedback I’ve gotten on the story has been really positive and something that people are interested in seeing in other places. So that’s been good.

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Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org.

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