Wrangell Mountain Cuisine
by Rob Woodworth
For many folks in the lower 48, the traditions of homestyle cooking are fading into modernity. Grandma’s handwritten recipe cards and age-old culinary tactics are being replaced by digital recipes. Thankfully, the lost art of pioneer meal-planning is still alive and well at the Wrangell Mountains Center where staff, volunteers, and participants are treated to exquisite but unpretentious cuisine that captures the flavor of Alaskan seasonality and the spirit of frontier living.
As one would hope, the kitchen of the Old Hardware Store is the heart of the WMC campus. You can always expect to find strong coffee, good smells, fresh baked goods, and the beginnings of the next meal being served up to a dependable soundtrack of Townes Van Zandt. The walls are decorated with colorful jars of spices and grains that are shelved alongside watercolors, sketches, and postcards from former guests. The warm and buzzing atmosphere, makes it a primary point of congregation for staff and participants—whether a simple noontime lunch or an assembly line of volunteer pancake-flippers feeding more than 150 on Independence Day.
Operating a kitchen in the Alaskan wilderness is no small feat. Beyond a Costco membership and a green thumb, it requires a delicate balance of thoughtful planning and creative ingenuity with a whole ‘lotta elbow grease. This past season, the WMC had a rock star kitchen crew. Staff members Rachel Franklin and Rob Woodworth tag-teamed the keystone role of managing the kitchen. Rachel, a classically-trained baker and veteran kitchen-ninja, earned her stripes preparing meals for ravenous hunters and oil camp workers of the North Slope. Without any formal kitchen experience, Rob provided a grassroots approach to cookery with foraged delicacies and lacto-fermented oddities like dandelion capers and Lacinato kale kimchi. Rob and Rachel were supported by intern Maya Heubner, who prepared ornate salads and kept our gardens brimming with fresh herbs and vegetables—becoming known for her decadent rhubarb crisps and diverse knowledge of Alaskan wild edibles.
Our fearless team was able to prepare a diverse menu for our various programs throughout the summer, which also happened to include backcountry re-supplies. Staple dishes like homemade granola, country gravy, and salmon salad were reliable and hearty options that provided endless opportunities for creative variations depending on which herbs and veggies were available or in demand. Though most meals were plant-based, the dining room table would occasionally be graced with fresh-caught steelhead, wild hare, smoked sockeye, moose sausage, caribou steak, or Dall sheep stews provided by friends of the WMC. Gluten-free diners and vegans alike were also treated to wheat-free baked goods and savory meals devoid of animal products.
With a steady flow of hungry visitors and relatively little processed food, you’d think the rustically modest WMC kitchen would stick to basic provisions with little extravagance. Though, anyone who dined with us this summer would likely recall unique and exotic offerings that were a feast to both eye and palate. Standout dishes from the kitchen log include coconut and squash curry with fresh-baked naan, sautéed fiddleheads with duck eggs, salmon-caper pizza with homemade alfredo sauce, and fried green tomatoes with wild rice pilaf. There was never a shortage of pickled garden goodies, and confections like black currant jam or cinnamon streusel were also in ample supply. Even the pickiest eaters who visited us left McCarthy with a full belly.
Above all else, the WMC kitchen is a beacon of resourcefulness and community in the rugged terrain of the Alaskan frontier. In our kitchen, nothing goes to waste and every fleeting moment is savored in a way that begets a deep appreciation for the beautiful bounties of the wild. We are grateful for every opportunity to serve the WMC community of strong and vibrant souls and look forward to ringing the dinner bell yet again next season. Until then, bon appetite!
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This is an article from the 2017/18 Hardware Store Herald. Download the full Herald by clicking HERE.