New Anchorage Museum exhibit explores the state's food culture

Published: Feb. 21, 2019 at 4:50 PM AKST
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The first thing you'll notice when you walk into the exhibit "What Why How We Eat" at the Anchorage Museum is the smell.

First mint, and then an earthy smell.

Two walls are lined with hydroponics where mint and salanova lettuce grow.

"We chose those for their aesthetics," Francesca DuBrock, an Anchorage Museum chief curator, said about the display.

Thursday, Dubrock and food writer and longtime journalist Julia O'Malley, who's also an editor at the Anchorage Daily News, gave us a preview of the exhibit, which opens Friday.

It focuses on food culture and its role in the state. Alaska's food scene is particularly unique for many reasons. We have an incredibly diverse population of people from around the world, along with a rich history of Alaska Native peoples. Most of our food is brought in and we also have a strong bond with the land.

Many Alaskans proudly wear shirts with salmon prints and Xtratuf boots designed with red octopuses slithering on the sides. Talk about fish for two minutes and you're bound to get into a heated debate about fishing. We're known to shuck oysters on the shores of Kachemak Bay and tuck in on the long, dark winter nights with bowls of caribou soup.

"I just think it's worth talking about: What is Alaskan cuisine, how do we eat? You know, we wrap in all of these different factors," O'Malley said. "Wild foods, the distance that non-wild foods have to come from, which is most of what we eat even in rural Alaska still. Also the influences of so many cultures. Alaska has always been a place where people have come to help with the harvest of resources and those people have come from all over the world."

Here are some interesting facts from the exhibit:

Sailor Boy Pilot Bread sells 98 percent of its tough, oversized crackers to Alaska, where shelf-stable staples are a must in both rural and urban kitchens.

Alaskans eat more wild salmon per capita than do people anywhere else in the world.

If a natural disaster disabled the Port of Anchorage, disrupting the food supply, Anchorage grocery store food shelves and cold cases would be bare in just five days.

"I don't think this exhibit judges how you eat, it just reflects it back," O'Malley said. "So, yeah totally, we've got Orange Crush and some akutaq and maybe some seal jerky, and then there's some Funyuns. That would make sense right? Or closer to home here you've got salmon on a plate and then you might have some pancit noodles."

DuBrock says she also wants the exhibit to start a conversation between Alaskans and also teach them more about the state's food culture. There will be urban harvest classes, cooking demonstrations, bike tours to community gardens, and workshops.

The exhibit also looks at the massive price increase for groceries depending on where someone lives in the state. One area reads like a love letter to Pilot Bread and another looks at the problems created by climate change.

"Our connection to the land and to wild foods, I think that obviously, that starts with Alaska Native culture," DuBrock said, "But it's something that has permeated the broader culture. And most folks have some experiences of stocking a freezer with fish or berries. And I think that that connection and sort of resonance with the seasons and the pacing of how we eat and that eating involves being out in the world and being in contact with living things I think is the most unique part."

The What Why How We Eat exhibition can be viewed from Feb. 22, 2019, through Jan. 12, 2020.