Berries: An Alaskan food memoir

I smiled guiltily, red dripping down from my lips like blood, as my step mom asked me if I had gathered enough raspberries to make gateau. A nearly empty bucket I had abandoned sat at the end of the raspberry bushes. I was sent back to fulfill my chore. A power play between bucket and tongue, the raspberries found their fate more often at the bottom of my stomach than they did at the bottom of the baking pan. It didn’t matter though. There was plenty to go around. The raspberry wall, as I remember it, wrapped around the large garden my parents built in our yard in Nikiski, Alaska, or North Kenai as they preferred to call it.

 

 

Many a summers’ day was spent on hands and knees exploring the underbelly of our raspberry harvest. Sometimes my father’s friend Bernie would drop his daughter, Ellen, off to play with us. We might play in the tree-house, or in the barn, or in the sprinkler for a few hours, but play-dates ended with red stained hands and a forcible removal from the sacred raspberry hedge. Before the raspberries were ripe in late July I would stray into the herb garden, chewing on spearmint and looking for four leaf clovers in heightened anticipation of the ripening.

Last summer I found a rogue raspberry bush near the apartment I lived in at the time. Initially excited by the discovery I soon grew nostalgic for the seemingly never ending raspberry bush in Nikiski, and increasingly saddened by the lack of time I could allot myself to spend there. With a full time job and social life raspberries can no longer be the sole focus of a summer day.

In Nikiski, Alaska my parents forged a home for themselves. My dad and step mom spent weeks of their lives building the perfect garden. They had a vast indoor greenhouse, a flower garden near the front door, another flower garden near the road, and a large outdoor vegetable garden with fencing to keep the moose and other critters at bay. Since moving to Anchorage the new owners let my childhood home wither away, quite literally. The flower garden unkempt, the vegetable garden lazily torn down and the indoor greenhouse out of commission, evidence of all their hard work was gone. My step mom can’t even bear to look at it when we drive by to visit family down the road.

 

 

I don’t remember a summer’s day inside as a child. A typical day consisted of my step mother bending over in the garden, tending to her vegetables, herbs and flowers. She made the property radiate with color. My dad would spend his days sitting on the motorized lawn mower, graciously manicuring the “grounds”. My sister and I played together sometimes, but I enjoyed my solitude in the garden or with the raspberries. My great-grandmothers homestead in Kasilof, Alaska sat above an isolated lake. With the hundredth reminder I slipped my lifejacket on as my step mom canoed us to the other side of the lake. Across the water we would venture to a patch of untouched and untamed blueberry bushes. My step mom always built the simple canoe trip up with as much pomp and circumstance as possible. We would claim we were on an expedition to “blueberry hill,” a hidden treasure where its abundance was our secret. It was ours to harvest, a special spot we felt we discovered.

 

 

Like many people who grew up in Alaska, I spent many days in the summertime blueberry picking. It was relaxed hiking with not only rewards in views, but also in bounty. We never used fancy picking equipment or machinery. We had grocery bags and picked until they were filled to the brim. My grandma Sylvia loves blueberries. She waits patiently for the month of August when the berries are ripe, scheming where and when she will strike her top-secret blueberry patches. She loves blueberries more than anyone I’ve ever met, her freezer exploding with the purple-black treasures post-picking season. She passed this passion to my mother who would reminisce about the difference in taste when she refused to buy blueberries at the store for us.

“They have to be Alaskan blueberries, not store bought. There’s no comparison.” My grandmother said.

 

 

I was blessed with Jessica as roommate last summer. She shared the same passion of baking and berry picking. We spent multiple days harvesting blueberries near the Anchorage area to take home and make delicious recipes with. From simply enjoying on their own to creating creative mixed cocktails we used every last berry we picked.

 

 

Down Holt Lamplight Loop my father would transport my sister and I via four-wheeler to my aunt and uncle’s house. They lived on a lake and their home was a castle to me. Simple and slightly worn down, the house was the gateway to many adventures. Walking distance from my aunt and uncles house was an empty lot. Where the foundation for a home once laid, a patch of wild strawberries now grows. A favorite spot of mine, strawberries were always a treat when they ripened in the middle of the summer. Less commonly found than blueberries and less available than raspberries, wild Alaskan strawberries were something special. Tiny in size and lighter in color the strawberries are slightly tarter, and astronomically more satisfying than any strawberries I’ve bought from the store.

Less than a week ago my parents gave me some groceries, smoked salmon, a frozen pizza, some crackers and a rare treat; a bag of frozen wild strawberries picked last summer from the same special spot. These were something to be cherished and reserved for enjoying in a pure form.

Working for the Alaska railroad as a tour guide in high school I was exposed to virtually untouched land and berries and plants that were less accessible by foot or car. On slow days in midsummer when I was tour guiding on the Glacier Discovery train a certain conductor would stop the train for about thirty minutes and let me off to pick salmonberries. The train would stop in the Grandview area, as it’s called, high in the Kenai Mountains. I had never had salmonberries before my first summer at the railroad. Golden polyps of sweet and tart, salmonberries were juicy and were similar in looks to raspberries. Salmonberries were treasured by the crew-especially by me. The conductor would instruct me where to go, away from the rails to avoid the pesticides the railroad sprays along the tracks. Arm-pit deep in vegetation I had a bag and picked as many as I could. The conductor was on bear patrol. When it was time to go I climbed back on the train, washed the berries and handed them out to passengers who wanted to try something new. Passengers would take pictures of me and were always so impressed with my foraging abilities. This was all very against the rules, but what happens on the rails, stays on the rails.

 

 

A berry I’ve never harvested, but have always enjoyed in the wild is the watermelon berry. Juicy and the hottest pink you ever saw, watermelon berries decorate my memories of Bishops Beach, near Captain Cook State Park. The pathway to the beach is saturated with watermelon berries (and devils club). The berries were hydrating, bursting with liquid upon your first bite. It was a sweet treat to pick on the way back to the car after a long day of playing in the mud and collecting rocks and driftwood.

 

 

Tammie’s Raspberry Gateau

 

 

Found in an unknown magazine, this recipe was made for our family by my step mom Tammie. The gateau was a rare treat. I would beg for it to be made. It was special and for that reason I could probably count the number of times I’ve had it on two hands.

Decadent and rich, a gateau is the sort of cake meant for special occasions. For us the gateau was the occasion. The recipe originally called for blueberries to be used, but raspberries were plentiful around our house, so we opted for those. My step mom notes that any fruit that is juicy and ripe will work for this recipe.

Ingredients:

1 teaspoon of all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon of baking powder

1/8 teaspoon of salt

1/2 cup of room temperature butter

1 cup, and

1 tablespoon of sugar

2 large eggs

2 1/2 cups of raspberries

1/2 teaspoon of lemon juice

1 tablespoon of powdered sugar

Directions:

1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch springform pan with butter or cooking spray.

2. Dust the bottom of the pan with flour and turn and tap the pan to release any excess flour.

3. Sift the cup of flour into a medium-sized bowl. Add baking powder and salt.

4. In a larger bowl use a mixer, on medium speed, to beat the butter and 1 cup of sugar until light and fluffy.

5. Continue to mix while adding one egg at a time until fully incorporated.

6. Reduce the speed of the mixer as you add the flour mixture slowly and gradually until fully blended.

7. Pour the batter into the greased and floured pan and spread evenly across the bottom.

8. In a medium bowl take your raspberries, the teaspoon of flour, the tablespoon of sugar, the lemon juice, and mix evenly with a spatula.

9. Spread the berry mixture across the top of the cake batter.

10. Bake on the middle rack of the oven. Bake for roughly one hour, or until a toothpick, poked into the center of the cake comes up clean.

11. Let the cake cool. Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Serve warm and berry-side up.

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