Roadside caribou, ramen and wild celery: It’s what’s for dinner

Sourcing food, cooking and eating at the end of the Aleutian chain. 

Tom Spitner’s dinner plate probably looks like a significantly less elegant dish coming out of the wildly popular Danish restaurant Noma. Fresh fish and foraged flora made the two-michelin star restaurant famous. Spitner has the same idea when he creates meals for his family, but does it virtually for free.

“I like to cook and read about cooking. I like to go out to nice restaurants, I was based in Los Angeles for a long time and I like to cook all kinds of stuff,” Spitner said. “There’s times it would be nice to go to the store and be able to get that stuff, but it makes you be more creative. You read about that Norwegian/Icelandic food craze, that’s just sort of like fish with locally sourced greens. You end up doing things that would probably end up on a restaurant plate for $55 if they knew about it.”

The way people shop, eat and cook here is different than the way of most Americans. Located near the end of the Aleutian chain, 1,200 miles from Anchorage and just over 700 miles from the Russian mainland sits Adak island. There is no real grocery store, no farms and no way off the island five days out of the week. Annual Costco trips stock the pantries of Adak’s residents, while an open year-round hunting season and no bag limit for caribou cows keep their freezers full. Foraged food, CSA boxes coming from thousands of miles away and pet chickens help supply fresh food to some of the island’s residents. Sharing recipes and cuisine is an essential part of the town’s social life and local food economy.

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The small town of Adak. Photo by Victoria Petersen

The island of Adak was inhabited by the Unanga people, more commonly known as the Aleuts, who abandoned the island around the 19th century to follow the Russian fur trade. The island was still used as an important place to fish for Aleut’s living nearby. After World War II began, American forces created a military base at Adak. Strategically placed, Adak became the American offensive against the Japanese-held Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska.

Post World War II the island was developed into a Naval air station and a submarine surveillance center during the Cold War. At Adak’s peak, the island was home to over 6,000 military personnel and their families, a college, a McDonald’s, a roller skating rink, a ski lodge and an $18 million hospital was built in 1990. The base was closed in the spring of 1997 for unknown reasons and the island along with its facilities were sold to Aleut Corporation. The hospital, schools, and the island’s restaurants closed along with the Naval base. The city of Adak was incorporated in 2001 and was home to only about 300 residents at the time, according to the U.S. year 2000 census. Today, there’s only around 100 year-round residents.

Spitner, the mayor of Adak and the only person in town who was born on the island, grew up on the island where his dad worked as a contractor at the military base before it ceased operations altogether in 1997. Spitner has no problem cooking for his family. His wife, a biologist, helps track down Adak’s edible bounty. Wild rice, wild celery, bull kelp and strawberries are just some of what Spitner’s family forages from the island. Their family also has a garden that they use to grow apple trees and potatoes in.

“It’s nice because we can just go out and about and there’s quite a bit to eat. There’s quite a bit of foraging. I have friends that pickle kelp,” Spitner said. “Our family doesn’t find it hard to eat out here.”

Spitner’s family receives a box from Full Circle every week. The CSA boxes come from an organic farm in North Bend, Washington, nearly 2,500 miles away, to the island every Thursday filled with fresh fruits and vegetables. Prices for these CSA boxes range from $48-$87 a week, depending on the size box you want.

“We are one of two people on the island that get Full Circle. It used to be more, but it is a little expensive. Every week we get our thing on Thursday that’s full of fresh vegetables,” Spitner said. “I’ve probably eaten more kale in the last five years than I ever have before. I’ve grown to really like it.”

In addition to their garden and foraging, Spitner has a large chicken coop that yields about 8-9 eggs a day. The chickens are a special Icelandic species that are bred to live in a more extreme climate, such as Adak. The chickens came from residents who left the island six years ago, and Spitner’s family has since shared his chickens with the community, helping another family grow their own coop.

“I don’t think there’s a big savings, but you know I’ve got dogs, cats, a rabbit and probably sitting out here with the chickens is my favorite,” Spitner said. “It’s not any harder than having a dog. They need food and a place to run and pee.”

Mik Turnbull, the other Adak resident who has chickens, keeps them in a coop that appears to have been a NOAA scientific research pod of sorts in another life. Turnbull has since recycled this to be her chicken’s home. Arguably the thriftiest woman on the island, Turnbull’s home is filled with furniture, art and equipment that she has pulled from Adak’s abandoned buildings and facilities. Turnbull finds herself “scavenging,” as she calls it, for abandoned things she can find purpose for. Residents have to be creative in all aspects of life, not just in the way they eat.

Today Adak is home to one year-round restaurant, The Blue Bird Cafe. Operating in the home of Michael Rainey and his wife Imelda Cleary, the eatery serves up traditional American fare along with Filipino favorites.

Imelda, who is from the Philippines, has introduced her cuisine to the residents of Adak who have fallen in love with her lumpia and pancit dishes, among others. People in the community eat here regularly, sometimes once or twice a week and sometimes for every single meal.

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Imelda isn’t the only person on the island who has had the opportunity to share her culture’s cuisine with the community. Krystle Penitani shares traditional Samoan food with the community through town-wide barbecues and pig roasts. Penitani’s job at Alaska Airline’s offers flight perks that allow her to leave to Anchorage once a month to pick up food for her large family. Penitani doesn’t stress about dinner time because she buys in bulk and six months in advance. There is always something to eat in the Penitani household. Penitani has been living and raising her six kids in Adak for the last eight years. She says the quietness, lack of traffic and lack of crime make Adak a great place to raise children.

“All the time we fix what we like to eat at home, all the time. We eat a lot of curries, soy sauce, and we always use Hawaiian salt, it makes a difference,” Penitani said. “I buy bulk. I buy stuff big so I don’t have to worry about it. If I run out of fresh vegetables or fresh fruit we just go to the can. We make do with what we have. If I don’t have it we don’t eat it.”

You’ll also likely find a meal in Adak’s “Little Tijuana” neighborhood, as it’s affectionately called by the locals. A single winding road near the North side of town is home to majority of Adak’s Hispanic population- roughly five families call this road home. One “Little Tijuana” resident, George Lopez, who just finished smoking a whole hog in his homemade smoker the day of this interview, has been living, working and eating in Adak for ten years. Lopez works at the fish plant and opens his home and his kitchen to migrant workers coming to the island to work at the fish plant. Lopez takes it upon himself to feed the workers home cooked meals. Lopez used to have a restaurant in town called the Cold Rock Cafe, but had to close it due to high maintenance costs.

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Pork made by George Lopez.

“I have eight beds in my house and I just started having the crew. I’ll start feeding them .I like cooking. It’s good,” Lopez said. “My house gets crowded, but It’s fine I have my own room.”

Many residents who like to cook are forced to be creative. Makani Zaima came to Adak to be with her dad, who works at the fish plant. Zaima, a health aide in training at the island’s clinic, enjoys finding recipes on Pinterest, but often finds it difficult to gather all the ingredients to make the things she finds.

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Makani Zaima

“I always wanna try new stuff, but it’s hard. I have Pinterest, that’s my favorite. If I see something that I really wanna try and make I’ll see if someone I know is coming out on the next flight and be like ‘hey can you pick this up for me at the store?’ and have them bring it out,” Zaima said. “That seems to work.”

At home Zaima cooks between once and twice a week, focusing on Hawaiian and Asian dishes.

“My favorite thing to cook is stir-fry, just because there’s a lot of vegetables. It’s hard to get veggies out here,” Zaima said. “Everytime I leave the island the first thing I do is order a big salad or a big bowl of fruit. I crave vegetables all the time.”

Zaima, who went to high school in Anchorage, never appreciated easily accessible produce until she came to live in Adak.

“I took fresh vegetables for granted when I lived in Anchorage,” Zaima said. “I never really noticed how much I wanted them until I came out here and couldn’t just go to the store and buy an apple.”

This year Zaima cooked an entire Thanksgiving meal for her family, which is not an easy feat in Adak. Zaima shared her meal with the town, who gets together to celebrate big holidays.

“My boss sent us a turkey. I had to get everything else shipped in. I did all the basics, the gravy, the mashed potatoes, the stuffing. I also made this little vegetable bake that I found on Pinterest,” Zaima said.

Adak has one convenience store where residents can buy food and drinks if they need to. The prices are high and the food is cheap. Spam, cake mix, soda pop and candy fill the abandoned elementary school that now acts as the 100 knot store.

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“There’s a store here, but you’d see that the prices are pretty extreme and that they sell a lot of sugar and carbs,” Zaima said. “I just went to the store yesterday and bought a thing of cranberry juice, a case of top ramen and a couple other things and it was like $100.”

Residents who order meat place bush orders from Mr. Prime Beef, Mike’s Quality Meats and other south central Alaskan butchers who offer deals to residents of rural communities. Besides fish, locally sourced meat can come from ptarmigan or from the island’s overpopulated caribou herd. The caribou on Adak, brought in the 1950s by the military, have no natural predators and are known to be bigger and heavier than other Alaskan caribou. A year-round open season on caribou cows make it easy for residents to get fresh meat from the island.

“During the winter the caribou come up and you can drive up the back roads and pretty much shoot them from your car.” Zaima said.

Locally sourced greens, meat and fish combined with Adak’s cultural diversity make eating at the end of the world seem more like eating at the center of the world- where food and cuisines intermingle to create a unique food culture.

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Makani’s Adak stir fry. 

“You can use top ramen for anything. We like to do Japanese style noodle soups, Or if we don’t have regular noodles we use them for stir-fry noodles.” Zaima said.

Ingredients:

1 large boneless chicken breast or beef (cubes)

Ramen noodle package

1 onion

3 garlic cloves

2 tablespoons of peanut oil

Stir fry vegetables

– carrots

-shallots

-green onion

-brocoli

Oyster sauce, soy sauce and sriracha to taste,

Directions:

1. Throw the meat into pan and sauté for 10-15 minutes on medium heat or thoroughly cooked.

2. Next, cook ramen noodles as normal without adding the sauce mix or packets packets, drain the noodles when done

3. Chop 1 onion & fresh garlic cloves.

4. In a large frying pan, heat peanut oil and frozen or fresh veggies on medium high for 10 minutes

5. Toss the noodles and chicken into the pan and mix together. Continue cooking until the veggies are cooked all the way

6. Add oyster sauce to taste and soy sauce, top with sriracha if you like. Dish up & enjoy!

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