Ask Sailor Boy Pilot Bread lovers their favorite recipes and you'll learn that Alaskans have figured out how to make the big round crackers into something special.
Oh sure, some people think that peanut butter on Pilot Bread constitutes a recipe, but a surprising number have more elaborate ideas. How about Pilot Bread as the base for goose stuffing? Or as the hidden underlayer in a creamy banana sundae? Or buttered, piled high with shredded barbecue pork and baked?
That's just a taste of the hundreds of recipes submitted last week for a contest done in conjunction with the Native Youth Olympics.
Beyond revealing some creative cooks, the contest underscored how Alaskans cherish plain ol' Pilot Bread, along with the stories and traditions that go with it.
Cook Inlet Tribal Council, which coordinates the youth olympics, invited people to submit recipes online and at the athletic competition, held at the Dena'ini Civic and Convention Center. It's the first time for the recipe contest, according to the tribal council. The recipe winners were announced Sunday, the last day of the Native Youth Olympics.
Rob Kinneen, a Tlingit who is formerly executive chef at Orso and owner of Noble's Diner, judged the contest using the written entries. He said he picked as winners those that are accessible, unique and likely to be delicious.
The top 50 or so contained some very different ideas. "Some of them are very contemporary. Some of them are traditional. Some of them are very simple," Kinneen said.
For decades, the crackers have been a staple in Bush Alaska. They never seem to get stale. Drop one in a lake and some say it'll dry out and be edible again.
The top cooks were all from rural Western Alaska. Winning first place, and a year's supply of Pilot Bread -- a box a week -- was Sue Hoeldt, 44, of Aniak for a moose burger recipe made with finely ground Pilot Bread and served up between two more of the crackers.
Sounds like something his mother would have made, said Kinneen, who was born in Petersburg and lived a year in Nome as a young child.
Hoeldt, a mother of six and a Native Youth Olympics coach, said Pilot Bread is big in her household because it feeds a lot of kids. Her 17-year-old, commenting on the prize of 52 boxes, said "that's not enough." A son in college in Colorado wears a "Pilot Bread Grown" T-shirt. Hoeldt ships her kids boxes of the stuff when they are away.
Pilot Bread also is a staple on group rafting and camping trips, she said.
"Because it doesn't smash and it lasts forever," she said.
Runner up, and winning a three-month supply, was Lisa Feyereisen, 50, a trapper from a place near Aniak known as Crow Village, for her recipe mixing up leftover blackened salmon, cream cheese, onions, celery, mustard, celery seed, pickles, pickle juice and chipotle peppers, and spreading it on the crackers. Her husband, David Phillips, said his favorite way to eat pilot bread is probably "fried in bacon grease."
A sundae invented by a high school sophomore from Bethel came in third.
Janlynn Jimmie, 16, who also competed in the wrist carry event, said she loves her dish for an after school snack. She starts with a cracker, slathers it with hot fudge sauce, adds whipped cream and sliced bananas, then some Hershey's Syrup and a cherry on top.
People suggested recipes for Pilot Bread and fried Spam, sometimes with an egg, often with cheese. The more traditional liked to dip it in seal oil and eat it with muktuk, strips of whale skin and blubber. And who knew that Pilot Bread can be transformed into something like a cinnamon roll.
Little Pilot Bread pizzas were popular. So were recipes combining Pilot Bread and Eskimo ice cream, or akutaq -- Crisco, berries and white fish. Spread a cracker with cream cheese and salmon roe and you've got a Pilot Bread bagel. Someone wrote that all that's needed for a good snack is Pilot Bread, pure lard and sugar. A few said it should be served with a glass of cold Tang. One fancy dish included wasabi paste and shredded crab.
People gave bits of advice for how to best enjoy their dish.
"Sit comfortably at gramma's table and eat," one Bethel woman wrote in. A Point Lay woman, whose recipe featured Spam, advised people to "eat after you pray."
An Eagle River woman said when she was young, she would lick the cracker, sprinkle it with salt, then bake it until yummy and crisp.
Elsie Pavil Mather, 74, wrote a little essay along with her recipe for soaking Pilot Bread in a saucer with brewed tea, then sprinkling it with sugar. The tea-soaked cracker also is good with a dab of melted butter or whipped cream and berries, she wrote.
When she was growing up in Kwigillingok, Pilot Bread was one of the few non-Native foods, she wrote. People used to say the crackers first showed up after a shipwreck and villagers, unaware they were edible, tossed them around like a toy.
"Do not play Frisbee with crackers!" wrote Mather, who lives in Anchorage now. "We are supposed to respect all our food."
Pilot Bread manufacturer Interbake Foods LLC sponsored the contest. Alaskans are the main consumers of the crackers.
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com or 257-4390.