The other week, Shannon Kuhn got to thinking about love and food.
This was natural: Kuhn, 25, is the founder of the Anchorage Food Mosaic, a popular blog and Facebook community devoted to the all things edible, cultural and local -- from dim sum to wild fiddlehead ferns.
As Valentine's Day approached, she reasoned, what could be a nicer expression of love than a gift of homemade pie?
So she put out a note on Facebook offering pies -- whiskey maple pumpkin, frozen lemon gingersnap, salted caramel apple and others -- for $25 each.
Soon a dozen people had ordered pies for coworkers, daughters, husbands and wives.
"People they love," Kuhn said.
So on Sunday afternoon, Kuhn sequestered herself in her colorful downtown apartment for an epic pie-making session. Her kitchen was a testament to her devotion to food with a knowable history: There was a freezer filled with Alaska-caught salmon and halibut, jars of fireweed jelly and honey from her boyfriend's uncle's bees, a sack of barley flour grown and milled in Delta Junction and a fridge full of homemade kimchee, sauerkraut and pickled beets.
Rolling out dough for a crust -- the secret is using cold butter and ice water to ensure flakiness, she said -- is the kind of thing Kuhn does as a break from the online Food Mosaic work that channels much of her energy.
"This is tangible," she said.
Kuhn, 25, was born in South Korea and raised, along with a brother, by her adoptive mother in Anchorage.
During her childhood, fast food en route to ballet or music practice was often the norm.
But while studying at the University of Montana and working on an organic farm, the West Anchorage High School graduate became fascinated by the idea that food could build community. After college she returned to Anchorage ready to take on what she saw as big, systemic problems: neighborhoods where the only accessible food tended to be prepackaged and unhealthy and the fact that the overwhelming majority of the state's food supply is imported from the Lower 48.
At the same time, she came back to a city growing more and more ethnically diverse -- a place where her neighbors might be snacking on dried hooligan fish or Filipino pancit noodles and the grocery store down the street carried West African palm oil and taro root.
"Anchorage is so vibrant," she said. "I wanted a way to explore that."
Food seemed like a good way in. So in 2010, Kuhn started the Anchorage Food Mosaic, which offers a running commentary on cultural food traditions in Anchorage and beyond. In posts, Kuhn and a half-dozen contributors muse on everything from pilot bread ("Alaskan soul food!") to mung beans ("'mazing! Try them whole, sprouted, as cellophane noodles or even as jelly!") and offer recipes from all corners of the city's patchwork of ethnic communities.
The idea that understanding each others' food can build community rings true to Cindy Shake, an artist and organizer of the Spenard Farmers Market, where Kuhn is also a volunteer.
"When you start to break life down into its most basic elements of food and shelter, I think you can look at someone else on a much more human level," she said. "Food is a wonderful way to do that."
The Anchorage Food Mosaic has existed mostly as a virtual forum, but this past November Kuhn got the idea to co-host an international feast around Thanksgiving. The event, held at GrassRoots Fair Trade Store in Spenard in partnership with Catholic Social Services, drew 50 people and contributions like Persian rice, Baba Ghanouj dip and Chinese egg pastries.
There's something about sharing a meal that connects strangers, Kuhn said. Food contains stories, and when you get people together eating it, those stories come out.
"People are quick to judge but hey, they might be open to eating a fried pastry," she said. "It's not as scary or intimidating. It's a way in."
As Anchorage grows and changes, building that community is going to be even more important, Kuhn said. At its best, food can help do that.
And a really good pie, she says, can taste something like love.