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Reading the North: Alaska poetry, spicy recipes

Kathleen Macknicki
Termination dust coats the Chugach Mountains behind Anchorage. Erik Hill

Termination Dust

Susanna J. Mishler (Boreal Books, $18.95)

The blurb: Termination dust, the first high-altitude snowfall, marks the end of summer in Alaska. Rooted in the seasons with a sense of place, the poems in this collection employ an image-driven lyric and dream-like narrative to grapple with questions of death and belonging. A strange romance between inner and outer landscapes emerges from what increasingly seem like the prayers of an atheist. A tree becomes "a vascular connection / between kingdoms," and the human eye "a hole / hungry for small beauties." Full of vivid animal, human and ghostly encounters, the poems in "Termination Dust" are a kind of spiritual notebook for the unbeliever, forging their way to an earthbound grace.

Excerpt: Caribou

It was like forgiveness when the caribou ran 

toward us in the summer dusk, all their bodies like one body, 

a bead of mercury flowing 

down the green alpine valley. 

We knelt on the damp tundra, and they turned away from us, lunged up a snowfield, spilled into another valley, leaving tufts 

of hair, tracks, fresh droppings burning into snow. 

I wonder what it would have been like if they hadn't turned, if they had surged around us like a river, 

if we plunge 

into the breath and musk, 

the tremble of caribou hoofbeats sounding in the earth under my knees, and I extend an arm 

to brush coarse flank hair with my fingertips, and I am a stone 

washed in river water, my color suddenly brighter and deeper than before submersion. 

The mountain silence mends itself.

I'm kneeling with you there

in that possibility

our surfaces wet and new.

 

My Tiny Alaskan Oven

LaDonna Rose Gundersen (LaDonna Rose Publishing, $24.95)

The blurb: A collection of delicious, quick-to-fix recipes developed at sea and designed for small-space cooking, accompanied by full-color photos of the recipes and Alaskan scenery and fishing. ​LaDonna Gundersen has spent every summer for the past two decades working side by side with her husband Ole on the LaDonna Rose, their 32-foot commercial salmon fishing boat based in Ketchikan in Southeast Alaska. The tiny oven of the title refers to the 18x21-inch diesel oil stove on the boat and its tiny "easy-bake oven," which is only big enough for an 11x7-inch pan. Her galley (kitchen) is only 4 feet long by 5 feet wide and her counter space measures a mere 3 square feet. This serious lack of space would cause many cooks to abandon the kitchen and eat out or turn to take-out menus. But that's not possible for LaDonna and Ole, who spend weeks at a time at sea, miles and miles from the nearest store, let alone a restaurant. LaDonna also refuses to serve "heat and eat" pre-prepared meals, the option of choice for many fishermen. Over the years, she's developed a repertoire of quick-to-fix recipes using easy-to-find ingredients that don't sacrifice flavor. These form the basis of her cookbooks. Look also for the fun facts and history about Alaska scattered throughout the book.

Excerpt: Spicy tomato salsa 

This salsa is bursting with tons of fresh flavors and couldn't be any easier or quicker to make. Just put everything into a food processor and pulse to your desired consistency. Then sit down with an entire bag of tortilla chips and a bowl of this salsa and watch both disappear. It's amazing how quickly that can happen, right?

Combine all of the ingredients in a serving bowl, cover and refrigerate until chilled.

Recipe hint: Capsaicin -- the chemical that gives chili peppers their burn -- is dangerous to the skin and eyes, so handle them with gloves or oiled hands. Don't cut on wooden surfaces or under running water and process at arms length. Counteract the burning with a bit of sugar or a sip of a dairy product. 

2 cups tomatoes, diced

1/2 cup onion, diced 

2 teaspoons garlic, minced 

1-2 jalapeno peppers, seeded, minced

3 tablespoons cilantro, minced 

1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce 

1 tablespoon granulated sugar 

1 tablespoon lemon juice 

1 tablespoon white vinegar 

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano 

1 teaspoon sea salt 

tortilla chips or toasted pita chips for serving

 

Compass North

Stephanie Joyce Cole (Champagne Books, $13.95)

The blurb: Reeling from the shock of a suddenly shattered marriage, Meredith flees as far from her home in Florida as she can get without a passport: to Alaska. After a freak accident leaves her presumed dead, she stumbles into a new identity and a new life in a quirky small town. Her friendship with a fiery and temperamental artist and her growing worry for her elderly, cranky landlady pull at the fabric of her carefully guarded secret. When a romance with a local fisherman unexpectedly blossoms, Meredith struggles to find a way to meld her past and present so that she can move into the future she craves. But someone is looking for her -- someone who will threaten Meredith’s dream of a reinvented life. 

Excerpt: Ellen had leaned over, spreading her hands flat over the tabletop. “Okay, so he’s a jerk, and maybe your marriage is over.” She settled back in her chair and picked up her coffee cup, staring at Meredith over the rim. 

Without looking up, Meredith had felt Ellen’s eyes searching her face, trying to find a way inside, a way to help her through this. “But come on, what are you going to accomplish by running away? To Alaska? It’s not even the right time to go to Alaska.” Ellen frowned and shook her head. “It’s too late in the season. Stay. There’s still time to cancel. I’ll help you figure this out.” 

Meredith had rubbed her fingers along the edge of the kitchen table. She understood it was an honest and caring offer. Ellen knew her better than anyone, and she would talk with her or not talk with her, whatever Meredith needed. Ellen held her close when at first she could only sit and rock back and forth in silent agony. But not even a friend she loved and trusted could understand. No one could understand how time had contorted itself so that minutes in the house seemed like hours, how the quiet objects in her home, each resting in its proper place, now taunted her with their order and purpose. 

And she couldn’t explain, even to Ellen, the shame that plagued her, along with the unrelenting pain. Her devastating conviction of failure, of being somehow at fault, lacking, and her constant revisiting of memories of Michael, looking for evidence of deceit, the clues she should have seen all along. I’m a fool, a fool, a fool. If she went away, maybe she could breathe again. Maybe the ache in her chest wouldn’t wake her up every night, when she slept at all, to start the endless loop of panic and despair. She couldn’t stand it anymore. She’d go crazy, totally insane, if she had to endure it much longer. 

-- Compiled by Kathleen Macknicki, Alaska Dispatch News