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For rural Alaskans, Pilot Bread is soul food

Victoria Barber

It's called many names -- sailor boys, Eskimo cookies, hockey pucks and qa-qu-lik-daqs (something "like bread).

In the Arctic it's called "'qaqqulaaq" (Inupiaq for "sailor boy"), on Little Diomede they are sometimes called Diomede Donuts (since people there "eat them like cops eat donuts"). "Postmodern Eskimo" blogger Patti Oksoktaruk Lillie, from White Mountain, calls it "Native biscotti."

It is, of course, the Sailor Boy Pilot Bread Cracker. And perhaps no other humble saltine has inspired such fervor.

Whether it's topped with salmon spread, seal oil or old-school Crisco and sugar, chances are if you've ever lived in rural Alaska you're familiar with that long, rectangular, navy blue box, with its cheerful, chubby-faced mascot. For rural Alaskans it's soul food: Mothers give it to their babies to teeth on, village grocery stores, no matter how sparse, carry it on their shelves, and seldom does a hunting party venture out in the country, or a family head to fish camp, without a supply stowed away in someone's bag.

Through it all Pilot Bread has come to "hold a really special place in people's hearts," said Kelly Hurd, director of development at Cook Inlet Tribal Council.

An eight-feet long, four-feet tall Pilot Bread box made by Anchorage artist Karen Larsen got Hurd thinking about the Pilot Bread. When the box - itself a play on Warhol's iconic food art - visited the CITC parking lot, "it was amazing the conversations that erupted around it. About home and eating Pilot Bread and growing up," Hurd said.

Hurd approached Interbake Foods, a Richmond, VA, based company that makes Pilot Bread, to be a sponsor and soon after the first-ever Sailor Boy Pilot Bread Cracker recipe contest was launched, held at the 2011 Native Youth Olympics in Anchorage.

Well over 200 recipes flooded in from all over the state and country. The results were judged by culinary expert Rob Kinneen, who most recently was executive chef at Orso Restaurant and is Alaska Native from Petersburg.

"My most vivid memory (of Pilot Bread) is heating it up and trying to butter it like toast, and burning my fingers and having the butter drip through the bottom," Kinneen said.

Kinneen, who said the first culinary term to come to mind in describing Pilot Bread was "shelf stable," said the contest might seem quirky at first, kind of like Pilot Bread's avid Alaska fan culture.

But that's "until you really understand culture and hardship of rural Alaska - the issue of things like freshness of food and using what you have," Kinneen said.

Kinneen said that while some recipes were fancy, he was attracted by recipes that reflected the realities of rural life - that used ingredients that most people in the Bush could come by (a criteria that excluded pesto on the one hand, and muktuk on the other).

The recipes seemed to fall naturally into three categories - tea and desserts, seafood and meat-accompanied concoctions. In the end Kinneen chose stand-outs in each type.

And the prize? Up to one year's supply of Interbake's finest.

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First place winner: Sue Hoeldt, Aniak

Prize: One year's supply of Pilot Bread (52 boxes)

Hoeldt works at the health clinic in Aniak. She was in Anchorage coaching the local NYO team when she stopped by the Pilot Bread booth to drop off her recipe for Pilot Bread moose burgers.

"I was really surprised I won - I thought it'd be something fancy or special, I didn't think it'd be an ordinary recipe. Most people make something like this," Hoeldt said.

Hoeldt said she volunteers with local youth and Pilot Bread comes in handy to help feed a crowd, especially when she takes children on rafting trips up the river

Since she won the 52 boxes of Pilot Bread people in Aniak have started calling her the "Pilot Bread Queen." It's sparked a lot of conversations about how the crackers come in handy.

"It travels well and lasts forever no matter what. You'll never go hungry with pilot bread," Hoeldt said. "If when you're freezing on the tundra, anything in your backpack put on pilot bread is survival food. It goes all the way to the boxes - someone said if you're out and your snowmachine breaks down and you can use (the box) to make gaskets."

Hoeldt said she's thinking of some creative new recipes to try with her year's supply, and she anticipates the awarded crackers will find their way around town and at parties. She likes to give students going to university a box as college survival food.

"A lot of kids will be eating a lot of Pilot Bread," Hoeldt said.

Pilot Bread Moose Burgers

2 pounds ground moose burger (or other lean ground meat)
2 eggs, beaten
1 package onion soup mix┬╝ cup water
6-8 Pilot Bread cracker ground up fine
Salt, pepper, garlic to taste

Mix ingredients well together and let sit for about 1 hour, then form into hamburger patties. Grill the patties and place between two Pilot Bread crackers, adding ketchup, mustard, pickles or other condiment of choice.

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Second place winner: Lisa Fegereisen, Crow Village

Prize: Three months supply of Pilot Bread

Lisa Fergereisen and her family are the only residents of Crow Village, about six miles downriver from Aniak. She said that when she makes salmon with Cajun spices, a family favorite, she'll throw the leftovers together for a spread to top Pilot Bread.

"The spices are better the second day, it's easy to make it in the morning," Fergeisen said.

Since Crow Village has no electricity, her recipe relies on ingredients that don't need to be refrigerated (the reason she uses cream cheese instead of mayonnaise, Fergereisen said). The vegetables are from the large garden that she tends to in the summer. Fergereisen said in her family, Pilot Bread is a summer food - a perfect snack when subsistence hunting and fishing leaves the family pressed for time, or when her four children's friends come over and she needs to feed a crowd of teenagers.

"In summer, you don't have time to make bread. When we're out fishing we eat tons of Pilot bread . . . For us it stays good all summer, it's easy to pack and throw in the boat or pack if we're going out moose hunting. It's convenient because it doesn't smash," Fergereisen said.

Fergeisen said the free Pilot Bread is coming at a perfect time - just before the summer season - but, "we go through a couple boxes a week so we may have to supplement it."

Cajun-style salmon spread

Left-over blackened/grilled salmon
Cream cheese
Celery, diced
Onion, diced
Sweet pickle, chopped (plus pickle juice)
Chipotle pepper
Celery seed
Mustard
Lemon zest
Salt and pepper

Mix ingredients together to taste and spread on a Pilot Bread (with a slice of cheddar cheese on top if desired).

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Third place winner: Janlynn Jimmie, Bethel

Prize: One month's supply of Pilot Bread

Janlynn Jimmie, 16, is a 10th grade student in Bethel. Her award-winning recipe was created when she and some friends were hanging out, making different food combinations on a dare. To her surprise, the Pilot Bread Sundae was a hit and she's been making it since.

Jimmie said Pilot Bread is her favorite snack, and other ways she likes to prepare it is with Crisco and sugar, or crumbled in a bowl with tea and sugar, like a crunch cereal.

"There's nothing else like it, it's the one and only in taste and crunchiness," Jimmie said.

Jimmie said she's planning on sharing her Pilot Bread with her family and a close friend.

Pilot Bread Sundae

1 Sailor Boy Pilot Bread cracker
Hot fudge sauce
Whip cream
Bananas
1 cherry

Top cracker with fudge sauce, then whip cream and bananas. Tops with more Hershey's syrup, put a cherry on top and enjoy.

This story is posted with permission from Alaska Newspapers Inc., which publishes six weekly community newspapers, a statewide shopper, a statewide magazine and slate of special publications that supplement its products year-round.