We Alaskans

Welcome to Homer, the small Alaska town with dining options aplenty

HOMER — Author Barry Schwartz, in his 2004 book "The Paradox of Choice," asserted that having too many choices can paralyze us. Although we cherish freedom and our ability to choose, we don't always benefit from having plenty of alternatives.

After moving here from Dillingham this summer, I've been wondering whether I've been struck by "paralysis analysis."

When Yvonne Leutwyler and I lived in Dillingham and felt like eating cooking other than our own, we could hope for an invitation to dinner or we could eat at up to five locations. Our dining-out options were often determined by the season and the day of the week.

Commercial fishing season offered the most restaurant alternatives: Chinese food at Twin Dragon at the airport, a burger or a dinner special at either The Racks out on the lake road or the Bayside Diner downtown, burgers or pizza at the Spruce Kitchen near the small boat harbor or Subway sandwiches across from the police station.

Those eateries were open most days for normal hours when salmon were running strong and the city population was robust, full of outsiders with money to spend. In winter, when mostly just year-round residents remained in town, Subway was open all week, the Bayside usually six days, the rest three to five days a week or maybe not at all for a few weeks around Christmas.

It was simple economics, really: Fewer potential customers, plus a population that had spent spring, summer and fall reaping the benefits of subsistence regulations, a bountiful salmon return and ample hunting seasons. Freezers were full. Residents ate at home.

We ate at home primarily, too. But occasionally we craved food not in our pantry, or we yearned to have someone else prepare a meal.

Consequently, whenever we traveled back to the road system, we ate out frequently, relishing the myriad cuisine choices.

When we learned we would be moving to Homer, we were excited by the culinary possibilities. We'd eaten at only a few places on the southern Kenai Peninsula — Two Sisters Bakery, Maura's Cafe, the Chart Room at Land's End Resort, Fat Olives — but Homer is known for its variety of eateries, and, despite our proclivity for the familiar, we savored the opportunity to experiment.

The TripAdvisor website ranks more than 50 dining establishments in and around Homer. Other websites mention as many as 75 places to eat, including bars and motels that offer full-meal service. Almost everywhere we look around here, we see restaurants — some firmly established, some on wheels and many on pilings (and probably seasonal) out on the Spit.

Since arriving here in June, many mealtime conversations have gone like this:

"Feel like eating out?"

"Sure. Where ya wanna go?"

"I dunno. What're you hungry for?"

"I dunno. What're YOU hungry for?"

Eventually, after an extended volley of indecision, and depending on mood more than appetite, we opt for either comfort or experimentation.

Honestly, life is simpler when choices are limited.

On a weekend teaching assignment in King Salmon last April, I had two choices for my meals: Buy groceries at the tiny Alaska Commercial store and prepare the food myself, or walk a mile or so through the wind to be served a meal at Eddie's Fireplace Inn. (If I had had a vehicle, I could have driven 15 miles to Naknek for a pizza at D&D Restaurant.)

In Nikolaevsk this July, our choice was singular: Nina Fefelov's Samovar Café. (Good borscht there, by the way.)

In many Alaska villages, there are no dining-out options. Problem solved. Paralysis avoided.

While growing up in then-tiny Soldotna in the 1960s and '70s, my parents rarely took our family out to eat. When they did, it was almost invariably to one of two places — Parker's Café or the Riverside House restaurant — and always after church on Sunday. On our one or two visits a year to Anchorage, we ate at either the Bar-B-Q Pit or Peggy's Airport Café.

Our home-dining choices were even more basic — eat what the land and the sea provided: salmon and trout, halibut and cod, moose and sheep and the occasional black bear, ptarmigan, grouse, ducks, geese, shrimp and crab and clams, berries and mushrooms. We ate low fat and low tech. Our two main staples were moose and salmon: Moose burgers, moose steaks, moose roasts, moose tongue and heart, ground moose for pizza toppings and chilies and soups; salmon steaks, salmon fillets, salmon patties, smoked salmon, salmon chowder, salmon jerky or maybe even pickled salmon.

As a wild-game guy, I grew up disliking the blandness of beef.

When I first attended the University of Montana, I often shocked my system (and amused my Montana friends) by tentatively sampling ethnic fare — Mexican, Italian and Chinese food; Japanese sushi and Thai curry — most of which I'd never eaten before. The intensity of even medium-strength salsa or wasabi nearly keeled me over.

After college, though, I relished returning home and to the comfort foods that came straight from Alaska.

Even longtime, hardcore Dillinghammers, whose lives revolve around salmon and moose or caribou, appreciate a little change now and then. During the nearly weeklong Beaver Roundup celebration each February, some of the hottest events involve imported cuisine — food flown in for fundraising activities. This year featured a KFC dinner, a breakfast treat from Cinnabon and huge stack of pizzas from D&D.

But to me, the best food-related events of Beaver Roundup are the most homegrown: the Chili and Chowder Cook-off at the Willow Tree bar and the Traditional Foods Feast in the middle school gymnasium, where elders queue up first for muktuk, beaver feet, seaweed and herring eggs, moose stew, countless salmon dishes and plenty of sweet agutuk.

At these events, unwilling (and perhaps unable) to be selective, I revel in the diversity of dishes concocted primarily from Alaska ingredients. No tough choices to make. I taste them all.

Nowadays, there is help for those of us frazzled by too much choice. Books and magazines promoting "voluntary simplicity" are available to assist in the battle against analysis paralysis.

I like the idea of simplicity. I might even volunteer for it, as soon as I do more research by sampling more of the eating establishments here in Homer, narrowing my options.

Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifelong Alaskan living in Homer.