We Alaskans

When Alaska backcountry meals go horribly wrong

LAKE CLARK — Anne often tells me that I'm the better cook. I'm flattered of course, but I suspect her motive is less than pure. Normally, she'd rather split wood than concoct a meal.

There isn't a full-ride scholarship from Le Cordon Bleu Paris in my past or future, but I can normally crank out passable fare given a wood cook stove, a cast-iron skillet and a modest sampling of ingredients.

I cut my teeth as an amateur chef in wall tents, boat galleys and remote campsites. Those early years locked some food moment memories into my gray matter. There were delightful successes like learning what a splash of cognac can do for sheep tenderloins or how minced garlic and butter could kick life into freeze-dried dinners. Some interesting discoveries presented themselves, but there were a few unforgettable errors of judgment. 

Ill-advised inspiration

Back in my guiding days, I remember cooking for another guide and two clients in dim early light inside a wall tent on the Alaska Peninsula. Rather than serving the standard breakfast fare of bacon, eggs and toast, I thought I'd experiment. Our larder was limited, but the red labeled can of King Oscar Kipper Snacks beamed at me from the grub box. The oily, plump and pungent smoked fish, when slathered on Pilot Bread, is a treat. But as I spooned a tin full into the scrambled eggs, it was as if I'd suddenly scraped algae and dead barnacles directly from the keel of a tugboat and dumped them in the skillet. The omelet was forever tainted. The odor conjured up minus tide in a busy harbor on a warm day.

There was no going back. Daylight was about to break, so I loaded four plates and slid them onto the table hoping no one was awake enough to notice. Scott, my fellow guide, took a mouthful. He shot me a wounded look, as if I were trying to poison him. He slowly finished his serving, but quickly declined my offer of seconds. The clients, however, declined my offer of firsts. I guess some combos just don't work, like one brew-master's advice that even though you may love garlic and you may love beer, don't put garlic in your beer when brewing.

New item on the dessert menu

Even the same food tastes different given varied settings and circumstances. Once in the middle of the Alaska Range, a client and I chased a critter up a pass and down into a valley much later in the day than we should have. We would return to camp when the sun rose, but rather than curl up under a tree we hiked a mile through the lengthening shadows to one of my outfitter's seldom-used camps. The tiny log cabin contained a lock-top drum with a few canned goods rattling around in the bottom. In the dim light I could barely read the torn label: stewed tomatoes. Like it or not, this was dinner — so I opened it up. The old proverb about hunger being the best sauce outdid itself. It was ambrosia, sweet and salty — and I savored every juicy spoonful of my allotment. At that moment I thought it was better than any creme brulee or strudel I'd ever consumed.

All that fall I kept wondering why I hadn't tried canned tomatoes at home for dessert. So that winter I did. After a nice meal in a warm house, I opened a can of tomatoes and dug in. The first spoonful stopped me in my tracks. I couldn't believe how bland it was, how much it tasted like stewed tomatoes in a can at room temperature. Most of the contents went into a batch of chili, and cherry pie was rightly reinstated to the top of my sweets list. 

Creamy or crunchy?

I told my canned tomato story to a bunch of guides one night in a bunkhouse at a remote lodge. One of the guides launched into a similar tale. The first part of his story had a familiar ring. The guide and his client had ended up a long way from their camp near an old cabin that hadn't been used in years. It was dark when they arrived and he didn't have a flashlight. He was starving, and as he fumbled around in the dark for something to eat he felt his way to a wide-mouth plastic jar and unscrewed the lid. The unmistakable aroma of peanut butter rose up enticingly. Though the odor was stale and a bit "off" he plunged a finger into the jar and started eating. It was crunchier than he remembered crunchy peanut butter being, and after a few bites he decided to curl up for the night on a mostly empty stomach. His client decided he wasn't so hungry after all.

Just before they left the cabin the following morning, he looked at the jar of peanut butter and found a tiny hole chewed in the lid — and when he peered inside, the remains of the bones and hair of voles or shrews, with finger drag marks right through the middle of the mousy graveyard. He swore off peanut butter for years.

My takeaways from these experiences aren't necessarily a guide for successful cooking, but more a baseline for avoiding repeat disasters. Canned veggies are never served for dessert. I only eat peanut butter in full light, and even if kippers were once popular on Victorian and Edwardian breakfast tables, they aren't finding their way into my eggs. Ever.

Steve Kahn lives on the north shore of Lake Clark. He is the author of "The Hard Way Home: Alaska Stories of Adventure, Friendship and the Hunt."