Book of food essays uncovers the soul of Alaska through its cuisine

The Whale & the Cupcake: Stories of Subsistence, Longing, & Community in Alaska

By Julia O’Malley, Anchorage Museum/University of Washington Press, 176 pages, 2019. $24.95

“The Whale and the Cupcake: Stories of Subsistence, Longing, and Community in Alaska,” by Julia O'Malley

If you’ve ever wondered what doughnuts, muktuk, musubi, wild caribou, canned Spam, fresh sprouts and boxed cake mix all have in common, veteran journalist and longtime Anchorage Daily News contributor Julia O’Malley has your answer. All of them, she explains in her new book, “The Whale & the Cupcake,” are essential ingredients in what can only be called “Alaska cuisine.”

“What Alaskans eat,” O’Malley writes, “is an amalgam of wild-sourced foods, intricately tied to our landscape and identity, and foods that travel wildly long distances to get here from faraway homes we long for or places we can only imagine.”

Put in layman’s terms, that pot of chili simmering on the stove is a Southwestern recipe seasoned with spices from Asia, and fortified with moose meat from last fall’s hunting trip, carrots from last summer’s garden, and beans from last week’s visit to Walmart. In other words, it reflects Alaska’s unique culture. Drawn from everywhere, and something you won’t find elsewhere.

The essays in this book are drawn from several years O’Malley spent traversing the state, learning what Alaskans eat and how those foods define them as Alaskans. From the urban corridors of Anchorage, with its many trendy restaurants, to the far-flung, barely populated former military base on Adak Island in the Aleutians, where there is only one diner, and from a farm in Homer where food is grown on the spot, to tiny Arctic Village where it’s gathered wild from the land, she looks for the commonalities in the widely ranging meals that are served each day, and at the ways community is formed around the dinner tables of the Last Frontier.

[Launching a book on Alaska food, Julia O’Malley talks food trends and the surprising beauty of a Jell-O salad]

O’Malley finds that three things in particular define the Alaska diet. First there is food drawn from the land and sea. Fish, wild game and berries are harvested along with vegetables from gardens and meat raised on farms.

This is accompanied by shelf-stable foods purchased at grocery stores. A legacy of the many decades when Alaska was a distant outpost and food shipments were slow to arrive, Alaskans have come to depend on products that can last a long time in the pantry. Pilot Bread, Spam and Betty Crocker Triple Chocolate Fudge Cake Mix might be sneered at by hipsters in other states, but in Alaska they are incorporated into meals, and often reworked into gourmet specialties.

Which leads to the third commonality. Apart from our Native population, most Alaskans either came from elsewhere, or their parents or grandparents did. Multiple heritages have collided in the state and adapted themselves to local conditions. For O’Malley, Alaska is a cultural crockpot where the flavors all blend together in many magical ways.

Thus we meet Imelda Cleary, an immigrant from the Philippines who came to Adak by way of California. She and her husband operate the sole restaurant in a town of barely more than 300 residents, as far from the rest of the world as one can get without physically leaving it. Cleary cooks her customers American-style bacon cheeseburgers and pizza, as well as Philippine favorites like pancit bihon and lumpia. But she’s most famous locally for her doughnuts, served to locals for whom her Bluebird Cafe is the community gathering place.

O’Malley finds community ties being strengthened in Homer as well. There she attends a weekend gathering on an in-law’s farm where some 40 people come together to slaughter a hog and enjoy a catered meal drawn heavily from locally sourced foods, served with an approach rooted in Louisiana, while a bossa nova band provides the entertainment.

In Anchorage, which has one of the highest per capita immigrant populations in America, O’Malley chases after the countless pho restaurants that seem to be found on every corner. The hearty Vietnamese soup has become a staple for city residents from all walks of life. (I was reminded here of the the dozens of Thai joints that are similarly and inexplicably scattered throughout Fairbanks, a topic that I urge O’Malley to dig into and tell us about as only she can.)

In the Inupiat village of Point Hope on the Chukchi Sea, whales have fed the community for as long as it has existed. O’Malley explains how subsistence and traditional foods provide more than nutrition. They’re the foundation of the community itself, and sharing these foods is critical to cultural survival.

In the Gwich’in community of Arctic Village, nestled in the Brooks Range, caribou is the dietary mainstay. The Porcupine Herd, which has migrated through the region for untold centuries, provides the caloric needs of people who have limited economic opportunities in a town that can only be reached by air, where a $10 gallon of milk is considered a bargain.

Arctic Village lies at the center of the battle over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, although the voices of the Gwich’in are largely ignored by media and politicians alike. Meanwhile, climate change is also impacting them heavily, a plight shared by residents of Point Hope. O’Malley discusses how these factors could weaken food security.

O’Malley travels elsewhere in the state, stopping to interview chefs, food bloggers, produce buyers and others. On the Kenai River she watches Alaskans from all socioeconomic levels pull free salmon out of the water with their dipnets. And she provides recipes for Alaskan specialties such as sourdough pancakes, halibut Olympia and Spam musubi McMuffins.

O’Malley, who writes engagingly on pretty much anything, here focuses on people, food and the way the two interact, on both individual and community levels, accompanied by many beautiful photographs. Through this book, she doesn’t merely introduce us to Alaskan foods, she discovers the soul of Alaska itself.

“Alaska’s cuisine,” O’Malley concludes, “is one part wild, one part shelf-stable, ever practical, seasonal, and inventive, marked by cultural contrasts, with ingredients ranging from seaweed to sheet cake to pancit to Tang.”

Or as Sharon Roufa, co-owner of Homer’s wildly popular Two Sisters Bakery, sums it up, “It’s the cuisine of making do.”

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David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based critic and freelance writer. He can be reached at