Fireweed is in full bloom across Alaska.
In Anchorage's Fairview neighborhood, the streets are lined with these fiery magenta harbingers of fall. On a sunny afternoon last week, Löki Gale Tobin walked through her neighborhood gathering the delicate blossoms. Careful to only pick a long stem here and there, she harvested enough for a batch of fireweed Champagne jam to bring as a gift for her upcoming trip to Juneau.
Before making the jam in her kitchen, Tobin takes me on a quick tour through her cupboards. Multiple shelves of Mason jars holding colorful goodies and sweet abundance peer out at us: canned moose and caribou, peach-ginger jam, collard greens, tomatoes, blueberry-rum jam, strawberry preserves and salmon.
For Tobin, 30, knowing how to can is about more than preserving food; it's a way for her to preserve stories of culture and memories of place as well.
Tobin's parents moved from Long Island, New York, to Nome, where she grew up. Her childhood was full of the typical lessons, like making sure to eat her vegetables and how to layer during inclement weather. Tobin, however, also learned food preservation methods when she was young from a well-respected Nome elder named Frida Larson. Little did she know at the time that those lessons would shape her life.
Tobin attended UAA for her dual bachelor's degrees in psychology and sociology, and later UAF for a master's degree in rural development. As part of her master's program, she served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Azerbaijan for three years. Spending three formative years in her early 20s overseas in a developing county, Tobin learned what community development meant firsthand. She also found herself preserving food out of necessity for the first time in her life.
"I remember my dad and I seining and canning when I was young, but at the time even in Nome it was never more than a hobby for us," Tobin says. "But in Azerbaijan, I had to can for actual sustenance, for survival."
Tobin became something of the community's resident canning guru, teaching free classes and sending out newsletters with recipes and food safety techniques. "I ate sauerkraut like it was going out of style in the Peace Corps. The entire country ferments everything -- tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, grape leaves, cherries, persimmons..."
Today, Tobin is the communications and marketing director at the Alaska Community Foundation, where she works to help build and support strong communities around the state. Since returning home to Alaska, she has also become an avid road biker. She recently completed the Fireweed 400, biking from Sheep Mountain Lodge to Valdez and back. She was one of only three female finishers.
Tobin cans things to eat throughout the winter, but also to give as gifts to friends and family. "I often add my own twist on recipes -- I like being creative," she says. But canning is also a way Tobin remembers and honors her past. Collards are a staple of the African-American cooking she grew up on, and she cans them with memories of her mom in mind. "When I can tomatoes," she says, "I think of Azerbaijan."
And in a jar of fireweed Champagne jelly, the story and traditions Tobin has woven for herself are born and shared with others.
Fireweed Champagne jelly
Adapted from the UAF Cooperative Extension
1. Sterilize canning jars and prepare lids by boiling in water.
2. Pick blossoms off fireweed stems and rinse. Combine blossoms, lemon juice and Champagne in a large saucepan and bring to a boil for 10 minutes. Strain through a cheesecloth. Put the "juice" back into the pot. Add the pectin and butter in a large saucepan. Bring back to a boil and add sugar 1 cup at a time, stirring constantly. Once all sugar is added, boil hard for 1 minute, continuing to stir constantly.
3. To test, drop 1?2 teaspoon of jelly on a cold saucer and put it in the freezer for 5 minutes. If the mixture does not set to your satisfaction, add 1?2 cup sugar to the jelly in the pot and boil hard for 1 minute. Re-test. During the test, the rest of the jelly mixture should be removed from the heat.
4. When test mixture gels to your satisfaction, ladle jelly into hot jars, add lids and process in a boiling water canner for 5 minutes. Let cool. You should hear the lids "pop" as a sign that they have sealed correctly.
Löki's Pot-Licking Applesauce Recipe
1. Peel, quarter and seed apples.
2. In a large pot, combine apples and juice. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for an hour.
3. Remove lid and stir. The apples should be slightly mushy. Continue to simmer without the lid stirring every 15 minutes (breaking up apple pieces).
4. When the sauce has almost reached your desired consistency, add spices and honey. Cook for another half-hour or so before serving or canning. (Personally, I like some apple chunks in mine, but if you want a smooth sauce, run it through a food mill.)
5. If canning, follow the UAF Cooperative Extension instructions for proper sterilization and preservation.