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Shannon Kuhn: Reflections of a wild blueberry pie-making queen

  • Author: Shannon Kuhn
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 3, 2015

Sigrid Brudie is a wild Alaska blueberry pie queen.

While making her first pie of the season last week, her thoughts drifted towards her grandmother, who taught her the secrets of a deliciously flaky crust under the big sky of Anaconda, Montana. Along with her five siblings, family visits were full of baking -- flour-dusted hands and faces, nibbles of raw dough and bowls full of sparkling, sugar-covered fruit.

A self-professed blueberry picking machine, Brudie is content to pick for hours, filling bucket after bucket. She makes four to six pies for the holidays, garnering a fan club of friends and family who look forward to them all year.

Although Brudie may have gotten her love of baking pies from her grandmother, she says her cooking skills are all thanks to her mom, who would frequently make gourmet sauces and savory meats for dinner.

Growing up in Anchorage, Brudie was a typical teen. She graduated from Steller High School in 1976 and decided to take a year off before beginning college. After a summer feeding visitors at a fishing lodge, she accepted a job from local geologist Rob Retherford to be a cook for his remote mineral exploration camps on Alaska Native corporation lands across Alaska.

"I had no idea what I was getting myself into," Brudie said. A few months later she headed off in a bush plane to the Kantishna Hills to begin what would become a decade-long, quintessentially Alaskan adventure.

She arrived at what is called a fly camp, meaning the equipment and food is flown in via helicopter and put together like Legos. The construction crew assembled the 15- by 20-foot WeatherPort building that the workers would call home for the week, month or season. The plywood dinner table, made homey with a colorful vinyl tablecloth, was the favorite spot at camp for many.

Brudie's mornings began early. At 4:30 a.m. she would roll out of bed to start the generator and make strong black coffee. Then it was time to make a hot breakfast, as well as a sack lunch for the crew to take into the field. Afternoons were busy making homemade bread or biscuits and getting dinner ready. Brudie would make everything from roasts to tacos to full-on feasts for her crew -- nourishing food made from scratch.

"I'd hear the helicopters coming in and know they were home for dinner," she said. "Then I'd run out and hand my shopping list to the pilot."

Brudie paid her way through college by cooking for geologists in remote Alaskan locations, ranging from the Kuskokwim River to the temperate rainforests of Southeast and up to the Brooks Range in the Arctic Circle. While her friends were working as lifeguards or at fast food joints, she was seeing some of the most beautiful places in Alaska. From a one-burner stove to the industrial kitchen of the 60-person Illinois Creek mine site, as a camp cook Brudie was part of a unique time in Alaska's history.

In 1982, during an exploration camp along the Porcupine River, Brudie met her future husband, Jay Marvin. Marvin was the construction manager and Brudie was the camp cook.

At camp, Marvin said, "You'd suddenly move in with this entirely new group of strangers -- living together, eating together. The food was a really big deal."

He adds, "I was totally blown away the first time I ate (Sigrid's cooking) at camp. I thought it was just going to be beans and crackers."

At many camps, eating meals together at the end of the day was the only time where geologists could get to know one another. "The mess hall of these mining camps is iconic," Marvin said.

The couple stopped working at camps and moved to Missoula, Montana, soon after getting married. Later on they settled in Sitka before ultimately returning home to Anchorage, where they raised their two sons. Marvin is the owner of a local carpentry and construction company and a prominent banjo player. Brudie now works as medical reference librarian at UAA's Alaska Medical Library.

On September 8 they will celebrate their 31st wedding anniversary.

While the pie was baking we looked at old photos from camp and foung one of her making pies, and another of her and Marvin blueberry picking. "The tundra blueberries are my favorite," she smiles.

"Such good memories."

Sigrid’s blueberry pie

Filling:

1 quart wild Alaska blueberries

1 cup sugar

1/3 cup flour

Stir together flour and sugar and then stir in blueberries. They can be frozen when you do this. Let sit, stirring occasionally, until sugar mixture has started to dissolve and isn't still mostly dry.

Crust:

2 cups unbleached white flour

¾ teaspoon salt

1/3 cup lard

1/3 cup shortening

About 1/3 cup very cold water

1. Stir together flour and salt. Cut in lard and shortening with a pastry blender until it is chunky, not superfine. Sprinkle cold water over the dough while you toss it with your other hand. Don't let all the water end up in one place, and don't overhandle the dough. Add just enough water so that you can form the dough into two balls. Sometimes it takes less than the third-cup, sometimes a little more. You don't want it dry and crumbly, and you also don't want it wet and gummy.

2. Form two semi-flat dough balls. Roll one out on a floured surface until it will fill a pie plate. Scrape under it, fold it in half, and lift into the pan. Be careful not to stretch it when you put it in the pan. Put in filling. Dot with about a tablespoon of butter. Roll out second crust, fold in half, and drape over filling. Trim to about ¾ inch past edge of bottom crust, then fold top edge underneath bottom edge. Flute edges. Cut vent holes (make sure they are large enough -- a small circle in the middle and then 5 slits around it to make a star.)

3. Bake in preheated 425 degree oven for about 10 minutes, then turn oven down to 350 degrees and bake for about 40 minutes, until crust has browned and filling has started to bubble through the vent holes.

Shannon Kuhn lives in Anchorage, where she writes about food and culture. She can be reached at play@alaskadispatch.com.

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