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61°North

I’ll Have What Harding’s Having

  • Author: Kirsten Swann
  • Updated: November 14, 2016
  • Published November 14, 2016

Picture Whittier, Alaska, before the cruise ships and the railroad depot and the Swiftwater Seafood Cafe. Before the ghostly Buckner Building and the Pepto Bismol-pink Begich Towers and the art gallery with the famous fudge.

It was a historic day: Nov. 20, 1942. The final bit of rock was about to be broken in the new tunnel beneath Maynard Mountain, and Alaska was celebrating with a special "holing through" ceremony. Attendees included the great Maj. Gen. Simon Buckner—after whom the future military building was eventually named—the estimable Mr. Robert Atwood, a few judges, a half-dozen colonels and other who's-whos of Alaska society.

The final charge was set. An explosion. Then, celebration. Time to eat.

The last punch through the famous Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel was marked with fruit cocktail, cream of clam soup and shrimp salad; moose, caribou and goat; mashed potatoes, whole kernel corn, hot rolls with honey and pumpkin pie with whipped cream.

Across the state, food marks the passage of time—milestones and journeys alike. People share fresh fish cooked over summer campfires. The tourist season means reindeer sausage from streetside vendors and all-you-can-eat prime rib buffets on glacier cruises. Autumn brings berry patch picnics. Year round, neighbors share community potlucks, Sunday brunches and holiday banquets.

Long after the plates are cleared, morsels remain; preserved on handwritten recipe cards and saved menus and dog-eared cookbooks.

To browse those culinary chronicles is to savor a unique side of Alaska history.

Start in the archives at the Consortium Library, on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus. Stored in cardboard boxes on the quiet top floor, the archives are filled with the records of long-ago meals. They give flavor to days past and help answer old questions: What were Alaskans eating when the tunnel was finished, or the train stopped on the way to Fairbanks all those decades ago, or the steamship came to town?

Aboard the Alaska Line

When the passengers of the SS Northwestern sat down for dinner the evening of July 19, 1931, the menu paid homage to the location: There was fresh shelled Petersburg shrimp cocktail and poached Juneau halibut with lemon sauce.

The booming Alaska seafood business was a significant draw.

"Only two short days after leaving Seattle the Alaska steamer reaches Ketchikan, a thriving center for the salmon industry," the ship's menu declared. "During the spawning season the fish can be seen jumping at the falls—a remarkable sight."

In those days, Alaska's young tourism industry was blooming, and the Alaska Steamship Company's 342-foot steamer—"strictly modern in accommodations and appointments"—was en route to Skagway via Seattle and the Inside Passage.

Though this was an Alaska cruise, the food was far from traditional Alaska fare. For nearly two weeks, the passengers dined on dishes like grilled tenderloin steak with New Mexico yams, calves' brains financiere in patty shells, lettuce and tomato salad with French dressing and yankee plum pudding. There was roast young Washington capon, prime rib, East Indian chutney and steamed English plum pudding.

But Alaska's geography and natural resources were evident, too: There was always a seafood cocktail and halibut prepared multiple ways.

Thanksgiving in the Aleutians

At the height of World War II, the U.S. Marines at Naval Operating Base Dutch Harbor gathered to welcome a cadre of new officers with a banquet. It was Thanksgiving Day, 1943, a year after Japanese aircraft bombed Amaknak Island.

The spread was modest and military: roast turkey and baked ham, snowflake potatoes, creamed peas, candied yams and cranberry sauce. For dessert, the men of the 21st Naval Construction Battalion enjoyed fruit cake and ice cream, then coffee and cigarettes.

The menu, printed in fading ink on thin paper, is stored in the UAA/APU Consortium Library archives.

The mess hall has been abandoned for years.

Dinner on the Logger's Liner

As steamships go, SS Catala had a long and zesty career. The 229-foot vessel, built like an ocean liner, once carried passengers along the coast between British Columbia and Alaska.

It earned the name "Logger's Liner" for ferrying men to work in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Later, the vessel became a floating hotel for the 1961 Seattle World's Fair; a charter fishing base; a floating restaurant. In 1965, the Catala was grounded at Ocean Shores, Wash. For decades, it settled into the sand; periodically cut down and sold for scrap.

Today, there's nothing left, but two years before the Whittier tunnel holing ceremony, on the same day a German U-Boat sunk the SS Arandora Star off the British coast, the Catala was cruising the North Pacific under the chief stewardship of a British man named Henry Audley.

According to menus preserved in the library's archive, passengers dined on fresh oyster cocktails and iced queen olives, shrimp mayonnaise salad, braised ox tail and orange cream pie. Diners had their choice of roast leg of pork with applesauce, or beef prime rib with horseradish.

And because you can't cruise Alaska and not serve fish, there was also boiled spring salmon with crevette sauce.

The presidential breakfast

While steamships were plying the waters of Southeast Alaska, trains were bringing passengers to a resort in the woods outside Denali National Park.

Throughout the mid 1920s, the luxury Curry Hotel was a popular rail line destination and stopover for travelers heading to Fairbanks. The grounds featured a golf course, a tennis court and a small swimming pool, and guests included avid fishermen, skiers and President Warren G. Harding himself.

Harding spent a night at the hotel on his way to drive a golden spike at the terminus of the Alaska Railroad in Nenana.

On the hotel breakfast menu? Cereal (hot and cold), sausage, cottage fried potatoes, eggs to order and grapefruit.

This article was first published in 61°North – The Food Issue. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com

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