The Whale and the Cupcake: Stories of subsistence, longing, and community in Alaska is the first book I’m checking off the Strong Sense of Place section of my 20 Books of Summer reading list, meaning that it was recommended in their episode about Alaska. Was my decision to select nonfiction about Alaska influenced by the fact that yesterday was the hottest day of the year so far? Probably. I don’t do especially well in the heat. It’s genuinely one of the reasons I’ve never moved away from the UK. Occasionally I’ll see a job that looks right up my street in, say, Rome, and think “ooh, eating pasta and visiting museums are two of my main skills”. Then ten minutes later I’ll remember that the one time I’ve visited Rome – in December – I wore a t-shirt the whole time, even though everyone else around me was in a winter coat. Anyway. To return to the subject of the review, The Whale and the Cupcake, by Julia O’Malley, is a series of essays about food and cooking in Alaska.
Despite the fact that I listened to the episode of the podcast where it was recommended (and described in detail), I’d somehow got it into my head that this was just essays. That in itself would have been interesting enough to keep my attention, but this actually turned out to be a mixture of essays, recipes, and interviews. I’ll definitely be cooking some of these recipes and I’ll write about my adventures here – I just need to work out which one I can do with ingredients available to me. I don’t think I’ll be able to get my hands on ground moose. Or Betty Crocker yellow box cake, for that matter. O’Malley drew on Alaskan cookbooks from the past hundred years or so, travels across the state, stories from friends and strangers, and all the work she’d done in her role as a food journalist. What comes across, both in her introduction and in the final full essay of the book, is that she loves her home state and wants to introduce it to people, but without falling into stereotypes or trite clichés. If that was her aim, I’d say she absolutely succeeded.
The two elements in the title – the whale and the cupcake – represent the two key aspects of Alaskan cuisine as presented in this book: wild food that can be hunted or foraged, and shelf-stable ingredients that can travel long distances and last well in the larder. Most, though not all, of the essays in this book reflect that dichotomy, as do the recipes that accompany them. I especially enjoyed reading about the “cake ladies” working in small villages, who have developed skills in tricking out box cake mix with whatever convenience and wild foods are available to them. One of them reports having developed a very popular cake using white cake mix, orange jelly, and freshly-foraged salmonberries (which I had thought were a fictional fruit invented by the game Stardew Valley). Others use a can of Sprite instead of eggs, which can be hard to come by, or have adapted quantities to use gull instead of chicken eggs. There is also a lot of ingenuity involved in moving food around, since it’s so expensive to import – the woman in the picture below wrapped a frozen salmon with a handle, because that would allow her to take it as carry-on luggage on a flight. (As a person who can’t drive, I have transported a lot of eccentric things on public transport, but I have never once turned a fish into a suitcase).
I really loved the fact that this book included such a wide variety of people who work with food – not just professional chefs, or even hunters and farmers, but supermarket managers and home cooks. There were a few places where O’Malley slipped into the whole “oh, our diets were so much healthier in the Before Times” – especially when she introduces a naturopathic doctor as one of her interviewees – which always makes me roll my eyes. Our diets were less likely to contribute to type 2 diabetes and obesity in the Before Times because they were more likely to cause vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Also, starvation. I was particularly struck by the fact that the physician did not cite a single study about his claims, referring only to anecdotal evidence from his own practice. (He does make allusions to “studies have shown”, but does not specify which studies, or explain explain what they are comparing a traditional diet to. My first year students could do better). That aside, I found most of the interviewees to be very compelling, describing a wide range of life experiences and food memories. O’Malley asks almost every person she interviews what they think constitutes “Alaskan cuisine”, and almost all of them talk about the mixture of wild food and tinned/boxed goods, even those who live in cities. I hadn’t appreciated, until I’d read this, that so many places in Alaska – including state capital Juneau – have to have groceries flown in because they aren’t connected to the lower 48 by road. (Juneau isn’t even connected to the rest of the state by road, which I find completely impossible to picture in my head).
It’s fascinating to me that the book could include an essay on the hunting and processing of whale using methods largely unchanged for centuries, and in the next chapter a look at a very high-tech hydroponics shop that grows and sells microgreens, and have them each represent an important part of Alaskan food culture. I think, with a book like this, the temptation would have been to focus only on the traditional subsistence elements of food – the hunting and gathering still done by many residents – but O’Malley gives a more rounded and comprehensive picture. She includes lots of interviews and stories from Alaska Natives and white Alaskans, but also discusses the growing Vietnamese food scene in Anchorage and Juneau, and the links between Alaskan and Hawaiian cuisine (which are much more exensive than I would have expected). Particularly interesting was the comparison between Alaska Native and Hawaiian diets, due to the heavy reliance of both on fish and seafood. I had no idea that Alaska had such a diverse population, and using food as a vehicle to talk about about cross-pollination of cultures was fascinating. I think the best example of this was probably the essay and recipe about Spam musubi. Her interviewee was a Japanese chef working in Alaska, drawing on flavour combinations from Alaska Native, Korean, and Filipino cuisine, incorporating them into a Japanese-Hawaiian dish, using lower 48 ingredients like American cheese and military ones like Spam, and doing a roaring trade with Alaskan residents of all nationalities and ethnicities.
I’ve always quite fancied living in Alaska – I love the cold, I’m personally very well-insulated, and I’m always up for an adventure – but the way O’Malley writes about the scarcity of fresh fruit and veg in winter made me think again. Even in Anchorage, it seems that it’s hard to come by produce at that time of year. Some of her interviewees spoke very evocatively about how it feels when you suddenly have access to fresh goods again, and about the longing they experience for fresh food during the many winter months. A common theme across many of the essays was the importance of using hunting, fishing, and harvesting seasons – which are fairly narrow – to fill the freezer and sustain your family through winter. Many of us do some version of this – I’ve made many jars of runner bean chutney, and frozen a lot of portions of green minestrone soup – but it’s much nearer to being a matter of life and death for a lot of Alaskans, because the prices of fresh produce soar during the winter months, and shelf-stable ingredients are often expensive year-round.
‘When you live in Alaska, and, like, a dragon fruit waves at you from a stack at the grocery store, I run at it,’ she said. ‘I’m moved by its gravitational pull. I want that sweet brightness. I want it in my mouth. Then I get to the register and it’s twenty freaking dollars. And I am like, so be it.’
Although the focus of the book is food and cooking, it functions effectively as travel and culture writing as well – as all the best food writing does. O’Malley is a third-generation Alaskan, but she travelled all over Alaska to hear about other people’s experiences, drawing on her family’s food traditions occasionally but mostly listening to others. For example, she visits the tiny community of Adak, which lives on a largely abandoned Navy base but still has a restaurant. A lot of the stories O’Malley reports on are tied to communities, not individuals or even individual families. I can’t imagine living in a place either as big or as sparsely populated as Alaska – if my maths is right, the UK crams roughly 91 times the number of people into about 16% of the space – and despite this, or perhaps because of it, people often seem to live in very tightly-knit communities. The ways in which this has shaped Alaskan culture alongside Alaskan cuisine are explored in fascinating detail. I knew almost nothing about the history or population of the state going in, and – because it’s impossible to talk about food without addressing these topics – I feel like I learnt a lot. This review is already running long, so I won’t expand too much further. I’ll just say that, if you are interested in food and the stories people tell about cooking, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
A note on format – originally, I had planned to get the ebook, but when I went to buy it I realised it was the same price as the paperback, so I bought the latter. I’m very glad I did – the book is full of gorgeous photos, including several two-page spreads, and I really don’t think they would have come across so well in a small grainy black-and-white photo on my kindle. If you’re considering reading this, I would recommend a physical copy (unless you have a flashier ereader than me, I guess). I haven’t seen this reviewed anywhere except Strong Sense of Place, so I’m guessing it’s not especially widely read. In lieu of asking what you thought about it, then, I’ll ask whether you have any food writing to recommend that gives such an interesting picture of a particular place/time/culture?