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?
I could not want to read this more after reading your review!! What an excellent and hilarious introduction to this. I don’t know much at all about Alaskan cuisine besides the difficulty and expense of bringing groceries in, and this sounds outstanding and like it covers so much about the culture around the food.
I had no idea there was such a broad cultural influence of foods, like what you describe about the Filipino and Hawaiian cuisines! I knew that they incorporated a lot of Spam in Hawaiian cuisine, but of course that would also translate well to Alaska and its necessity for shelf-stable products. I love anything that draws “food memories” too. This just sounds all-around wonderful.
I would’ve been rolling my eyes at that naturopathic doctor too. I hate the romanticizing so many people do about the “before times” diets that just flat-out ignore so many other factors, or like you mention the other things that were detrimental about those diets before.
And I’m with you on the heat of other places…I can’t imagine living anywhere that gets hotter than NYC or continental Europe in the summer, and even those test my limits.
Excited to see what you’ll cook from this! You don’t really need a box cake mix, it’s basically just the flour/sugar/baking powder part of any cake recipe (plus tons of colorings and preservatives) — easy to substitute with minimal effort, Americans can just be lazy and inconvenienced beyond reasoning sometimes.
Actually, as I was writing the review I thought it would be up your street! If you read it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did – not quite a foodoir but something in that vein.
I knew so little about Alaska going into this. Honestly, if I’d been asked to say everything I knew, it would have been “snow, bears, guns, moose, Sarah Palin” and that would have been about it. I feel like I learnt a huge amount, not just about the food – also things like Alaska Natives having a different sort of relationship with the US government from other groups of Native Americans, and tensions between different community groups about oil drilling. Talking to people about food really does end up encompassing so much other stuff!
The romanticising of diets from before 20th century agricultural methods/convenience foods aggravates me so much. Children all over the world commonly used to die of malnutrition-related illnesses before they were five, and *every year* that happens less and less, so *every year* child mortality goes down. We do need to work out new ways to deal with the new problems – but that doesn’t mean things were inherently better before.
We do have some box cake mixes here! They aren’t especially popular, though (except the Costco brownie mix, which is amazing). Also, they’re sold by flavour or cake type, not colour. Half my confusion is about not knowing what flavour “yellow” or “white” cake would be. I think I’m going to have a go either at the Spam mubusi or the salmon pot pie, both of which sound a) delicious and b) way outside something I would normally cook.
So I had to google it because I really wasn’t sure the difference between the cakes either, only that white cake always seems drier to me. Apparently it’s the difference between using eggs with yolks in yellow cake and only egg whites in white cake. But the fact that these are differentiated by color is indeed very weird. The salmon pot pie sounds delicious! I’m excited to see the recipes in this one. Spam isn’t that bad either, in Austria and I think mainly southern Germany they eat a kind of thick bologna loaf (best way I can think of to describe it) called leberkäse that’s very spam-like and it’s pretty delicious!
I don’t actually know that much about Alaska either aside from the big points you name, but I love the idea of learning about a place and culture through food and the conversations that arise out of that!
I totally agree about the nutrition points…people tend to cherry pick that topic to suit their own agendas, I find, when really it’s a much more complicated picture that involves so much around economics, poverty, etc.
I’m going to look for the book in a paperback, thanks for that tip – the photos look gorgeous!
Ha, I feel your pain re living in hot countries. I used to think of emigrating to Canada since I have more relatives there than here, but two weeks visiting them in July was enough for my poor Scottish soul – I couldn’t wait to get back to the cold and rain! Betty Crocker cake mixes are available on Amazon over here, btw. I don’t think they do grated moose though…
I sometimes daydream of moving to Scotland when it’s too sunny for me even in Hampshire! One of my best friends lives near Glasgow and she sends me pictures of overcast sky or heavy rain whenever I complain that it’s too hot here, in an effort to entice me to move. Thanks for the tip re Amazon – I’ll have a look!
This sounds like a fun and fascinating read. Alaska seems like an interesting place, a lot like our northern territories here in Canada, though I’ve never visited either. I laughed when you said you thought salmonberries were made up because they are very common where I live too but you’re right, it sounds like a made up name!
I’m just so surprised that a berry would be named after a type of fish!
There was a little overlap with Canada in some of the stories, especially the one that touched on drilling for oil. Like Alaska, Canada is somewhere that I’ve never been but always wanted to go! Maybe one day when travel is easier again 🙂
There are so many things named after salmon on the West Coast that I never questioned it! I think the name comes from the fact that they were eaten with salmon by the first peoples in many regions.
Alaska is this place where angry dreamers end up. They’re tired of society/capitalism/the government/technology/noise/cities/people, etc. so they go to Alaska looking to “live off the grid.” Except you can, and Alaskans are happy to tell you that’s how you die. You do NOT go to Alaska as a novice and survive there alone. Look up the numbers on people who disappear/die/must be rescued in Alaska; they keep a whole budget for recovery. Anyway, since people of all races, ethnicities, genders, and economic status have the feelings I listed above, Alaska is rather diverse. It’s also well-known for good-paying pipeline jobs. If you want a good fiction book by a person raised in Alaska, I recommend The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (https://grabthelapels.com/2021/02/23/the-great-alone/)
This review made my heart so happy. I giggled aloud at your comment about being made for museums and eating pasta, and also DID sort of picture you turning a fish into a suitcase.
Reminder: we said we were going to read a book together, but never made concrete plans. Are you still up for Woman on the Edge of Time?
Yes, I’m definitely up for reading Woman on the Edge of Time – I was actually going to email you about it this weekend! When would you like to do it?
I remember your review about The Great Alone – I think at the time I thought it would be too bleak for me, but now that things are looking up a bit here I might give it a go!
That’s so interesting about the things that draw people to Alaska and the reasons it’s so diverse! That makes a lot of sense.
I started Woman on the Edge of Time this morning. It’s an audio book, so it will take me a bit longer to finish than a text book. What about Sunday, July 11th? I think we typically meet around 3PM your time so that you are able to attend church. Let me know if that sounds good, and I will send a calendar invite.
July 11th sounds good – looking forward to it!
Wow, this sounds so good! The dichotomy of Alaskan cuisine depending on both the fresh and the preserved is fascinating and not something I’d thought about before. I really enjoyed the quote you shared and it seems like this book does a great job of exploring history and culture through food. I’d not heard of it before, but I definitely want to read it after reading your review 🙂
I’m so glad I could put this on your radar – if you pick it up, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! Learning about culture through food is honestly one of my favourite things and I really think this book does a great job of it.