Story and photos by Babbie De Derian
A City Rich in History and Culture is a Delicious Place to Visit
“Haa aani ya … this is our homeland”.
The Huna Tlingit (Klingkit) Indians enjoyed a rich social and cultural life in this cool temperate rainforest, relying on the resource-rich environment to provide all that was necessary for food, clothing, shelter and tools. They fished for salmon, halibut, and rockfish in the sea and hunted for animals on land; they came together for weddings, births and deaths; gift giving, singing and dancing were elements of these “potlatch” events.
Tlingit stories and history are communicated in wood carvings and weavings, hand carved crafts such as totems and woven regalia share identity and family lineage, history and recount important events. Through their mother, children inherit their clan and are either of the Eagle or Raven moiety. Traditionally, one would marry a person of the opposite moiety, and one’s identity is closely linked to their clan and family. Totem poles were carved and placed in front of one’s home to identify the resident; they were the social security number of the time.
In the 1800’s Chief Kowee of the Auk Tribe revealed samples of gold ore which led the way to the famous “gold rush” and the growth of the town. Times and lives have changed since the mines shut down in 1944. Tourism and commercial fishing remain the key components of the economy. On the brighter side, through a sense of renewal and government support, the Tlingit language is now being taught in schools; traditions, stories and songs are being shared and perpetuated through the work of many individuals and agencies. Efforts are being made to resume traditional harvesting; clan treasures, considered lost, are being returned. There is much work yet to be done as I learned on my recent visit to the Seascape Museum where I met Leoni lei Johnson, daughter of artist Ray Watkins, whose work is on display in the American Indian Museum in New York City
My Delta non stop from JFK to Seattle connects to an Alaskan Air flight to Juneau. Travel Juneau is waiting when I disembark. They have organized a late lunch at Salt, a popular upscale restaurant. I am wowed by their “crab meat putanesca” … thick with capers, black olives and chunks of seafood. My room at the Goldbelt Hotel, conveniently located, is large and the bed quite comfortable. A sign on the night table reads: “Tourism helps us sleep at night; .please invest in Alaska Tourism, Our business depends on it “.
Juneau, a city of 2 million acres, including the Juneau Icefield, is located in the heart of the largest temperate rainforest in America. (It covers nearly 17 million acres which accounts for its biodiversity); it boasts of more hiking trails than roads; is home to 74,000 harbor seals; became the state capital in 1959, but remains a small community.
The “Blessing of the Fleet” takes place the 1st Saturday in May, honoring men and women who work in the fishing industry. Commercial fishing boats line up in Gastineau Channel, facing “Fisherman’s Memorial”; a priest blesses the captain, crews and boats for a “safe and bountiful harvest”.
The not-to-be-missed SeaScape Museum and gift shop in downtown Juneau tells the story of the Native American people who have lived in southeast Alaska for more than 10,000 years and the cultural values and traditions they developed over many generations that are rooted in strength, balance and harmony between body, mind and spirit.
To satisfy the cravings of residents and visitors, Juneau’s culinary diversity is gaining momentum; chefs who left to study and hone their skills have returned, and others, self taught, are redefining Alaskan Cuisine by opening unique venues that pay homage to their individual philosophies and talents.
Kelly ”Midgi” Moore is stirring the pot (so to speak) for the city’s emerging food scene with her fun well planned “Juneau Food Tours”, a company she started two years ago that is truly “a tour with taste”. Midgi offers to introduce me to Juneau’s eclectic mix of chefs who are “kicking it up more than just a notch”. I join her and her husband Grant (who has a fleet of charter fishing boats) at Abby La Force’s Zarelda’s Bistro where we exchange food stories and feast on succulent seared scallops and savory short ribs. Midgi tells me: “Food is memory; there’s no better way to experience a community than through its food. I am so proud of our chefs”.
The next morning, we begin our day at Gonzo where Alex and Aims Alf, the king and queen of waffles, entice us into a waffle tasting breakfast with a medley of six dishes, alternating between sweet and savory. Their menu is constantly evolving as they experiment with flavors and ingredients that elevate waffles to an exalted level of decadence … my favorites: their Greek waffle layered with lamb and slathered with cucumber yogurt, and the berry berry chocolate peanut butter ginache.
Venietia Santana opened Juneau’s first food truck, serving Mexican food and east coast grinders. Three years ago she opened V’s Cellar Door, a casual Korean Mexican fusion restaurant. Confident in her food, her advice to customers:” If you don’t like the taste of your first two bites, send it back”. Her pineapple jalapeño margaritas and Halibut fusion nachos, made with organic cilantro, onion relish and Asian cabbage slaw win me over with the very first bite.
Tracy La Barge came here from Colorado 24 years ago. Her stamp on the culinary scene is profound as the current owner of four restaurants, including her original, Tracy’s King Crab Shack, where we taste her famous crab bisque and crab cakes, served with a buttered biscuit. Tracey: tells me: “ I would like to see more young people go away to train and come back to pay homage to our traditions, push the envelope and reintroduce Alaskan cuisine to the younger generation. You have to bring up young people as chefs. I have brought up employees since they were young. I would love for my chef at Salt to buy me out. Cooking is something anyone from any background can do. I’ve watched my kitchen staff struggle and rise above the challenges”.
Lionel Uddipa, the executive chef at Salt, one of Tracy’s restaurants, left to go to culinary school in Georgia. He believes in supporting local produce and seafood, respecting the way things are done, using different cooking techniques, planning out your year, and serving in the purest form. . “I like controllable chaos and orchestrate what goes on in my kitchen; it’s a beautiful thing; it plays together like music; cuisine is so spontaneous “. We nibble on sweet rock fish and marinated avocados, served on blue corn tortillas that chef pairs with a soft chardonnay.
Dave Mc Casland, 26 yrs old owner of Deckhand Dave’s, which he operates out of a food truck and an adjacent tent with a few tables, worked as a commercial fisherman for five years to pay for college. He wants to open a restaurant on the water, and wows me with his breaded salmon tenders, served with homemade tartar sauce: low acid dill pickles, fresh shallots, finely minced onion, mayo and lemon juice.
Beau Schooler, owner of In Bocca Al Luco, Panhandle Provisions and the Rookery, greets us with a plate of house made charcuterie and imported cheeses. .“I just want to have room for my cooks to grow. We just want to do our own thing. I’m just having fun. My kitchen staff has been with me a long time; we know what we’re about and what we are putting out”.
Our grazing ends at the Alaskan Hotel and Bar where we rest our weary feet and happy palates with a tasting of locally brewed beers. Chef Stef Marnon, who has cooked for three Alaska Governors, joins us with a delectable array of sweet treats she has personally baked.
In the late afternoon, I ride the aerial tram, along with tourists from around the world, to the top of the mountain where I discover musicians, restaurants, sweeping views and a blazing orange and pink sunset.
A highlight of my visit, and a once in a lifetime thrill, is my soaring Coastal Helicopter flight over Devil’s Paw ( the highest peak in the Juneau Icefield) and our landing on Herbert Glacier. Before boarding we watch a safety video; and special shoes with clamps are fitted over my boots (necessary for walking on the ice). As we rise over the majestic mountain, landscapes carved and sculpted by centuries of glacial advance and retreat come into view. Once we land, we carefully navigate around deep crevasses and cracks in ice, as thick as three times the height of the Empire State Building, I breathe in the pure exhilarating glacier air, knowing this moment will leave imprints in my heart.
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