11 Surprising Foods People Ate On The Alaskan Frontier
Alaska became the 49th state to join the United States in 1959. Far removed from the contiguous US, Alaska remains the "last frontier" in many ways - including in the kitchen.
Alaska frontier food has always blended practicality and indigenous tradition, combining influences from Inuit populations, Russian fur trappers, Yukon gold prospectors, and other groups who have occupied - and cooked in - the area. The culinary contributions of each make for some unique pairings, surprisingly simple flavors, and ingenious recipes - all of which constitute some version of native Alaskan food.
What did they eat on the Alaskan frontier? Some surprising kinds of foods that, even today, remain part of the Alaskan culinary landscape.
Aqutak, Or ‘Inuit Ice Cream’
Aqutak, also spelled aqudak or akutaq, is a traditional food served to commemorate special occasions like weddings and successful hunts.
As a frontier food, aqutak was prepared by taking the fat from any number of animals - seal, whale, bear, or moose - and whipping it until it was a paste. Some tribes, like the Athabaskan group, used marrow from caribou, as well. Once the fat was sufficiently whipped, snow and wild berries were added.
Modern versions of aqutak might use Crisco or some fat substitute instead, and include sugar - something Inuit groups didn't have. It's still served as both a snack and a dessert.
- Photo: Jen Arrr / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0
Pemmican begins with jerky, which is ground up and pulverized before being mixed with animal fat. Traditionally, the jerky - made from the meat of moose, deer, elk, or any number of animals - could be powdered with a mallet or mortar and pestle.
Once the mashed-up jerky and melted fat were blended together, dried fruit and spices were slowly mixed in. Blueberries, currants, and cherries were the most common types of fruit, but cranberries could also be used. Once the mixture cooled, it was placed in rawhide or cloth bags. It could then be stored for months at a time, serving as a vital and portable source of protein and fat.
Pemmican was commonly consumed by fur traders, and the food itself could be used as currency.
- Photo: Estormiz / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Because there are no bees in Alaska, men and women on the frontier had no access to honey. As a result, they made sweeteners from natural herbs.
"Squaw" honey was made by boiling clover with fireweed or flowers. White sweetclover is common in Alaska, although not native to the area, and fireweed is an easily identifiable wildflower.
Once the plants were boiled, the sweet syrup could be spread over bread, flapjacks, or biscuits.
- Photo: CridF / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
Kelp relish was used as a substitute for salsas and other condiments made from vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers. Most commonly made out of bull kelp native to Southeast Alaska, kelp relish was pickled and eaten with seafood like halibut, clams, and shrimp.
In order to pickle the kelp, it was soaked in brine, rinsed, and chopped into small pieces. Sometimes, spices like mustard seed, onion, and lemon were added for extra flavor.
In lieu of dicing the kelp, whole portions could be eaten like pickles instead.
- Photo: Stefan Serena / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Dependent on large game like moose and caribou for survival, the Inuit made sure to use all parts of the animal. Modern meals made out of moose meat, which resemble the types of foods eaten on the frontier, include moosesteak pie and simple moose pie.
Both recipes use flesh from a moose with filler such as potato and onion. Moosesteak pie is breaded on the bottom and top, while simple moose pie is more of a casserole with ground moose meat on top.
Moose mincemeat can also be made by blending moose flesh with an array of spices, molasses, brandy, wine, and other seasonings to taste. This can all be baked into a sweetened pie or eaten on its own.
Another moose-based delicacy is jellied moose nose. The jaw of a moose is boiled and then placed in cold water so that all the hair can be removed. Fresh water is then placed in a pot along with onion, garlic, spices, and the moose nose. After soaking, the bone and cartilage are removed and the thinly-sliced meat is allowed to set in its own juices.
Stews were common on the Alaskan frontier. These hearty meals could be made from any available ingredients, including salmon, moose, or even just beans and vegetables.
Walrus stew began as a mixture of meat and broth in a pot; however, with the introduction of barley, buckwheat, and potato cultivation by Russian fur traders, it soon expanded to include those items.
Traditional walrus stew, often served at Thanksgiving, may also feature rice, along with some diced seaweed and walrus fat added for flavor. It's served with walrus coak - the cooked skin of the animal with a layer of blubber attached.