I spent two weeks this past summer with an old couple on an isolated island in southern Alaska. I worked as a helper and kayak guide in exchange for good food and a place to stay, namely the corner of a tool shed I shared with a 25-year-old Swiss woman, Debbie, who barely spoke English. There was no running water and 20 hours of sunlight a day. I came to view Rick and Dorla, the couple hosting me, as two of the most self-sustainable, brilliant, and loving individuals. And, more importantly, two of the best cooks.
It was cool on the water. The small, faded motorboat bucked beneath us in protest, spitting salty spray in our faces at the crest of each wave. I brushed the water out of my eyes. Dark green velvet islands peered out of the fog for a moment. From a distance, the towering evergreens looked like moss clinging to the grey slate cliffs. Eagles screamed into the sloshing, grey-blue waves. Rick tugged on one of a handful of identical levers with a gnarled, liver-spotted hand. We came to a stop.
I watched silently as Rick tossed his fishing line. I peered over the low sides of the motorboat to see clusters of silver salmon tumbling by beneath the water, streaks of undulating tin beneath our feet. Rick plucked the fish from the water with a flick of his wrist. He eased their slippery forms into buckets. They floundered violently. I was queasy at the sound of their tails slapping the plastic bucket walls.
The next day, I trailed down to the water, after Rick, a bucket heavy with ice water and a frozen salmon bumping and sloshing against my ankles. We played Simon Says. He held up a fish by the throat, and I did the same. We eased our knives into the soft white bellies in unison. I watched as he wrapped his hands around the messy insides and pulled, and I tangled my numb fingers up just the same way. We dumped the pink water and innards on a rock jutting out into the bay. As if on cue, an eagle snatched it up for dinner.
Saturday we went fishing. Sunday we baked bread. Monday we went kayaking. The days passed in this way: as a singular task framed by early mornings and long evenings spent sipping beer and talking and waiting for the sun to dip below the horizon some time just past midnight. Every once in a while for dessert, Dorla would blend frozen peaches and whole cream and blueberries and bananas. The cold, creamy dollops tasted like clouds. I fell asleep on those nights full of the sea and meadows and sky.
There was a simplicity to the place. To the ways in which we spoke and worked and moved. It seeped into the food. We spent an entire afternoon picking blueberries. We crossed the island at low tide when the waterline gave way to shallow stone valleys. We wandered the circumference of meadows snagging our hands on berry bushes. I crushed the tiny orbs against the roof of my mouth with my tongue until they burst. After the first few, they all tasted differently. Firm and tart then plump and cloying. Our fingertips and lips were stained purple all afternoon.
During the week, we led kayak tours. We touched just the edges of our paddles to the surface, careful not to scare away the sea otters tangled up in one another, faces pressed into one others’ matted fur, drifting lazily across the bay. When knots of bullwhip kelp and bladderwrack bumped against our plastic hulls, we tied it to our kayaks, splashing it with salt water all day to keep it fresh. In the afternoons, we’d dock our kayaks for lunch on any stony beach we found. Rick and I would creep through the green fringes of the woods, plucking snippets of goose tongue, fiddle head shoots, Devil’s club, and fireweed. Grocery shopping in Homer, Alaska.
Lunch was a summary of the landscape. Every day we made beach soup. We measured in handfuls and pinches and smells and stolen spoonfuls. We emptied sweet rainwater into a large pot on the portable stove. Dorla stirred in chunks of salmon, hand-picked from the bones, with a few mounds of rice she’d seasoned a deep yellow with turmeric. I sliced the kelp into slimy, olive-green ribbons with an ulu, a curved Inuit knife Rick had picked up in his long, Alaskan life. Beside me, Debbie tore at the piles of goose tongue and other herbs.
While it stewed, we ate slices of Dorla’s home-made whole-wheat sourdough bread. She’d grown up in a German bakery, and still baked her sourdough from her Oma’s same starter. It was always a little dry from the sharp wind coming off the water, so we slathered on generous helpings of Dorla’s creamy olive-oil butter. Debbie and I would steal slice after slice of the tangy bread. Later, we slurped the stew happily from paper cups, crouched on rocks, the steam warming our hands and faces. It tasted salty and full-bodied. Every bite gestured to a different niche of the island: tender, mild, and savory fresh-caught pink salmon melting into salty seaweed, stubborn between my teeth. It looked like chicken noodle soup, and I suppose that’s what it was for Rick and Dorla: comfort food. It tasted like home, if home is tucked away somewhere in the far corners of southern Alaska.
There was a wholeness to Rick and Dorla’s food that I haven’t tasted before or since. They were artists, crafting beautiful creations from the simplest things: kelp, tomatoes, salmon, sourdough, and rainwater. We made kelp pizza, kelp sandwiches, pan seared kelp, kelp lasagna, raw kelp. Ate the fish that we’d caught, cut into, and cleaned ourselves. It was combination of long days spent in the bay and fresh, local ingredients that made their food so good.
Rick & Dorla’s Kelp Pizza
1 ¾ lukewarm water, divided
2 ¼ tsp. yeast
½ tsp. sugar
4 cups of flour, (3 white 1 wheat)
1 ½ tsp. of salt
3 tbsp. olive oil, divided
Cheese of choice
1 20-piece package of Seaweed Pete’s
To prepare the yeast water, mix ½ cup of the lukewarm water, the yeast and sugar and let foam for 10 minutes.
Either by hand, food processor, or mixer, combine the flour, salt, 1 ¼ lukewarm water and 2 tbsp of olive oil together. While mixing add the foamed yeast water and knead until it forms a ball.
Place the dough in a bag and tie the top. Allow the dough to rise in a warm place for 2 hours.
Roll out the dough very thin on a floured surface and top with the marinara sauce, cheese and kelp fronds.
Bake the pizza at 450°F until cheese is gooey and crust is golden brown.
6 mashed garlic cloves
1 tsp red pepper flakes
Italian herbs to taste
3 cans of drained stewed tomatoes
Sauté 6 mashed garlic cloves and 1 tsp red pepper flakes in olive oil. Add Italian herbs.
Add 3 cans (or fresh) drained, stewed tomatoes. Cook down until most liquid is gone.
1 medium onion chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
Italian herbs to taste
2 cans diced tomatoes
Choice of: cooked fish, ground beef or chopped veggies
1 to 2 cups of yogurt
2 cans tomato paste
Splash of water
Dry rice noodles to fill bottom of dish.
Salt and pepper
1 20-piece package of Seaweed Pete’s kelp fronds
Cheese of choice
Sauté onions and garlic and add Italian herbs. Pour in 2 cans of diced tomatoes and your choice of meat and veggies, cook thoroughly to ensure meat is cooked.
Add 1 to 2 cups of yogurt and 2 cans of tomato paste to mixture. Add a little water as well for moisture and salt and pepper for seasoning.
In a separate dish, layer dry raw rice noodles in casserole, then cover with half the sauce. Layer the kelp fronds on top then cover with remaining sauce.
Top with cheese and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.
Thank you to Rick and Dorla for providing their original recipes.