Eating Alaska: A Documentary Explores “Eating Locally” in a Locale Not So Near You

By , October 7, 2009

Late last January we hiked to town to see Eating Alaska, a documentary by Ellen Frankenstein (no, really!) about eating locally. Ellen, who lives in Sitka, explores what it means to feed one’s self and one’s family in Alaska, where our food supply is a strange mixture. On the one hand we have commercially available foods like everyone else, most of which arrive on a (fairly) reliable basis from elsewhere, often from the other side of the world. On the other hand, we have our indigenous foods, a cornucopia of plants and animals free for the taking, although that taking requires a great deal of effort from us. The majority of Alaskans can make a choice between the two. Most opt for commercially-available foods, while others, like many in the Native villages, and non-Natives like Ellen and her partner, choose to procure their own food as much as possible. This struck a chord with my family, as we’re trying to do the same.

The hour-long presentation is very informative as well as entertaining. Ellen’s ambivalence about hunting, her contemplation of the questions raised by taking lives to sustain one’s own, the challenges of gardening in rainy Southeast Alaska are all handled with understated humor and charm, supported by whimsical captioning and graphics. Ellen travels around Alaska, talking to farmers in the MatSu Valley, home of Alaska’s legendary giant vegetables, visiting with Native students in Kotzebue High School’s home-ec class, attending a “culture camp,” and hunting and fishing in various regions.

Her interviews revealed a generally healthy attitude toward food among Alaskans. Particularly encouraging, and somewhat unexpected in this modern age, is one young man’s comment that he prefers to eat hunted meat because he wants to know who processed his food. That’s an attitude few of his fellow Americans take, preferring that their meat come to them cleanly and neatly packaged without any hints as to what steps were taken to bring it to their table. Frankenstein visits with a group of vegetarians who discuss their “oddball” status in a population that eats so much wild game and fish. Other highlights include Ellen’s rallying effort to “talk down” her panicking camera operator when the scheduled pickup flight from a remote hunt fails to show up for a few days, and an interview with a wickedly deadpan Tlingit elder.

Particularly pleasing to me, I discovered that Ellen is friends with a friend of mine from junior high and high school, Stacey (Wayne) Woolsey. This young woman helps Ellen try to come to terms with hunting, taking her to hunt deer, caribou and mountain goat, and helping her get used to hunting equipment. Stacey’s expression and encouraging nod when Ellen fires a rifle is, in my opinion, the best “line” in the whole film.

Even if you don’t know anyone in the film, watching Eating Alaska will teach you a lot about what it means to eat locally, and get a flavor (if you will) for life in Alaska. The film’s scenes of Alaskan wildlife and geography are wonderful. The faint-at-heart should be warned: the film contains scenes of processing meat, seafood and, yes, vegetables. There are some fairly straight-forward hunting scenes, including an “unclean kill.” These scenes are integral to the film’s considerations, and are an important aspect of the narrative. Nothing is dwelt on, it’s just presented for what it is: a part of life and death. If you’re unwilling to accept that, don’t worry—the camera “turns away” from most of the actual killing.

You can get information on the film at Ellen’s Web site. This would be an excellent presentation for gardening and hunting clubs, or any group discussing eating locally, if only because it shows how we do it in Alaska.

You will find a version of the essay above, as well as writing on similar and related topics in Sacred Coffee: A “Homesteader’s” Paradigm by Mark A. Zeiger, available in print, eBook, and audiobook editions. The published version will likely be expanded, clarified, or updated from what you have just read.

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