Comfort Food

Next month is Thanksgiving here in the US. The holiday focuses on gratitude but, if I am being completely honest, it is really all about the food. I will definitely get back to the thankfulness component in my November posts, but for now let’s talk turkey…and mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. There is something about certain foods that is just comforting. These dishes connect us to our culture, nourish our bodies and spirits, and elicit memories of time spent with those we love.

Volunteers sort and pack the volunteer’s people food to be sent out to the 22 checkpoints on the 2019 Iditarod Trail at the Airland Transport warehouse in Anchorage on Friday February 15, 2019.

Photo by Jeff Schultz/ (C) 2019 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

DeeDee Jonrowe eats some stew and shares stories. Photo Credit: Iditarod

Which got me thinking about food on the Iditarod Trail. I’m going to be in a strange place for a month. What am I going to eat? And what happens if I am sick, lonely, or stressed?  What will my comfort food look like?  In my favorite memoir, Without Reservations, author Alice Steinback stops in a McDonalds in Rome, Italy for a BigMac. After months of travel she just needed a connection to home; comfort food to soothe her soul in the midst of the unfamiliar. I don’t think there is going to be a drive-thru window along the Iditarod Trail, so I reached out to former Teachers on the Trail to find out what I can expect to eat, and where I might find “comfort food” along the way. 

According to Jim Deprez (2021/2022) the “best food that I had were the dishes brought by the locals, so many different seafood stews and breads”. Stew, a traditional comfort food, was mentioned several times by former Teachers – Jane Holmes (2008) had Moose stew in Ruby and Linda Fenton (2013) had it in Nikolai. Dessert is an ideal comfort food. Kelly Villar (2020), Brian Hickox (2019) and Heidi Sloan (2018) all have photo evidence of the seemingly endless supply of delicious pie in Takotna.

Famous Takotna Pies! Photo Credit: Kelly Villar, Iditarod

A big yellow cooler of Tang! Photo Credit: Iditarod

To wash it all down Linda Fenton mentioned I had better get used to drinking Tang…that’s a drink that brings back memories for sure!

Once I get to Unalakleet, if I am craving the comfort food of the lower 48, I know I can count on a slice of pizza at Peace On Earth to remind me of home. When I make it to Nome I’ll have the honor of dining at Debski’s Diner. Jim Deprez called the fare “good home comfort food”, and volunteer cook Debski is renowned for her dedication to feeding the volunteers delicious dishes. I’ve heard talk of moose burgers, halibut, and musk-ox as possible meal options!

Peace on Earth Pizza in Unalakleet (Photo Credit: Terrie Hanke)

Mushers also need comfort food packing their favorite foods that are durable enough for travel. Pizza slices, burritos, and stews are popular choices to vacuum seal and freeze to send ahead to checkpoints along the way. They’ll even freeze McDonald’s cheeseburgers – so maybe I will get a taste out there on the trail after all!  Some mushers need unusual comfort food. Jane Holmes shared the story of Sigrid Ekran who, in 2008, shipped out containers of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream! Having the right food at the right time can make all the difference physically, but also mentally. Comfort food feeds the soul.

Seal-a-meal Cheeseburger. Photo Credit: Iditarod

Vacuum sealed musher food. Photo credit: Susan A. Smith

Pizza is packed for a musher! Photo Credit: Iditarod

Just last month my eldest daughter was sick at college and she texted “Just left urgent care. Stopping to pick up pastina. I need it.” Pastina is the dish her great-grandmother made for her when she was small. So beloved is this dish that my grandmother was renamed “Nani-Pastina” by her great-grandchildren. It is tiny pasta cooked in chicken broth with butter and egg, and lots of cheese. This is the true comfort food my family craves when we are sick, exhausted, or depressed. 

Recently I came across a New York Times article that shared the absolutely brilliant way the Alaska Native Medical Center is healing Covid-19 patients with the “comfort food” philosophy.  Remember those Native dishes that former Teachers on the Trail mentioned? When I get out on the Trail these delicacies will be novel, but for the Indigenous people of Alaska these are their comfort foods. What happens when you are miles from home, trapped in a hospital, battling illness, and all you want to eat is the comfort food of home?  For the Indigenous people hospitalized in Anchorage, the Traditional Native Foods Initiative ensures Alaska Native foods – think moose, herring, and seal – are on the menu for patients.

Traditional Alaska Native foods. Photo Credit: University of Alaska, Anchorage.

According to Cynthia Davis, the hospital campus food services manager, “Most patients did not grow up eating chicken noodle soup or peanut butter and jelly…comfort foods can look like a bowl of seal soup, smoked salmon on a Pilot Bread cracker, or akutaq – a mix of wild berries and animal fats.”  Jane Holmes, Iditarod Director of Education and 2008 Teacher on the Trail, “loved” the akutaq treat she got on the Trail, but it is a staple for patients who have never eaten anything except traditional foods. The importance of comfort food to healing is immeasurable.  Hospital executive chef Amy Foote says, “Really watch as they take the first couple of bites, it transforms people. You can watch them relax. They share stories.”  Cynthia Davis considers the food program an essential component of the hospital’s healing mission. “People are in a hospital because they’re sick or in pain, and they need care.  They want comfort foods, foods that someone made for them when they were younger – someone who loved them and made it with love.”

The kid and her squid! Photo Credit: J Westrich

What comfort foods will you share this holiday season?  This is an ideal topic for a Culturally Responsive lesson. Students can share their favorite traditional dishes and how they connect to their family identity through class discussion or writing prompts. The sharing of a meal brings us together, but the collaborative effort of making the meal also builds connection and memories.  My pastina loving daughter was heartbroken the first Christmas after the passing of Nani-Pastina: for the loss of her presence, but also because Nani was the only one who knew how to make squid salad. So I reached outside my comfort zone, looked up recipes (not like Nani ever wrote it down, so we had to wing it), and together my 10 year old and I cooked squid for Christmas Eve. It was a risk and the continuing of a tradition that we’ve kept up for more than a decade.

Maybe that’s the key to finding comfort on the Iditarod Trail – taking a risk on the traditions of others and, regardless of the food served, relishing the love and care with which it was made. You know what? I think I’m going to be just fine eating on the Iditarod Trail after all.     

Library Learnings:  In the middle grade novel Cookie Cutters and Sled Runners by Natalie Rompella, Ana stretches outside her comfort zone to make new friends, human and dog, in this delightful story about friendship, understanding differences, and trying new things. This book has potential as a 3rd/4th grade read aloud that can culminate in the sharing of cookie recipes (or favorite cookies) for a culturally responsive tie-in.  Check out the lesson idea and my favorite cookie recipe here

Thanks to the former Teachers on the Trail for sharing their stories of food! 

Peterson, Victoria.  At One Alaskan Hospital, Indigenous Foods Are Part of the Healing Plan. New York Times. November 4, 2021.

Alaska Native Health Consortium.  Traditional Foods Nourish Our People.  July 9, 2018.

University of Alaska, Anchorage. Traditional Foods.  Melissa Chlupach.