The Whale and the Cupcake: Stories of Subsistence, Longing, and Community in Alaska

This essay collection (176 pages) was published in December of 2019 by University of Washington Press. The book takes you to Alaska. Melissa read The Whale and the Cupcake and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.

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The Whale and the Cupcake

Stories of Subsistence, Longing, and Community in Alaska

Julia O'Malley

Fresh-picked salmonberries and spam sushi. River-to-table salmon fillets and box cakes gussied up with rum. Vietnamese Pho and muktuk and eider duck and pilot bread. The foods eaten every day by Alaskans are a delicious dichotomy of fresh-from-the-land and shelf-stable.

By the time you’ve finished reading this collection of essays, you’ll feel like you’ve gone on a road trip to Alaska’s cities and villages, meeting quirky, smart, interesting people and eating a whole bunch of really good stuff along the way. The interviews, personal stories, and photos of home cooks, restaurateurs, grocery store workers, and farmers clearly illustrate how food matters to Alaskans in a fundamental way. Most of the year is spent preparing — mentally and physically — for the scarcity of winter.

There are essays about whale hunting and what it means to remote communities, the popularity of Vietnamese Pho and how it became a part of everyday life in Alaska, the tradition of eating whale blubber (a.k.a., muktuk), and why box cakes are the sweet glue that holds communities together in times of celebration and sorrow.

For many Alaskans, their daily food routine includes the subsistence traditions of hunting, fishing, and gathering wild foods. As one woman explains, ‘I don’t know if the right word is spirituality or just part of who you are. It’s ingrained in my whole being, to be able to get these kinds of foods from the land and prepare them in ways I’m able to share with my elders and the people I love.’

At the same time, spying an imported dragon fruit at the grocery store in the middle of the gray, dark, cold, bleak winter can produce a sense of unbridled lust and elation. ‘I run at it. I’m moved by its gravitational pull. I want that sweet brightness. I want it in my mouth.’

James Beard Award-winning journalist Julia O’Malley is a third-generation Alaskan, and her story about subsistence whale hunting in the Siberian Yup’ik village of Gambell was included in The Best American Food Writing 2018. She writes with obvious affection and restraint about the food culture of the 49th state. Fair warning: It will give you an appetite for king crab that tastes of the Bering Sea and homesickness for a place you’ve never been.

Sure, Californians might love the avocado they picked from a backyard tree the way Texans love their barbecue or New Yorkers celebrate apple cider in the fall, but that love cannot compare to Alaskan food sacraments like picking blueberries from a mountainside, carrying a bowl of moose broth to a family member stuck in the Alaska Native Hospital, or having a whole king eider sea duck in the freezer. — Julia O’Malley

keep reading

Food, wildlife, majestic vistas, quiet moments: the images in these Instagram accounts showcase what makes Alaska such a special place. It's rugged, colorful, somewhat dangerous, and celebrates an independent spirit.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a person desiring to experience the food of Alaska, must be in want of cake. For your consideration, we submit this cake: buttery, sweet, gooey, and rich with tradition.
In this ep, we discuss the surprises of life in Alaska and recommend books that transported us there: a vivid memoir, two novels where snow is a character, a story set in commercial fishing, and two foodie books.

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