Friday, August 6, 2021

A Few Cross Words about the Last Crossword

Big disappointment this month when I opened my morning paper and found a letter from the Anchorage Daily News stating that they will no longer be delivering hardcopy newspapers to the Kenai Peninsula. Bam, that’s a punch in the gut. After all these years no more newspapers in my driveway. 

This morning I walked out to the end of my driveway at Bear Lake and picked up my Anchorage newspaper for the last time. Yes, as of today the ADN will not be delivered to the Kenai Peninsula. I found it a bit ironic that I opened this last paper and saw their lead story was from Seward. Our gold medalist, Lydia Jacoby was at the top of the front page. At least that paper came to our driveways and people can save Lydia’s front-page picture. Not after today. 

ADN claims there are “circumstances beyond our control” forcing them to cease delivery on the Peninsula. Good grief, call it what it is, a business decision. No one told them they couldn’t deliver papers in Seward, Homer, Kenai. The roads aren’t closed. It’s just a business decision, which I guess I understand, but I’m still going to miss reading a hard-copy newspaper and working the New York Times crossword. 

Yeah, I’m even going to miss walking out the driveway on dark cold mornings to search for my paper in the snowbanks at the end of the drive. They didn’t offer the option of higher subscription rates. It’s just boom, they’re gone. And now people have nothing to start their fire with in the morning, nothing to crumble up and clean the glass door of the woodstove. The Seward Journal is a fine paper but it’s weekly, and there isn’t enough of it to do all the chores that newspapers do around our house: drop cloth, puppy training, tinder for your charcoal starter, packing paper, fun paper hats, and liner for pantry shelves. It’s going to take some adjustment. 

It’s not just the practical loss; I have a lot of angst mixed with this loss of paper delivery. When I was at my weakest this winter, I started my fight against cancer every morning by walking out the driveway for the paper. Somedays that was a long walk that took my breath away, and some days I didn’t feel like bundling up and tromping out through the snow, but I made it part of my treatment program. I got so I looked forward to walking that fifty yards to fetch the paper and coming back to the house for coffee, crossword, and first breakfast. 

Yeah, for fifteen-ninety-nine I can read the paper online, but really, it’s not the same, especially doing the crossword that way. And I can’t see paying them that kind of money for news I can find for free in other places. Yeah, I’ll miss some of their feature stories, and I’d have to print out the crossword somewhere else -- after I finish sulking -- but really I’m sad to see the end of a daily paper delivered to my driveway. I’m a pretty modern, techy guy but some things are hard to get used to, and this is one of them. 

On the bright side. Maybe I’ll get more writing done if I don’t have a crossword to solve every morning. 

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Biscuits, Sourdough, and Small Town Cookin'

 Like many people this year I spent some of my time in isolated self-quarantine in the kitchen trying my hand at baking. For as long as I can remember I have enjoyed cooking, and to my wife’s joy, I do most of the cooking at the Walker compound. This year I extended my repertoire to baking. Before now my baking interests were limited to cornbread and biscuits, the foundation of oven work in the Walker family. This year I got into sourdough big time and can finally turn out a good loaf that looks and tastes table-worthy. 
I have been intrigued by the ideas of sourdough biscuits, an attempt to marry my new interest to my family traditions. Online research turned up lots of recipes most of which were too involved for me to attempt. Biscuits are q quick bread, not just quick to cook but quick and easy to make whether the baker is bleary-eyed at six am or faced with extra company for dinner and no bread in the house. 

I was looking through one of those community cookbooks that we found at an estate sale and came across an interesting and simple, biscuit recipe. It seems every community big enough to have a name has produced a community cookbook, and they must be a staple around the United States. Travel the country and you’ll these little stapled or plastic-bound books with the favorite recipes of the town's most confident cooks, and the recipes usually have a regional flavor. And, because these are labors of love by amateur editors, they are fraught with typos, redundancies, and confusing instructions. Thrift stores, yard sales, and Aunt Martha are great sources for them if you are looking for interesting local recipes. Obviously, these recipes aren’t tested like the ones in the recipe book you paid thirty-nine ninety-five for, and sometimes they are confusing or incorrect. They also are full of vagaries like the biscuit recipe I found, “Bake until done.”
As I said, I was looking for a simple biscuit recipe that used my sourdough starter for flavor and leavening. This one had promise. Simple procedures and a short ingredient list.

Yes, I told myself, this is just what I’m looking for. The Instructions were simple too.
I had some starter brewing on the kitchen counter, so last night I decided to make a test batch of sourdough biscuits using this recipe. But I have to say, that looks like a hell of a lot of flour. My gut was telling me that even with the vagaries of sourdough starter this recipe couldn’t take more than two cups. I started with one cup of flour with more flour on standby, added the dry ingredients mix them, and then added a tablespoon of coconut oil since I didn’t have shortening. —I left shortening behind long ago. Butter or coconut oil is healthier and tastier. Olive or canola oil might work too. Then I added my sourdough starter and stirred. This made a nice firm dough that didn’t seem to need any more flour. I shaped eight small biscuits by hand and rolled them in oil as instructed. I baked them at 425 in my toaster oven which took about ten minutes. 
These raised well, turned golden brown and tasted great with a nice burst of sour flavor. 
I wouldn’t go to the trouble of rolling these in oil. In the future, I will oil my hands while shaping my biscuits and this will add enough oil for that crispy brown crust. 
Here’s my revised recipe for those of you who want to try it. I won’t go into the gastronomic and microbiological rabbit hole of sourdough starters you can find plenty of those elsewhere. 

                                            Quick and Simple Sourdough Biscuits

1 cup active sourdough starter

1-1.5 cup flour 

1 teaspoon each of baking soda, salt, & sugar

1 tablespoon of shortening

Cooking oil for coating

              1. Mix dry ingredients
              2. Add starter and mix into a firm dough
              3. Divide dough into eight equal parts and with Oil on your hands form eight, round biscuits (These could be cut with a biscuit cutter too I imagine and brushed with oil)
              4. Fit biscuits close together in a baking pan and press each down to about 1/2 inch tall. 
              5. Let rest on the counter for 30-40 minutes
              6. Bake at 425 until golden brown, about 9-10 minutes

These can be prepared overnight and the baking pan set in the fridge or somewhere else cool until morning to bake and serve hot at breakfast. 

So there you have it, a sourdough biscuit that is easy and tasty. Don’t be afraid to add a quarter cup of shredded cheese or other snappy flavors. I can imagine using this as a basis for some sourdough scones — more on that later. Keep an eye out for those community cookbooks; you just might find a culinary treasure. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Voting is So Political!

I voted yesterday, down at City Hall where early voting is taking place. I had to show my driver’s license and complete a form that asked for my name, address, and phone number, then I received a ballot and voted. I guess because 2020 is such a twisted, atypical year I paid more attention to the whole process that I usually do when I vote. 
Like everything this year, voting has suddenly become political. All this attention to the voting process can distract us from thinking about how we voted not HOW we voted. I thought I’d go political myself and tell you why I voted the way I did. 

I voted against the two Don’s for similar reasons, Don Young and Don Trump have both been in Washington too long —Don Young longer than I’ve been married. Seriously, We need a new representative and Alyse Galvin has my vote as a levelheaded, hardworking woman with good ideas. Thank you, Don, time to move on. 

Why did I vote for not-my-first-choice Biden? Because Don Trump has divided our country and never reached out to bring us together. He is a nasty, mercurial liar —a dangerous man. Joe Biden has a better chance of bringing us together. 

I’m voted for Al Gross because he has a commitment and knowledge to help fix the health care problem. This is the number one issue in America right now. How do we pay for and provide health care to all Americans? This is priority one and Gross has the best tools to do that. We need to fix the ACA and make sure health care is affordable and accessible to all.

On the Alaska stage!

Proposition One would change the oil tax structure: I don’t know the right answer to the oil tax problem, but if the oil companies are spending millions to stop Prop 1, it must be better for us than them. I voted yes. 

Proposition Two: Yes, we need to try open primaries and rank choice voting because 1) we are not a two-party state and 2) we often vote for the person, not the party. AND Yes, we need transparency in campaign financing. Besides, what’s the risk of trying something new? The biggest argument against this seems to be from the two political parties that most of us don’t belong to. 

Anyway That's where I stand, think before you vote, and maybe do some research on the issues and the candidates. Vote!
because only those who vote have the right to complain about their government.


Saturday, May 23, 2020

Rainy Day Food Plans

A cold wet day at the lake with swans, scaups, and golden eyes practicing touch-and-goes through the rain. A land otter was working the shore last night, feeding on salmon smolt, popping up like a seal periodically to stare at me through the rain. It’s the kind of day for soup or a good pot of beans. 
I’ve always been a fan of beans, — as a kid, I even would drink the hot bean juice ladled off the top of the pot— and chilly, damp day calls a pot of it simmering on the stove with cornbread in the oven. It’s one of those meals I grew up with and kept loving as an adult. I know for some people the food of their childhood has no appeal when they grow up, but for me a pot of beans simmered with a ham bone or bacon rind is full of flavor and memory. 
  American tradition holds a pot of beans in low esteem and harkens back to the Great Depression or other times when food was dear and meat was a luxury unless you could butcher a moose, pluck a chicken, or hook a salmon. For me, it’s a memory of the finest days of my childhood when we were all together in our green-log cabin with dad at one end of the table and mom at the other, anchoring our vessel in any storm. 
Back in early April the grocery store ran out of dry beans and cornmeal needed to make complementary cornbread. Such a run on stable food made me wonder if people were really eating that much cornbread and beans or just stocking up for the apocalypse. Or maybe I’m not the only one that is comforted by such basic foods. 
My mom bought beans in twenty-five-pound bags and the same for cornmeal. She was from Kentucky where she was taught that only livestock and white trash ate yellow corn. Upstanding white folk ate white cornmeal. Needless to say, by the time we were Alaska homesteaders we had moved beyond that and in fact I think we all preferred the coarse texture and flavor of the yellow cornmeal. Cornbread is a quick bread with simple recipes that pairs nicely with a big bowl of beans. Sometimes we split a chunk of cornbread and ladled the beans over the top, my sister liked to smear her cornbread with butter and crumble it on top of her beans. Now I like to keep them separate. 
  Mom had to make a ton of cornbread because there were seven of us a the table and sometimes a local stray. Not only did we need enough for the meal but also for dessert. Dessert was a chunk of cornbread spread with butter and rhubarb jam or honey. Not my dad and I, dad liked to crumble his cornbread into a tall milk glass, add a spoon of sugar, and top it off with milk. I followed suit, and we ate our makeshift pudding with a spoon out of our milk glass. 
  Beans are easy to cook and they can be pretty bland without flavoring, but Mom would add ham hocks or an old ham bone with trimmings and some chopped onion. OF course, we didn’t always have those luxuries around, but we did buy bacon by the slab. Slab bacon came with the fatty skin attached and she would filet that bacon skin from the rest of the slab and slice it to simmer in the beans. Some clove and bay leave added to the smoky flavor of the bacon rind, and the rind turned tender and tasty. With the hot cornbread, some diced onion, and a bowl of cottage cheese the table was set. Yes, we topped our bowls of beans with a dollop of cottage cheese —and for me a good sprinkle of pepper. 
Let it rain, I say. Let’s dig out the bean you stashed for emergencies, and make a skillet full of cornbread.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Back in the Day, A Undocumented History of Forty Years in Seward

The Walkers, 1980
This is a piece I prepared for a public reading scheduled for this spring in Seward. That reading, of course, never happened, so I offer it here. 
Back in the Day, before cruise ships, tour boats, and kayak guides, people came for the fish. They came in wooden halibut schooners older than the town, and they came in limit seiners and gillnetters converted for longlining. 
Back in the day before the oil spill of 89, the flood of ’86 and the quake of ’64, people came for the jobs. They came for longshoring on the pipe ships for the oil patch, herring stripping, and salmon canning, jobs that fringed the waterfront like beachgrass, beholden to the sea. 
Back in the day, we had the railroad, the Tustumena, the Army Rec Camp, and the Skill Center to pay our wage. Seward Fisheries and Anderson Seafoods let you squeeze herring until your wrists froze up like a rusty pump. The fish meal plant cooking —That’s the smell of money!
Back in the day, churches and bars were running neck and neck. We had Tony’s, the Yukon, the Pioneer, the Showcase, Breeze Inn, The Pit, and the FlamingO to take our money and ease our pains. We had the churches too: Episcopalian, Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ, Lutheran, and even the Mormons and the Pentecostals showed up to save our souls on Sunday after Saturday’s debauchery. 
Back in the day, the most variety of groceries was at Seward Trading Company but the best produce was always at Bob’s Market. The best meal was breakfast at the Pioneer or the crab salad sandwich at the Harbor Dinner club. Yeah, we had Apollo Pizza too, Back in the day.
Back in the day, we had charge accounts at Mcmullen's and Seward Hardware and Seward Building Supply. Just sign the ticket and away you go, we’ll send you a bill. If you can’t find what you are looking for you probably don’t need it. 
The author with brother Dave and Father-in-law
 on a moose hunting trip.
Back in the Day, we had TV but not much: PBS, WGN (Chicago) and RATNET. Only sinners and old women watched daytime TV back then, Soap operas and Jim Baker’s PTL Club. PTL stood for Praise the Lord but it looked more like Pass The Loot.
Back in the day, the four seasons were winter, breakup, fishing season and hunting season. In the fall it didn’t quit raining it just changed to snow. Then it snowed so much that come Fourth of July we had to pile it up and burn it. 
Back in the day, Seward had Seward Bakery, and a barbershop, Dreamland Bowl, Lechner’s Machine Shop, the Liberty Theater —Family Night on Wednesdays, and First Video, the best video rental in the state. Highlights of the year were the 4th of July, the Salmon Derby, and the Purple Bubble Ball, the winter gala at the Elks club.
Brian Walker on the Maxine
Way back in the day, we had a Dairy on Dairy Hill and Lumber mill on Bear Lake, and Mark Walker ran the Breezin’ Along and then the Maxine, big wooden boats that chugged out the bay a hundred days a summer take Army Rec Camp people fishing. One day each summer, one day, he loaded the boat with birders and the fishing rods stayed in the racks. “Who would think,” he said, “that people would pay perfectly good money to go for a boat ride and look at birds.”
Way back in the day, a school teacher named Monty Richardson took his buddies fishing in his fourteen-foot skiff if they brought the beer. Then he found out strangers would pay money and bring the beer to go fishing, so he let them until the Coast Guard said he needed a license, so he studied, took the test and had a legal charter boat. Not the first man to say, “I’m going to need a bigger boat.” 
Our first house in Seward,1978
Back in the day, Herman Lehrer said, “We oughta have a road out to that glacier up the valley, and he made a road with his dozer and stubbornness —Permits are pending. That’s how they say it happened. Then people went to see the glacier and said, “Wow, they oughta make this a national park.” The Feds did make a national park west of town and at first, nobody noticed. When they did notice, people said, “Where is Kenai Fjords?” Because there was the Bay (capital B) and the Gulf (capital G) and the Sound (capital S) but where in the Hell was the Fjords (Fa-jords, capital F)?
Back in the Day, Don and Pam Oldow saw those people willing to spend good money to look at birds and whales and glaciers. They were glad to take that money and give ‘em a ride on their boat. And then they needed a bigger boat, the Spirit I think, and Pam said, “Let’s call our business Kenai Fjords Tours.”
Back in the day, we found out there was a fifth season, tourist season. Don’t know how we were able to fit that in because the calendar hasn’t changed since back in the day, so it must have been cut out of fishing and hunting season. 
That’s how it was back in the day when we came for a visit and stayed forever.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Sunny Promise of March

I’m long past late on posting to the Bear Lake Journal, and you can thank (or blame) my buddy, Paul Tate for prodding me in this direction.

Looking out my window at the white expanse of the snow-covered lake one might think we are in the dead of winter, but the bright sun high in the sky and the pavement-hard snow will tell you we are well into spring. The young bare branches of the willows are turning red as the sleepy plants start to wake and the siskins and grossbeak add movement and song to the scene. The snow has blown or melted off the trees and the steep banks along the shore are starting to show dirt and grass. The driveway is a mix of bare gravel and treacherous ice pans that have already taken me to the ground when I baby-step across to feed the dogs.

On the mountains above the lake, the snow is deep and wind-carved but the rugged shoulders of rock are poking through, creating accent and depth. After four days of false breakup with temperatures in the high forties, we have turned cold again, so that the ski trail doesn’t soften until late afternoon and even then it’s a noisy grating crust with little give to it. Even the moose are crossing the lake without post-holing.

People who love the outdoors find March in Alaska a most special of times, especially when the skies are clear of clouds. By mid-March, mornings are light early and the sun is high enough in the sky to bathe most of our valley in the sunlight we missed during the heart of winter. By the end of March, the evenings are light until after nine, and we are out of energy long before we run out of light for work or play. For the next six months, we will be burning daylight. When I was young I could use all that daylight and have a second wind after supper, but now I mostly admire the beauty of it all.

I remember as a boy in Happy Valley that these crisp March days opened up the acres for my play because I could run across the clearing and through the forest on top of the snow peering into tree wells for treasures like fallen bracket fungus or lost toys. My sisters and I played hide seek this way hiding behind stone-like snow berms and dropping in the sheltering bowls around the trunks of trees. Instead of trapped on the shoveled paths and driveways, we could range wide on the crust gift of March mornings.

Yesterday I took advantage of the crusty snow to drop a dead tree and buck it up for firewood. This is excellent wood getting weather with hard dry snow for walking on in the woodlot and cool air for hot
work. While the snow on the lake is clean and white like a rumpled bedsheet, the snow in the woods is dusty and peppered with fallen spruce needles and littered with branches and bark blown off of trees during the harsh winds that scoured our lake most of the winter. I add my sawdust to the litter.

This is the time we look ahead to summer, and the signs are all around the place by the time we turn the calendar to April. The south-facing front porch smells of potting soil and seeds, the snow shovel has fallen over in place where the snow has melted around it, and nuggets of dog crap appear from under the snow to expose our winter negligence. We wonder aloud how many days of skiing are left in the ablating snow on the lake and anticipate the return of migrating waterfowl and the distant call of sandhill cranes passing overhead. But not yet for the mornings are still crisp, the wood stove is still warmer than the sun, and there is snow in the forecast.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

What I Learned Under the Dome

July 9, 2019 Bear Lake — AKA Smoky Bear Lake

The heat dome has been covering Alaska for a month now, making the sturdiest of sourdoughs beg for mercy. Whether you call it global warming, climate change, or just really hot dry weather, the state is getting drier and drier and more wildfires torch daily. Temperatures at Bear Lake were in the eighties for the first several days of July and during those days the smoke from wildfires was so thick that our mountains were mere silhouettes, two-dimensional cutouts of themselves. Fifty miles to the northeast a large wildfire is reshaping the biology of the National Wildlife Refuge.
Because of the heat and in spite of the smoke life is in an altered state. We get to wear clothes that we usually only take on vacation, and much of our time is spent outside or on the porch overlooking the lake (we are long past the age of lying in the sun like white brauts on the grill). The lake is warmed to comfortable swimming hole temperatures, and morning coffee on the patio feels like a trip to the lower latitudes. The grandkids have become marine mammals, in and out of the water constantly like river otters. We close up the house during the day to keep out the heat and open it at night to cool, just like they do in hot places all summer long. But here in Seward, Alaska where a sixty-five-degree day is just fine and often as good as it gets, keeping the house cool is usually not an issue. Finally, we start missing the rain.

I learned something during the strange, hot, smoky interlude of summer, many things in fact. Here is a list: 

— It’s possible to have a tropical heatwave in the near Subarctic. As close as I can understand, a heat dome occurs when warm tropical air moves from the ocean to the land and gets trapped under a high-pressure zone. AKA heat wave, a tropical heatwave!  Wait! I know that song.

— Things can always get worse. We drove across the Kenai Peninsula the first week of June and complained about the long delays for road construction. On the way home, we drove through the thunderstorm that started the Swan Lake Fire and saw some of its first smoke, a white plume no bigger than a bonfire might produce. A month later we are chocking on the smoke from that fire and driving across the Peninsula has been even more challenging. Looking back what’s a short delay for construction?
— I can now recite the fire evacuation levels, Ready, Set, Go. Level One (Ready): A fire is in the area; make a plan to evacuate and organize what you take and leave behind. Level Two (Set): Get your shit together so when it’s time to go, you can grab the car keys and hit the road. Food and water packed in the escape vehicle, Documents and papers collected and loaded in the vehicle; pets, kids, wife, and mother-in-law all rounded up and kept close. Level Three (GO)  Evacuate with all things and people you planned to take, Check in with Red Cross so you are accounted for. Don’t return until things are clear.

—Dogs are smart, smarter than humans often, this human anyway. My old Alaska sleddogs have no interest in working when the temperature is about seventy. While I was splitting firewood at eighty degrees they were lying in the shade napping. They knew we didn’t need firewood right now and there would be plenty of fifty degree days between now and winter to do this splitting. No need to work when the thermometer says eighty. 

— Never say never. Here in the northern rainforest, we don’t fret much about fire. That changes now. After a month without rain and high heat and wind working across the land, we are drier than the proverbial popcorn fart. We are only one careless camper away from our own wildfire.

— More women in Alaska own bikinis than you’d think. Everyday folks show up at the lake in their swim trunks bikinis and less. It is rare to see the lake dotted with people in swimsuits in country where  Extratufs, jeans, and hoodies are standard issue. I’ve seen more skin this month that all the rest of my ten years on the lake. Not complaining, just sharing data.

—The beauty of nature comes in many forms. Some summer evenings I paddle late across the lake and look at the setting sun, soaring mountains, and maybe a bear or moose. Under the heat dome with temperatures in the seventies well after dinner, I paddled across the lake and around the north end of the island to find something new, three nubile young women, sitting on a rock sunning their legs and sipping beers. They were as surprised as I was, but I think I was more pleased. 

The heat dome appears to be weakening and rain showers are in the forecast. It may well be years before we experience something like this again. But then again, it could be the new norm. One thing is for sure, life in Alaska is only boring if you’re not paying attention.