Sitkans gather for edible celebration at Wild Foods Potluck

Every year, the Sitka Conservation Society hosts a Wild Foods Potluck. It’s an edible celebration of all that can be picked, plucked, hunted, fished, grown, and gathered in Sitka. This year, over 150 people attended and brought dishes.

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The Wild Foods Potluck, hosted by the Sitka Conservation Society at ANB Hall, brought over 150 Sitkans together for an evening of sharing – and taste testing – wild foods. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)
The Wild Foods Potluck, hosted by the Sitka Conservation Society at ANB Hall, brought over 150 Sitkans together for an evening of sharing – and taste testing – wild foods. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

There was a long table running down the middle of ANB hall, like the ultimate prelude to a Thanksgiving-sized feast. And every one of those dishes had one, or several, ingredients that never saw the inside of a grocery store.

Charlie Wilbur: “We brought some spot prawns from local waters. They’re great eating and we caught ‘em!”

Jasmine Shaw: “I led a 4H cooking class and we made current biscotti and potato gnocchi. The potatoes we grew in our garden.”

Pat Heuer: “We brought herring eggs which is my daughter Emma’s all-time favorite. And then we also brought Sitka black tail kabobs with a little imported antelope from Wyoming.”

KCAW: “That sounds delicious. I haven’t eaten anything.”

Heuer: “Well you gotta get to the herring eggs before Emma because she loves them.”

KCAW: “Emma, what do you like about them so much?”

Emma Huer: “I like that they taste like the ocean and that they’re really crunchy.”

Photo: Emily Kwong/KCAW
Photo: Emily Kwong/KCAW

Those were the voices of Charlie Wilbur, Jasmine Shaw, Pat and Emma Heuer. Volunteers peeled back the tin foil on these dishes and elders were given first access to the bounty.

Harriet Baleal is the granddaughter of two of the founders of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, Chester Worthington and James Johnson. I asked her what was on her plate.

Baleal: “Herring eggs and then I got Japanese made sushi and salmon dips and crackers and goose tongue.”

KCAW: “How many nutrients do you think are on that plate?”

Baleal: “I don’t know, I don’t keep track of that!”

I asked Baleal whether the subsistence lifestyle was alive and well in Sitka. She said it’s taken some hard hits in the age of grocery stores.

“What I think is now that there are less people going out and due to the change over to the cash economy, a lot of people can’t afford to go out and get their own,” she said.

Despite the challenges, Balliel says the easiest fix is simply to gather what is in your own backyard.

“I went up on Harbor Mountain last summer and got blueberries,” she said. “That was fun.”

Photo: Emily Kwong/KCAW
Photo: Emily Kwong/KCAW

Jeff Arndt is a subsistence gardener in his fourth year. I asked him what he thought of Sitka’s soil when he first arrived.

Arndt: “It was some of the worst soil I ever started with,” he said. “Yeah, there was no nutrients in it – a lot of volcanic ash. I’ve been hauling in massive amounts of seaweed and manure from the Fortress of the Bear. I’ve also been putting a lot of wood chips and shavings in there, so it’s really starting to come into its own now.”

KCAW: “How does the soil feel now?”

Arndt: “It’s starting to feel really loamy. It’s got a lot of texture instead of being compressed.”

Arndt also feels that Sitka is on the cusp of a renaissance in home gardening.

“There’s a lot of energy in town to produce our own food and be sustainable, so I think we’re entering a golden age of home gardening in Sitka,” Arndt said. “That’s my observation.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be a potluck without something sweet at the end.

Chris and Steve Warren won best dessert for a cheesecake with homemade graham cracker crust topped with spruce tip ginger marmalade. The spruce tips were gathered on the far end of Kramer Avenue.

“And I’m only telling you this because this isn’t like mushrooms, where, ‘This is my secret spot. Are you crazy? I would never tell you that,’” Steve Warren said. “There’s abundant spruce tips there and many people could get more than they could possibly eat spruce tips anything.”

Warren thought the spruce tips would nicely complement the bite of ginger.

Warren: “It’s really sweeter than something you would expect to come from a conifer tree. It’s almost cloyingly sweet,” Warren said. “There’s something that gets changed when you simmer it all day to the get the flavor out of the spruce tips. You literally spend half a day with it simmering slowly and end up with all things, a pink liquid.”

KCAW: “It is very labor intensive food. All of this probably took much longer compared to most dishes.”

Warren: “Compared to what though? That’s the question. Labor intensive compared to going to work and buying something and paying $16/lb for beach asparagus?”

It was a fair point. And I soon after put down my microphone and scooped myself a big serving of salmon dip.

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