Since mid-March, Unalaskans have been hunkering down and socially isolating due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During that time—and even now as the State of Alaska reopens—many people have been avoiding crowds and public spaces such as bars, restaurants, and supermarkets, and spending more time in their own kitchens.
Over the past couple months, I spoke with a few locals to see what kind of experiments, recipes, and memories they’ve been cooking up during the pandemic.
In April, I sat down with Unalaska local and long-time resident Sharon Svarny-Livingston to hear about what she was cooking and how she was spending her time as the community grew more and more isolated in response to the pandemic.
Our conversation quickly became focused on her relationship to the island and her roots here. She described to me the many local foods she learned to love and appreciate, as well as how her recipes and relationships to food and family changed as she grew up.
Looking back at a transcript of our conversation, the words "fish," "growing," "teach," and "mom" are among some of the most frequently used. "Fish" appears eight times, "growing" 16, "teach" ten, and "mom" 18.
Svarny-Livingston has lived, fished, eaten, and grown up in Unalaska. And it's no surprise that when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Alaska, and many people became concerned about food shortages, Svarny-Livingston kept her cool.
"I mean, if push comes to shove, and this goes on for a long time, and our airline situation doesn't get straightened out, if people are getting sick and the shipping isn't coming in here, hey—we don't even have to worry about it because, you know, we can eat from the ocean," said Svarny-Livingston.
She grew up learning to appreciate and preserve food here, to look to the island to deliver nourishment. And regardless of the panic occurring in the outside world, she remained confident that the seas and tundra she calls home would still be here to provide.
For many people across the nation, mandated quarantining and social distancing due to the pandemic has meant a change in eating and cooking habits. It has meant learning to cook with fewer or limited ingredients, and to perhaps look closer to home to find locally grown or harvested goods.
But for Svarny-Livingston, the lack of access to fresh foods and fewer trips to the supermarket was nothing new.
"I remember it always being that my grandmother and my mother were cooking all the time," recalled Svarny-Livingston. "And you know, they cooked from scratch because they didn't have the stores that we have nowadays. They cooked a lot of fish and they cooked a lot of sea lion. We ate off the beach."
While she wasn't born on the island, Unalaska is Svarny-Livingston's mother's hometown, and Svarny-Livingston has spent most of her life here. She came back to the island when she was just ten months old and stayed here until her family moved when she was 11.
During her early childhood years in Unalaska, Svarny-Livingston lived off of a lot of canned and preserved food. She said that when she was a child living on the island, they would get fresh fruit, nuts, and candy as a special treat, often in their Christmas stockings.
"My biggest dream when I was a kid growing up here was to have a house full of bananas, apples, and oranges. Because those were really treats. We would get them once or twice a year when the boat came up."
Pilot bread--a cracker that according to Svarny-Livingston "never goes bad"--was a staple in her home. What it lacked in flavor, she said, it made up for in stamina and its ability to take on the flavor of whatever you added to it, whether that be peanut butter and jelly, sardines, or potted meat.
It wasn't until she left the island as an 11-year-old that Svarny-Livingston began eating fresh foods regularly.
"Good God, we were introduced to fresh foods. I mean, fresh vegetables, which made me gag for like three years before I could stand them," she said. "Fresh milk, fresh eggs. It totally just was a whole new world."
Despite some of the temptations and conveniences of fast-food and processed food that Svarny-Livingston and her family then had access to off-island, she said she still had ample opportunity to cook from scratch with her mother and three sisters. Together, they made things like fish pie, fry bread, and Easter bread—a sweet bread made to celebrate the Easter holiday in the Orthodox Church.
"We always had aladix or fry bread. And we did it the easy way when we were learning," said Svarny-Livingston. "We got frozen bread dough to make that instead of making it ourselves. When you make aladix it takes you like ten minutes to mix it up and a half-hour to rise it. We used to get the frozen bread dough out the night before and let it thaw and rise. It was a whole production."
She said she has her mother's and grandmother's recipe for Easter bread, but according to Svarny-Livingston, she's unsure if she still has the right recipe, as her mother has changed it so many times—making it better.
Svarny-Livingston sounded gleeful as she reminisced on these memories and delighted in her mother's adaptation of the Easter bread recipe. She seemed to enjoy watching those family recipes adapt to the kitchens and hands they encountered.
Now, Svarny-Livingston shares recipes for harvesting local foods, Unangax̂ values, and subsistence living on her blog, Unalaska From My Point of View. She documents ways of harvesting foods such as kelp, salmonberries, and octopus, as well as methods of preserving Unangax̂ ways of being.