In The Alaskan Laundry by Brendan Jones, the old Tlingit man, Betteryear, teaches the protagonist Tara to gather wild mushrooms and other items, which they use to make a meal together. There are some beautiful passages from this part of the book, describing the food and how it is made, which really bring the setting to life.

Flames from the wood stove reflected off the scarred spruce tabletop. She laid out burlap placemats and muslin cloth napkins and silverware on top, then watched as he lowered a filet of white king salmon on a bed of sour dock, a tart rhubarb-like green that grew, he said, in the tidal grasses. He covered the fish with dulse, a seaweed the color of dried blood, wrapped the package in green skunk cabbage leaves, and slipped it into the wood stove.

Above are pictures of dulse, sour dock, and western skunk cabbage. Note that the skunk cabbage is not eaten, but used as a wrapper for the food packet allowing the contents to steam, much like banana leaves in tropical regions or tinfoil on camping trips or parchment paper in the oven.

Another component of the meal, the gumboot chiton (occasionally referred to as the wandering meatloaf!), is unlike most other chitons, in that its eight plates or valves are mostly hidden by its leathery skin.

According to the Wikipedia page (linked above) where I found these photos, the gumboots have been considered a food source in the past, but the page cites one book whose authors tried to cook and eat it but were so put off by the smell that they threw it out before even trying it! However, in The Alaskan Laundry, Betteryear and Tara don’t eat a “rough, paper-thin steak” of meat from the chiton, as the writers mentioned in the Wikipedia article. They use it in a much less obvious, and presumably tastier, way.

At the table, he demonstrated how to remove the eight shields of armor along their back sides, then scooped out the orange gonads with a finger before setting them on a shred of dried seaweed. … The meat tasted sweet, like lobster, with a burnt salty scent.

Incidentally, I tried to look up the Latin name Betteryear teaches Tara for the gumboots – Katarina rusticana – and came up blank. The one pictured above is Cryptochiton stelleri.

Betteryear cooks the wild mushrooms (which I posted about earlier) with limpets in seal oil. In the picture on the left, you can see the “nubs of meat” in the limpets.

It doesn’t really say whether the limpets had been preserved with seal oil or used fresh and cooked in seal oil. There is a scene later in the book that shows Tara picking limpets from the rocks, and seal oil is mentioned in all 3 of the Alaskan books I’ve read, as well as my research, as being an extremely important food source for Alaskan natives. I’m guessing the limpets were eaten by the Tlingits both fresh and preserved.

There was a fishy smell, followed by a clatter as he dumped a bowl of shells into a pan. “Limpets in seal oil,” he explained. … When the nubs of meat from the limpets dropped out of their cone-shaped shells he added the cleaned chanterelles, hedgehogs, and chopped shaggy mane.

eelgrass

 

Betteryear also sautes eelgrass in olive oil with garlic, “the rich bright scent filling the cabin.” These greens remind me a bit of the flat ends of garlic scapes, and I’d love to try them!

Additionally, the passage mentions salmonberry relish and pickled bull kelp. Salmonberries seem related to raspberries, but can be red, orange or yellow. And on the same site I found a nice post about harvesting bull kelp, which also has a link to a recipe for bull kelp pickles (and to a page about wild mushrooms). (Photos below of salmonberries and floating bull kelp are used courtesy Jo Wendel of Alaska Floats My Boat.)

The good food reassured her, set her at ease. They ate the mushrooms and limpets and fish with their hands, blowing on the flakes of salmon to cool them.

It was an altogether engrossing scene, and one that really pulls the reader directly into the setting. This isn’t simply window dressing–it’s obvious that it was researched. At times it seems a little forced, but I think that’s partly because as we read these scenes we don’t know Betteryear’s motivations for teaching Tara this lore–part of us wonders if there is a reason or if it’s just that the author wants to include it. I haven’t finished the book yet, so I’ll have to wait and see.

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