My hunt to make sense of what we eat and where it comes from started as a teenager. I rejected meat, scooped tofu at the food coop and read Frances Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet. With a Fulbright Fellowship in film, I set off to the West Indies to look at how an island extricates itself from a plantation economy after 300 years of growing sugar. The hopes for diversification ran into dilemmas, like trying to sell seasonable fruits and vegetables to hotels that preferred to import uniform looking apples or potatoes from far away. I discovered that the history of plantations included keeping slaves and workers busy with sugar and not with growing food for themselves.
I'd grown up with a mother who made meals from scratch but also loved the newest conveniences, from trash compactors to TV dinners. In my work and on my plate, I found myself questioning the clash of what is modern and industrial with people's connection to culture, identity, land and food. I carried this from the West Indies to Alaska, for another project about Alaska Natives balancing the past and the present. Along the way, I met and married a commercial fisherman, a diver and a conservationist who hunts.
Alaska has a complicated and intertwined narrative of native cultures and resource extraction. I'm a transplant -- so is my husband and a lot of other Alaskans. We like to eat as much as we can from the land and sea and that has led me to slip from my vegetarian path. We gather, fish and hunt, knowing resource use comes with a tension of balancing local, commercial and tourist appetites, be it for halibut, herring, or salmon, not to mention all those non-edible things like oil and minerals.
I like to throw out questions, even if the answers are messy and open-ended. In my recent film, Eating Alaska, I ask Tlingit elder, Isabella Brady, "is there a way for non-Natives who really appreciate being here, to live off the land and not get in the way?" She says, "No." Isabella is referring to history, tradition and sovereignty. A Yupik friend reminds me Isabella is talking about a sense of community that might be hard for me to grasp, as someone who simply does not have a long, deep history with one place. It is a tie that exists along with modern accouterments from snow-machines to Facebook and that comes through in testimonies at countless community hearings and meetings over rights and regulations.
Native and non-natives should both be able to live off the land. We have to keep figuring out a balanced way to do this and keep wild and local foods safe, clean and accessible, Meanwhile, Isabella tells me I make venison stew with too many vegetables from my garden. When we tried to microwave some frozen whale blubber sent down from Barrow, we ended up laughing as the muktuk sizzled and got tough. Isabella and I both understand that the knotty mix of state and federal management of fish, game and other natural resources, the realities of a cash economy and the international hunger for drilling and mining will continue to pressure not only that sense of community and connection I admire, but the diets and health of locals everywhere.
Ellen Frankenstein is a filmmaker living in Alaska. Her latest project, Eating Alaska, is currently airing on PBS stations across the country. Check local listings for future air dates and times.
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