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20 July 2006

some places to eat in Sitka, Alaska

Living in Sitka, Alaska for two weeks every summer is normally an extraordinary joy. Eagles with five-foot wingspans soar over my head as I walk to my classes. Ravens call and caw and taunt the eagles. Every morning, as I look out my window upon waking, I see mountains enshrouded in clouds, rising up from the earth, close and enormous.

And then there are the students: raucous and regaling each other with stories; buoyant and boisterous; inventive and instantly winning my heart. These tremendous teenagers deserve their own piece on this website, and they will have one. Next week, I’ll share with you some of the incredible writing from my students in the Advanced Writing Workshop. This year, I turned it into a two-week seminar on food writing. Oh, the sensory descriptions, and the way we made each other hungry. Reading their reflections on key lime pie, fresh grapefruits, and corn on the cob, you’ll be hungry too. But that’s for later. Suffice it to say that I love these beings I am teaching, some of whom I have taught for the past five summers straight. This is a gift.

However, this year, there are two reasons I am having a harder time in Sitka than ever before. One — and most important — I miss the Chef. This is the first time we are apart, and it has been hard on both of us. Some people want to scoff: “Come on, it’s only two weeks.” But if you have ever been in love, and I mean truly, truly in love, you will know what I mean. It’s physical. When the wheels of the plane left the ground at SeaTac airport, and my body realized I wouldn’t be with him for two weeks, I burst into tears. If one more person says to me, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” I’m going to have to scream. If my heart grows any fonder, it might explode. Oh my, I miss him. Thank goodness for cell phones and email. Thank goodness I am going home.

There is another reason I miss the Chef: his food. Ay god, the food is terrible at camp. It’s no one’s fault. Cafeteria dining is never stellar. And this year’s cafeteria is, apparently, particularly atrocious. For breakfast one morning, the students reported, there were pancakes. Each student received one pancake, and no more. Another student of mine reported that she and her friend found a dead bug in their shrimp salad at lunch. When they started to push their forks through the lettuce, they found ten dead bugs, and one live one. Dinners are reported to be just as vile. The entire camp is living on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

But not me. I cannot eat at the cafeteria, because of the cross-contamination issues. (That, and everything is breaded and fried, wrapped in white bread, and generally a land mine for anyone who has to live gluten-free.) And so, I have been living on little nibbles, bits of food I brought with me from Seattle. Cashews and golden raisins. Larabars. Rice crackers and peanut butter. Tuna straight from the can.

See why I miss the Chef’s food?

Why have I not eaten better most days? Well, the schedule here flattens most of us by the end of the day. My first class starts at 8 am, a writing lab where twelve students come into the library and sprawl out on easy chairs to write for an hour and a half. At 9:30, I teach fifteen students with stories how to turn them into fictional characters. We laugh so hard my belly hurts by the end. By the time that is over, I have two hours to mark up papers, plan the next classes, and do some of my own writing. Usually, I write a love letter to the Chef. At 1:20, I teach my Advanced class how to write about food for an hour and a half, wherein we make each other hungry with stories of baguette sandwiches in Edinburgh and unexpected restaurants in Costa Rica. Just before three, I teach thirteen of the most joyful poetry students I have ever encountered, who delight in each other and spin similes onto the page. At 4:15, I emerge from the library, dazzled by the day and hungry for more. Usually, the cell phone is in my hand as I walk back to the dorm, talking to the Chef. One day, on this walk, he made me laugh so hard on the phone that three of my favorite students saw my laughter rising up from my belly into the sky, and laughed so hard at my joy that they fell down on the ground. Those are the moments I love being in Sitka.

little islands

By the end of the day, however, I feel spent. The thought of walking into town for groceries — twenty minutes one way; twenty minutes back over the big bridge, carrying bags of food in my hands — just doesn’t appeal to me most days. We don’t have cars or other forms of transportation, so unless someone from Sitka happens to want to drive me into town, and wait while I shop at the store, I am stuck at the barracks again. And so I nibble and dabble in food, longing for the chance to cook.

We do have a kitchen, on the third floor of the dorm where the faculty is staying. However, I am now too terrifed to use the stove. You see, one day, my friends Mike and Iko — two of the most beautiful people in the world — took pity on me after the last class and drove me and Madeline to the health food store in town. Bless Evergreen Groceries, where I found gluten-free pretzels and packaged Indian food. I also found a package of natural, smoked bacon. Ummmm.....bacon. The Chef uses bacon frequently, for warm vinaigrettes and breakfasts for the two of us. I missed him. I missed bacon. So I grabbed a pack. The next morning, I rose early and made a pot of coffee for the crew. Remembering my purchase, I grabbed the pack of bacon from the fridge. What I did not remember, however, is the school’s overly sensitive fire alarm.

You see, we are staying in the dorms of Mount Edgecumbe High School, a boarding school during the year. Since they seemingly don’t trust their students to avoid smoking, they installed the most hair-trigger smoke alarms of all time in every room. We were warned, repeatedly, and with computerized signs, to close both the bathroom doors between bedrooms when we took showers. If not, the steam from the showers would set off the fire alarm. (My friend Jara learned this the hard way, last year, when she took a shower at 5:30 in the morning and had to endure the glares of everyone in pajamas on the front steps.) But this is a kitchen. How can anyone cook if it sets off the fire alarm? Plus, three windows were open, and the exhaust fan on. So there I was, watching the bacon start to slowly steam, chatting with Mike and Iko, and then —BLAM! Anghrrrhhhhh! Anghrrrhhhhh! Anghrrrhhhhh! Anghrrrhhhhh! The fire alarm blasted and burst into every room, forcing doors to open wide and sleepy artists in their pajamas to bustle outside. I wanted to apologize to everyone, even though the bacon wasn’t even cooked yet. I wanted to nestle into the shoulder of my friend Marco beside me when the fire trucks arrived. I wanted to hide behind the bench that three of us sat on when the firemen couldn’t turn the alarm off, and one walked into the dorm with a crowbar. I wanted to run to the aiport and climb on the first plane that arrived when the fire alarm shrieked across Sitka harbor, all of us huddled in sleepiness, while we waited for the building’s maintenance man to be awoken in his bed and drive down here to turn the damn thing off. Ack.

As the alarm blared and blatted across the entire campus, I called the Chef on my cell phone. “Can I come home now?” I asked him, joking.
“Yes. Yes you can. In fact, why don’t you just come home now?” he said, all seriousness in his voice.
I was tempted.

Of course, everyone teased me about it for days. “Hey Bacon Girl!” someone shouted at me as I emerged from my room, later that afternoon. (I’m much happier being called Gluten-Free Girl, thank you.) “Thanks for waking us up so early,” someone else whispered to me, in a not-entirely-joking voice. A few days later, someone said, “So, I guess you won’t be making any bacon anymore, will you?”
I shook my head vigorously. “I’m going to become a vegetarian.”
But, then someone else said it would be a shame to let the bacon just go to waste. Why don’t I just bake it instead? Surely that wouldn’t set off the fire alarm.

You’d be surprised.

The morning of the World Cup final, I was in the kitchen at nine, with two or three friends of mine. We were drinking coffee and sharing photographs of pet parrots and nephews. I put some bacon on a pan, in the oven, at 350°. The windows were open, the exhaust fan was on. Just when it began to smell like bacon — long before it was crispy or even fully cooked — I took the bacon out of the oven. Joking with my friends, I immediately held the bacon on the pan beneath the exhaust fan. “I wouldn’t want to set off the fire alarm again,” I laughed. They started to laugh too, but before the sound could fully escape their throats — BLAM! Anghrrrhhhhh! Anghrrrhhhhh! Anghrrrhhhhh! Anghrrrhhhhh! We all huddled outside again. At least everyone was awake this time. But when people found out I had done it with bacon again, I really wanted to go home this time. It took me halfway through the World Cup game to finally let go of the shame and start laughing instead. And then we all grew caught up in rooting for Italy and shouting at the television. I forgot it.

Later that day, someone put up a sign on the front door: “Bacon-free zone.” There went any possibility of cooking in that kitchen. I went back to the cashews instead.

Luckily, I have found two restaurants in town where I can eat gluten-free. And since I am, ostensibly, on vacation, I have relented in this second week of my stint in Sitka and simply eaten at one or the other every night. For any of you reading who need to eat gluten-free, and who might be venturing to the most beautiful little town in the world, I’d like to share some places where you can find some lovely food.

Little Tokyo

tuna sashimi

Considering that Alaskan seafood is the best in the world, it is no wonder that sashimi at Sitka’s only sushi restaurant is some of the best in the world. Much of the menu is meant for tourists, of course, who swarm into the tiny town three times a week, standing in the middle of the road like sheep waiting to be herded. They probably only order the beef teriyaki or chicken yakisoba. Maybe they are the ones who order the fried sushi specials, which look lurid on Little Toko’s menu. However, if you know what to order, you can find fantastic sashimi and sushi at this little restaurant on {Main} Street.

Twice, I have ordered the sashimi platter, with beautiful slices of fresh salmon, so creamy and perfectly melting on the tongue that several members of my party moaned upon eating it. Tony, the b-boy dancer from Philadelphia, just kept shaking his head in time with the rhythm of his exclamations of “No salmon tastes like this in Philly!” He eschewed the octopus I offered him, which left me happily munching on it by myself. Mostly, though, it was the tuna, so thin it was almost translucent, and a flavor as vivid as its bright-red color. Curled around my tongue, that tuna made me miss the Chef just a little less for a minute.

Twice, I have walked into town after classes, and stopped at the Harry Race Pharmacy for a blackberry shake (oh goodness — that’s a place to go as well, with its old-fashioned soda fountain and twelve different flavors), then walked to Little Tokyo for a Philadelphia roll. Now, I have to say, I’m not a big fan of cream cheese in sushi. It just feels so damned American. But when Tony ordered this roll, I eyed it enviously, because of the beautiful thick slices of salmon rolled around the rice. He was kind enough to let me have a piece, and I was convinced. And so, two evenings this week, I have walked across the bridge, looking at Sitka harbor on one side of me, dozens of tiny green-treed islands to the other side of me, sipping from the blackberry shake in one hand, and gobbling pieces of avocado-asparagus-cream cheese-and-salmon sushi, happy as the eagles soaring above my head.

Ludvig’s Bistro

mocha dessert II

Three summers ago, in Sitka, when I didn’t yet know that I had to avoid gluten, I was mortified to find that the dinner offering in the cafeteria the first night was — get ready for it — deep-fried hamburgers. Oh god. After a week of similarly horrifying food, I hungered for anything that tasted natural and fresh. My friend Kristin and I were wandering down Katlian Street, passing the Pioneer Bar, maybe making our way to Lane Seven for more shakes (most of my calories in Sitka seem to come from shakes), when we stumbled on nirvana. Ludwig’s Bistro. We couldn’t believe it — an actual restaurant, not meant at all for tourists. Tiny and cozy, with only eight or ten tables, this restaurant smelled good. We sat down, spontaneously, and ordered salads. Salads! With dark greens, and more than one kind of lettuce! Fresh fish, not breaded and fried. Beautiful potatoes and lovely green beans and radiant radishes. Food. Actual food. By the time we sat back in our chairs, with a French press of hot coffee between us on the table, we vowed we would come back again.

And I have, every year. Since my first summer there, Ludvig’s has grown in reputation, but not in size. In the past year, reporters from The New York Times and the Guardian in London have eaten in the tiny place and raved about it to their readers. It is well nigh impossible to simply walk into Ludvig’s and stumble into a table, the way I did that first year. Make reservations far in advance if you want to savor the flavors of Ludvig’s. But the wait is worth it. Every year, my meals at Ludvig’s are the highlight of my food time in Sitka.

This year was no exception. For my first dinner at Ludvig’s this summer, I sat staring in awe at the plate of calamari steaming in front of me. My colleague Ellen and I shared a salad (greens! vegetables!), then the Katlian special: white king salmon on a bed of onion risotto, with wild strawberries, basil, and a balsamic vinaigrette. For dessert? An outrageous custardy creation with mocha flavoring and bits of espresso, which they called the Picasso. At the end of the meal, I sat back in satisfaction.

The second night I went to Ludvig’s, I splurged and simply went straight for it: I bought the steak. A few summers ago, I ate the best steak I have ever eaten, at Ludvig’s, a sirloin topped with creme fraiche and Dungeness crab. Ay god. This year, it was only slightly more healthy, with sauteed portobello mushrooms, onions, and green beans. Oh baby. And then there was creme brulee.

There is no hiding it: Ludvig’s is expensive. Everything in Alaska is more expensive than in the lower 48 — almost all the produce and fresh food has to be brought up to Sitka by container ship. Still, $32.95 for a salmon plate is a wallop. If you are eating tuna out of a can, however, it is more than worth it.

And for me — and all of you reading who must be gluten-free — Ludvig’s is even more of a godsend. They know how to cook for me, safely, no question. Last year, when I went back for the first time after my celiac diagnosis, I started to hesitantly explain what gluten meant. My waitress waved her hand in the air in a friendly manner. “Oh, my best friend has that. We just finished travelling through Europe together. I know how to take care of you.” And she did. (There are so many of us out there. It’s always deeply reassuring when someone acknowledges it, though. We are not freaks. We are not alone.) This year — as you can see from the photograph on top — not only do they know how to cook gluten-free at Ludvig’s, but they even have that option programmed into their computer for their receipt. I was so happy to see that printed on the receipt that I had to take a photograph of it.

Somewhere I can eat gluten-free, delightfully, with gusto? That’s always worth recording.

So, if you are in Sitka, and you are missing your Chef, have a platter of fresh sashimi at Little Tokyo, or a steak at Ludvig’s Bistro. It helps. So does counting down the days until the plane lifts off from the runway in Sitka, and you know you are going home.

Little Tokyo

315 Lincoln Street
Sitka, Alaska 99835

Ludvig's Bistro
256 Katlian Drive
Sitka, Alaska 99835