Finding a pizza order form in our old school newspaper lurking in the old dairy crate made me think about how if there is one luxury bush dwellers envy city dwellers for, it's pizza delivery. When I was a kid every teacher of the bush school I attended decided this was an exploitable situation and used it in order to help finance school field trips.
Along with other fundraising activities, our school's pizza delivery gambit (and the school district generously matching every dollar we earned) allowed us to go on trips along the Inside Passage to visit Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, and Haines. We also managed some international travel to Prince Rupert and Smithers, Canada. Later, Hawaii was not beyond the school's reach, thanks in large part to wilderness residents' hunger for delivered pizza.
How it worked was that the school would buy the ingredients (or accept donated ingredients) and would make the pizza dough ahead of time, storing it in freezers of locals living in and outside the village. In the school newspaper, delivered to every resident, was a pizza order form with a list of ingredient choices to be checked for up to two pizzas.
Then, on the designated pizza night, the dough was gathered and the kids, with teacher supervision, would have an overnighter at the school, using the school's and the attached teacherage's ovens to cook the pizzas.
Every school kid from the oldest to the youngest had assigned duties, from grating mounds of cheese (watch those fingers!--the less said about that the better), to crying over diced onions, to compiling the pizzas, to delivering them.
Delivery was my favorite job: Carrying our warm boxes of pizza into the cool night, smelling the cheese, tomato sauce, Italian seasoning, and pepperoni mixing with the gasoline fumes from the outboard and the musk of low tide as we skiffed from one village home to the next. We'd walk up private docks or beaches to a door, shining our flashlights, hearing a private generator purring. The door would open, revealing an electric light lit scene of anticipatory faces gathered around a table.
Because my family lived so far out in the bush, my parents agreed to have their pizza delivered to my grandparents' home in the village, and they'd stay the night and make a party of it. I could tell they were enjoying not only the luxury of delivered pizza, but a night away from the kids.
We didn't hold it against them. We were having a blast away from the adults. After the last pizzas were delivered and clean-up had concluded, the teachers faded to the sidelines and even fell asleep. The kids had the run of the school all night long and we made the most of it.
Some of our inspired ideas included piling bean bags below the upper story loft, climbing onto the half-wall and leaping into space, landing (hopefully) on the bean bags. We played a version of volleyball on the play deck that we fondly called "kill ball" with a complete disregard for anything approaching rules, or concern for life and limb. Lights were often casualities.
When we tired of that we played flashlight tag, ghosting through the dark playfield, through the forest surrounding the school, or darting from one foundation piling under the school to the next. Each of us had a flashlight clutched in a sweaty hand, breathing fast as we peered into the blackness, ready to stab our fellow with a spear of light at the slightest movement, but terrified of giving away our position and being speared in turn.
The entire school, plus chaperons, about to board the ferry on a fieldtrip. Back row left to right: Bret, Jamie (my brother), Marion (my aunt) Tara (me), Romi (my mom), Megan (my sister) with Lulu on her shoulders, Sue. Front row: Robin (my brother), Sarah, Eve, LeAnn (my cousin), Josh, Molly, Chris (my brother), Traci.
One year my sister, a schoolmate, and I cleverly climbed into the large ball box to hide and accidentally locked ourselves in. It was a long time before anyone found us, despite our yells and pounding, and during that time we discovered that our schoolmate had a gaseous reaction to eating pizza. In the entire history of tag, never have kids wanted to be "tagged" so desperately as we did that night. To this day my sister has claustrophobia issues stemming from that incident.
We played "The Oregon Trail" and "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" on the computer. Highly non-educational movies were put on the school's educational TV and VCR and we'd lie around on gym mats watching and munching popcorn and guzzling homemade root beer that a schoolmate's parents had donated. The things we did with the school's copier are best left unrecorded.
I remember wandering around the school in the early morning when things had wound down, and gazing upon an apocalyptic scene of desks and chairs piled hapahazardly, burst bean bags oozing their pebbly entrails, and students lying about in various attitudes of post-debauchery exhaustion.
I came across my little brother Robin perched precariously on a stool just outside the kitchen. He was surrounded by empty root beer bottles, had one clutched in his hand, and was slumped over, snoring.
Pizza night was officially a success.
One Person Gluten-Free Stove Top Skillet Pizza Recipe:
I'm gluten-free these days and have created an easy recipe for those times when pizza is immediately required.
Crack 1 large egg into a small bowl. Crush 1/2 cup Rice Chex cereal. Mix cereal with the egg to form a stiff dough. Film the bottom of a 3.5 inch cast iron skillet with olive oil. Press the dough into the skillet until it reaches all sides. Cook on one side under medium low heat (on the stove top) for five minutes and flip, turning the heat down to low. Spread pizza sauce on the cooked side, arranged grated cheese on it, and add what toppings you desire. Cook until cheese is melted. Enjoy!
NOTE: A version of this story first appeared in Capital City Weekly, May 10, 2017.
When you go for a walk at this time of the year in the SE Alaskan rainforest you're going to find a wide variety of mushrooms popping up everywhere you step. It seemed to me, as I made the trek to pump water, that there were more mushrooms this year than I'd ever seen before.
As I took pictures of them I thought about how my Russian and Irish forebears would have been on polar ends of a debate on the merits of fungi.
For instance, I have an old Russian cookbook which devotes an entire section to mushrooms. "For many centuries," the book proclaims, "mushrooms have formed a part of the staple diet of the Russians. Consequently it is natural that the Russians eat many varieties of fungus which culinarily less adventurous people avoid mainly because they fear poisoning."
The Russians have no such fear, and, in fact, celebrate with gusto all things mushrooms, but particularly the gathering of them. "No one would hesitate to cancel an important engagement if it should fall on the day of the mushroom gathering," the cookbook's author assures us.
The Irish, however, could not be blamed for developing a fear of fungi, even of the non-poisonous variety. Fungi, for the most part, live discreetly and decently on dead organic matter in soil and decaying wood. But there is a separate breed of fungi that have taken up evil habits. They have become parasites of living plants and animals.
The Irish discovered this to their great cost. In 1845 to 1860 the great Irish Famine was caused by a potato blight, a fungus disease which destroyed the main food crop of the Irish population. This particular parasitic fungus was responsible for the deaths, by starvation, of a million people. Another million and a half were forced to emigrate, many of them, including my forebears, setting off for America.
On the other hand, both the Russians and the Irish might find common ground in their love for the produce of one particular form of fungi: Yeast.
It's true that some yeasts are harmful, but let's not forget that yeast is essential for the production of beer, an assortment of breads, and various cheeses.
I have to say that the love of all three has managed to survive through the generations down to this day in my family.
Many locals here like to gather mushrooms at this time of the year, careful to select only the edible ones, avoiding the poisonous. (I'm not an expert on mushrooms, so I haven't named any, in case I'm wrong.) Always make absolutely sure you can identify a mushroom before you pop it into your mouth.
Since I can't eat mushrooms I left the ones I came across in my autumnal trek where they were, prey for slugs, but otherwise living a happy, if damp, life.
For those who would enjoy a common Russian treat, here is a recipe for Marinated Mushrooms:
2 lb small mushrooms
1 pint vinegar and water mixed
1 tablespoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon peppercorns
Wash mushrooms, remove stalks, and cook gently in hot, salted water until tender. Drain and leave until quite cold.
Bring the vinegar-water with bayleaves and peppercorns to the boil, simmer for 10 minutes and leave until cold. Strain.
Pack the mushrooms into jars, add the vinegar-water, and cover tightly. Leave for several days before using. Or pack the mushrooms while still hot into scalded jars, cover with the marinade, seal tightly and leave for 2 weeks in a cool place before using.
(Recipe taken from Russian Cooking by Robin Howe, p. 44: "In the days before the Russian Revolution country housewives pickled mushrooms by the barrel.")
"What is that?" J. asked in astonishment as we turned a corner on the trail, after helping ourselves to ripe huckleberries, harvesting a baggy of them for a sweet n sour supper.
It was an overcast day and the forest was dark and damp. But up ahead an alien sunburst appeared on the side of a rotten hemlock stump and mossy deadfall below it.
"Chicken of the Woods," I said, giving the name I'd always heard growing up, though I've since heard it called Sulphur shelf. It's called one of the "foolproof four" of edible mushrooms, meaning that it's impossible to mistake because of its brilliant coloring.
I asked J. to cut off the outer, tender sections, since in closer to the trunk of the rotten stump it has a woody texture. By only harvesting the tips we could come back to harvest more later. He pointed out the slugs that had climbed the stump to feast on the bright orange fungus, and then searched for tips that hadn't been nibbled on.
Despite Chicken of the Woods being considered edible, some people can have a bad reaction to it. My mom became very sick after eating some that had been sauteed in butter, a treat we grew up on every fall. [One Internet resource notes: "If you are unlucky, or sensitive to whatever unidentified toxin is in these, you may experience vomiting, chills, and perhaps mild hallucinations....Yet there are many (probably over 90% of you) who eat these species with impunity, it's hard to know what to advise, except caution."]
So when J. immediately took a piece he'd cut and popped it into his mouth before I could stop him, I couldn't help flinching. I asked him to not eat anymore and waited anxiously to see how it affected him. For one thing, it's best to eat it fully cooked to avoid stomach issues.
"It tastes like mushrooms," J. said in surprise. He'd been expecting chicken. Fortunately, he proved immune to whatever made some people sick, despite eating it raw.
Next on our shopping list was beach asparagus. We headed out of the woods and onto the gravel beach alongside the stream that we'd dammed up in the woods to get our drinking water from. On the other side of the overflow-stream from the dam was an ancient, wrecked ship's deck that J. felt compelled to explore. He did that while I searched for the best asparagus I could find.
I wanted to harvest the asparagus where it was washed regularly by freshwater since we'd been having red tide issues. (Also known as an "algae bloom." It's a discoloration of seawater caused by a bloom of toxic red dinoflagellates.) There's a health advisory up because of the year-long bloom, apparently caused by higher than usual ocean temperatures, warning locals not to eat any shellfish in the area. When I got home I'd also rinse them in a water and vinegar solution just to be safe.
The beach asparagus was starting to bloom and I had to hunt to find ones that weren't reddish at the tip--they'd be woody and sour tasting. (For more on a description of beach asparagus, complete with recipe ideas, check out the wonderful SE Alaskan blog: www.alaskafloatsmyboat.com in the "Food and Medicine from Nature" category. Also, I found that when you Google "beach asparagus," her thorough entry on the subject is the first to pop up.)
When we got back home I thoroughly cleaned and de-stemmed the berries, asparagus, and "chicken." I added a fresh boiler onion and diced what could be diced in preparation for an Alaskan sweet n sour dinner. Sitting off to one side was the chopped meat (venison, or any game meat is best, but pork, chicken, or any other store bought meat will work) marinating in the brine from "Bubbies" bread and butter pickles.
I sauteed the freshly harvested ingredients (plus the onion) in olive oil and then removed them from the pan and set them aside in order to cook the meat in the skillet in fresh "Bubbies" brine, with an added pinch of red pepper flakes, bringing the liquid to a boil and then simmering the meat until it was cooked and tender.
While the rice was steaming, I made the sweet n sour sauce:
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
As I went to combine the ingredients, I realized I was out of soy sauce. Since the beach asparagus was naturally salty, I thought that might actually be for the best. But the soy sauce provided the dark coloring for the sauce. To make it a little darker I used brown sugar instead of white.
I added the thoroughly mixed sauce to the simmering meat and cooked until the sauce thickened, and then added the sauteed fruit and veggies. By then the rice was done and minutes later I had a delicious, if slightly dangerous, and colorful Southeast Alaskan sweet n sour supper.