DISH with Maya Wilson of Alaska from Scratch
How many times have you gone to the grocery store in search of ingredients for a recipe, only to scrap the whole plan because you can't find something? In Alaska, defeat at the supermarket can make newcomers to the Last Frontier feel even more isolated. It was this feeling — in part — that led Maya Wilson to create her blog, Alaska from Scratch.
As Wilson told writer Julia O'Malley in a 2016 Edible Alaska article, "The blog began as a hobby ... but it has become a life." The blogger and columnist now has another title: cookbook author.
The Alaska from Scratch Cookbook is filled with recipes, photos and tales from her life on the Kenai Peninsula. The simplicity of Wilson's recipes is perhaps what makes them so profound. They are approachable, not needing fancy kitchen gadgets or hours of prep. (OK, there are a few that are more time-consuming, but Wilson guarantees a reward on your investment.) My copy is now flagged throughout with sticky notes, marking recipes I have to try and one affixed to Wilson's homemade coconut coffee creamer recipe that says, "Would make great ice cream!"
But this is much more than a collection of recipes curated from her blog. Wilson invites readers into her life like never before in this book, its pages filled with photos from her childhood and her own children. She talks about her mother, her upbringing, and dealing with loss and self doubt. When you come out on the other end of this book, it's hard not to be inspired and proud — of this beautiful place we call home and the irrepressible people who live here.
The book was released in late February, but Wilson has been busy with appearances and promotion since the beginning of the year. (Did you see her essay over on Bon Appetit?) She was able to answer our questions below via email.
Congrats on the new book! It’s absolutely gorgeous. I thought the recent review by the New York Times’ Florence Fabricant was spot on when she said your book captures the “scenic majesty of Alaska.” When putting this book together, why did you decide to include photos depicting your life and not just photos of the food that you make?
Thank you so much. I don’t think I could really call myself Alaska from Scratch and not show the readers the Alaska I know and love. Food memories, for me, always come with a sense of place, a context. This place has been a huge part of who I am as a food writer from the very beginning. It’s impossible to live here and not be influenced by the seasons, the weather, the people, the darkness and the light, the land and the sea. If you take a look at my social media, say Instagram or Facebook, you’ll notice that the food and the place go hand in hand for me. I can’t imagine it any other way.
You started your blog in 2011, which some talk about as part of the golden era for blogs. But while others have waned, dropped off or been abandoned, yours is still going strong. What is it, do you think, that attracts people to Alaska from Scratch?
This is the great mystery of food blogging. Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason to it, or at least no way to know for sure what keeps people coming back, or what makes any one recipe go viral. It caught me by surprise for the first couple of years. Perhaps I was in the right place at the right time. People are fascinated by Alaska and have been for quite a while, so that is certainly a piece of the puzzle. In that sense, I was able to offer something unique, something no one else was really doing at the time. I was lucky. There is also something to be said for a consistent point of view, a distinctive voice, and strong photography, writing, and recipes. These are things I look for when choosing a food blog to follow. I can only hope these are things I offer.
Because the blog has been in existence for seven years, which is probably about 75 in internet years, I bet you had a lot of material to choose from. How did you whittle it down: was it most popular recipes or those closest to your heart? Any new ones that haven’t or won’t appear on the blog?
This was a huge challenge for me, sifting through hundreds of recipes, hundreds of memories. I took to social media and asked my readers which dishes absolutely had to be in the cookbook. From those responses, a few strong favorites emerged and ended up in the book, like the poached halibut in Thai curry or the strawberry shortcake scones. The feedback was tremendously helpful to me.
Roughly 80% of the recipes in the book are new, however. Longtime readers of my weekly food column in Anchorage Daily News have been saying they can finally get rid of all of the newspaper clippings they have collected because now I have a cookbook. But I encourage them to keep their clippings, because there’s a lot of new stuff in this book.
This book is honest: about your life, about your upbringing, about you going to the grocery store in your pajamas. Was it hard to be that open or does it just come naturally?
I like to say that it’s part cookbook, part memoir, part love letter to Alaska. It’s a little bit terrifying to be that vulnerable. But I pour myself into my writing the way I pour myself into my food. I didn’t want readers and fans to pick up the book and feel like it was ‘more of the same.’ Instead, I wanted them to feel like they know me on a deeper level than they did before, and that they got more of Alaska than they did before, too.
Let’s talk about mornings. You mention multiple times in the book that you’re a morning person and I have to admit that I am solidly in the other camp. What is it about mornings that you love so much?
I love the stillness, the silence (as the mother of three, both are so rare). Those moments where it’s just me and my coffee in the mostly-dark house, while everyone else is still cozy and deep in slumber. It grounds me. When I get my time in the morning, the day feels less frantic and I feel more present.
But I completely understand you non-morning-folk. My wife loves to sleep in and I support her in that whenever possible.
In the book, you write that you moved around a lot and about how food in lieu of location can create a sense of home. Kim Sunée’s work speaks to that idea as well, so it was fitting for her to write the foreword to your book. Can you talk about an instance where a meal has made you feel at home?
Yes, Kim Sunée and I share a deep kinship. Our stories resonate with each other. I’m fortunate to get to call her a friend.
A plate of good Mexican food automatically transports me back. I like to call it my California comfort food. A luxurious bite of flan, a refreshing Baja fish taco, a substantial carne asada burrito with guacamole, or a cooling sip of horchata can tap directly into my childhood in Southern California, my college days in San Diego, and my years as a young mom in the Central Valley all at once.
In the introduction, you talk about giving your neighbor baked goods in return for plowing your driveway. So many folks in our food system have told me some version of this “neighbors helping neighbors” story. Do you think that mindset is specific to Alaska or have you experienced it in other places that you’ve lived?
I think it’s very specific to Alaska, a part of who we are in this vast, unpredictable place. We help each other survive. When you’re stuck in a snow berm, you can be confident that the next car to pass by will pull over and help. Friends and neighbors will share their catch or their hunt. When you’re not expecting it, someone might shovel your driveway. Or mow your lawn. Or help you change your headlight. Or a neighbor might be a safe haven when your teenager gets himself locked out of the house. This is all very Alaska. The only other place I’ve lived where there is a similar mentality is Hawaii, which is where I was born.
A question I love to ask: What’s in your fridge right now?
Two large and unnecessary heads of bok choy leftover from a book launch dinner we did at The Flats Bistro in Kenai. I’ve already used two of them and tried to give the other two away to the neighbors from my wife’s hockey team. Several lemons, a couple of limes. A bottle of Lillet Blanc from when our cousin visited from Idaho and made us her favorite necromancer cocktails to celebrate the book release. Buttermilk… the only thing I ever keep past expiration. And cilantro. Always cilantro.
Will you be taking the book on tour? If so, where can people come see you?
I’ve gotten several requests for a book signing in Fairbanks and a couple for Juneau as well. Homer is a strong possibility because I live so close and I stinking love a day trip to Homer. I’ve also been asked if I’ll be doing another one in Anchorage. So those are all in the works or are very real possibilities. Stay tuned.