Finding Solace in the Kitchen

By Julia O'Malley / Photography By Ash Adams | September 14, 2016
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Maya Wilson working in her kitchen

I texted Maya Wilson to tell her that I was bringing a dozen extraripe nectarines from Anchorage, and by the time I arrived at her little log house in Kenai she had a recipe in mind. It was a rainy summer afternoon. Her three kids – Brady, 13, Connor, 11, and Kelty, 8 – lounged in front of the television. Wilson put a cast iron pan on the heat. Soon I smelled bacon.

Wilson, who is 36, started the food blog Alaska from Scratch five years ago. At the time, she’d just moved from Bakersfield, California, to Nikiski with her husband, where they both became pastors at an evangelical Christian church. The grocery store was 40 minutes away. Food prices were much higher than she was used to. It seemed practical to make things from scratch. She began with a post about sourdough starter and continued posting recipes three times a week. Within months, blog traffic exploded. Strangers began recognizing her at Fred Meyer.

“I was surprised at how fast it took off,” she said. “I was just putting something out there that was true and real and, for whatever reason, people gravitated to it.”

Today Wilson is one of the most recognizable voices in Alaska’s food world, with readers all over the globe. Her blog averages more than 2 million views a year, she said. Her Instagram account has almost 57,000 followers. She has a regular recipe column in the Alaska Dispatch News, she’s shopping a cookbook proposal, and has been approached about a television show.

I watched her cut the nectarines and set them cut-side down in the hot pan, bacon grease sizzling. The blog began as a hobby, she told me, but it has become a life.

Wilson was born in Hawaii. Her mom, who died of pancreatic cancer four years ago, raised her alone. She didn’t meet her dad until a few years ago. Wilson’s mother had an inherited form of rickets that disfigured her legs. (Wilson also has the disorder, as does her daughter). Her mother struggled with chronic pain, substance abuse and had trouble keeping work. She cycled through relationships. Wilson moved 19 times before she graduated from high school.

“We were super poor and there was lots of food insecurity,” Wilson said.

From an early age, though, Wilson took comfort in watching cooking shows on public television. Lidia Bastianich. Mario Batali. Jacques Pepin.

“I would come home to a house with empty cupboards,” she said, “and watch food being cooked on TV.”

She lived off and on with her grandmother, Susan Wilson. At her house there was fresh bread, hot breakfast and a lunch, packed for school, she said. The kitchen had a record player. They would listen to musicals and Billy Joel. (That’s the reason, on every blog post, Wilson mentions what she’s listening to, even if it happens to be the slosh of the washing machine).

“She was not a particularly exceptional cook. She was very pragmatic. She was very thrifty,” Wilson said of her grandmother.

Pragmatism is part of Alaska from Scratch’s wide appeal. Wilson’s recipes are geared toward busy families like her own. The ingredients are easy to find at the grocery store and not too expensive. The techniques don’t require a lot of time or special equipment.

“It’s a lower-maintenance type of cooking everyday food,” she said. The recipes often echo food trends on Pinterest: baked oatmeal, chicken enchiladas, pumpkin granola, homemade coffee creamer. And her photos are beautiful. Strong images, along with being consistent, are the most important things when you’re blogging, she believes.

“You can be a great writer, you can have great recipes, but if the photo isn’t good, people might not even read it,” she said.

Wilson turned the nectarines over in the pan, took them off the heat, and sprinkled them with blue cheese, bacon and rosemary. Then she selected a brown board and set it on her table in natural light so she could photograph it. Her older boys took off out the front door to look for caribou passing through the woods nearby. Kelty, the youngest, pulled up a chair at the table to watch.

Photo 1: Kelty, 8, Maya’s youngest, with foraged king bolete mushroom.
Photo 2: Maya’s cookbook collection displayed in her kitchen.
Photo 3: Pan roasted nectarines with blue cheese, bacon and rosemary

Wilson studied English education and philosophy at Point Loma Nazarene University and married her college boyfriend two months shy of her 21st birthday. A few years later, she was pregnant with her oldest son. She and her husband worked in churches for 10 years. Alaska was the first place where they were lead pastors. In the church, she said, cooking played a big role.

“Being a young mom and having people around the house all the time, and it being part of how I’m wired, I would very naturally cook for people,” she said. “Whether it was a birthday cake or a cup of coffee, I wanted to make people feel cared for through food.”

When the blog first became successful, she said, she felt really uncomfortable.

“I felt guilty almost,” she said. “I felt unworthy of it.” Wilson doesn’t feel like that anymore, but her life has radically changed. In 2014, she separated from her husband and resigned from her position at the church. During those difficult months, she realized she had fallen in love with a close friend who happened to be a woman. The church community that had been a constant most of her life pulled away almost immediately.

“The income I had from the blog and the column and the friends I had made in food in Alaska were all I had left standing,” she said.

She moved to Kenai where she shares a house with her partner and kids. Along with writing and blogging, she cooks five nights a week at The Flats Bistro.

“The change I made was necessary and super healthy. Yeah, it involved a lot of hurt and loss, but it was the right thing to do. I found my voice and the courage to live into who I am,” explained Wilson.

She stood on a chair and lifted her camera over the table. I saw the nectarines on the digital viewfinder. Wilson has not yet found another church. For a long time, she said, her view of God was wrapped up in the institution she worked for.

“You really do have to start from scratch on that front. What does faith and God look like when the church fundamentally rejects who you are, even when you’ve given your life to it?” she contemplated.

Wilson plated up a nectarine, slid it in front of me and handed me a fork. She believes that God makes beautiful things and nourishes people, she said. She wants her work to reflect that.

“We have the opportunity to have an influence, to control what we put out there,” she said. “I want to contribute to making people feel fed and that they belong, and there’s a place for them at the table.”

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