Traditional Thanksgiving fare decks many tables, but plenty of fish and game to be found as well

Turkey still the top, but some Alaskans are game

Posted: Friday, November 29, 2002

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Anchorage hunter Dave Adams prides himself on providing wild game for his family year-round. So what's on his table come Thanksgiving?

No, not duck. Not goose or moose either. The Adamses' table will feature what is for them an unusual dish: domestic turkey.

''We don't buy store-bought turkey anytime except Thanksgiving and Christmas,'' Adams said. ''Turkey is just good. Whatever you say about it, it's good.''

Adams may be typical of many Alaska hunters. Most said they eat so much wild game over the course of the year that the seasonal turkeys are a welcome change.

Others like the idea of cooking a special feast of wild game but feel bound by family turkey traditions. Only a few said they prepare Alaska seafood or wild game for Thanksgiving in the spirit of the Pilgrims.

''I find it's too risky,'' said hunter and wildlife biologist Tim Bowman of Anchorage. ''There's never any guarantee it won't be tough or gamey.''

Joan Tovsen said that if it were up to her, she would cook a wild Alaska feast. But because she grew up eating moose and salmon, turkey has long been a special holiday treat. Tovsen's mother, the family's matriarch, continues the tradition today.

Tovsen, who owns The Maps Place, an Anchorage business, said that if she were cooking this year, she might roast a wild goose and make a wild rice stuffing fortified with locally grown vegetables and the low-bush cranberries that are locally abundant. She would serve a salmon mousse for starters and dish up a mixture of Alaska-grown potatoes.

Wild game can be tough, as Bowman noted. Because it is lean, game can go dry, particularly if overcooked. And it can have a strong flavor, especially if field care was less than perfect.

But people who cook it regularly have tricks to tone down any gamey flavors and keep the meat moist.

Alaska chef and lodge owner Kirsten Dixon, for example, soaks ptarmigan meat overnight in buttermilk to neutralize the wild taste. She often cooks fowl in sauces to prevent it from drying. Other cooks soak wild waterfowl overnight in a mild salt-and-lemon juice to help seal in flavor.

Patrick Wright, chair of the Anchorage Fish and Game Advisory Committee, often cooks big game such as caribou, deer or musk ox like a pot roast to make sure it stays moist. He begins by spiking the roast with garlic cloves, then sears it in olive oil. He covers the roast with chopped vegetables, tops it with a lid and cooks it slowly. The key is never to lift the lid to let the water out, he said.

Wright said he hasn't yet decided on his Thanksgiving menu. It might be moose or spruce hen or maybe turkey. ''We've even had salmon,'' he said.

Dixon said she regularly serves something other than turkey for Thanksgiving at Winterlake Lodge along the Iditarod Trail north of Anchorage. Sometimes her guests will ride by dog sled or ski to a bonfire where they roast reindeer and drink mulled wine. For the Thanksgiving meal, Dixon said she often roasts goose served with wild berries and braised red cabbage.

Dixon said she enjoys eating wildfowl like ptarmigan and duck but cannot serve them at the lodge because state law prohibits the selling of sport-caught fish and game.

She favors Alaska king crab with champagne. That's what she, her husband, Carl, and the lodge's caretaker will eat Thursday. The lodge has not yet opened, she said, because warm weather has kept ski planes from landing.

To give her guests a taste of wild game, Dixon buys farm-raised meat like reindeer, buffalo, elk, venison, pheasant or quail at Alaskan Game Sales in Anchorage. The store is a good place to go if you want something other than turkey but don't hunt, she said.

Gabe Sam, an Alaska native subsistence advocate, said his father used to bake black bear ribs for Thanksgiving when he was growing up in the Interior village of Huslia.

''It's a real delicacy,'' he said. ''It tastes like pork, and the meat falls right off.''

Because women, by custom, were not allowed to eat bear, his mother also cooked a goose, along with stuffing from a box, doughnuts and pies. This year, Sam said, he will likely join friends for the holiday meal and eat turkey.

Carl Jack, an Alaska native liaison with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Office of Subsistence Management, said many Alaska Natives who used to eat other game now eat turkey on Thanksgiving.

''The turkey dinners have caught on,'' he said.

Jack will also eat turkey this year but said when he was growing up in Kipnuk on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, people gathered at church to share their harvest. Some people took trumpeter swan, which Jack said someone nicknamed the ''thousand-dollar plate dinner.''

It is illegal to shoot swans in most of Alaska, though the law has rarely, if ever, been enforced on the Y-K Delta.

Jack Paniyak in Chevak said his family sometimes ate sandhill crane. Some people in the region called the cranes ''Eskimo turkeys'' because they are anatomically similar to turkeys, though not as plump. Cranes are one of the few wildfowl available in Alaska that can begin to compare to a turkey in size. Swans are the other.

No matter what you cook, Wright said, the main point is to give thanks. Alaskans are blessed to live in a place where both wild and farm-raised foods are readily available, he said.

''Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to give thanks to our creator for providing such bounty,'' he said. ''We have to be good stewards of those resources.''

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