At One Alaskan Hospital, Indigenous Foods Are Part of the Healing Plan

While Aaron Osterback was hospitalized with Covid-19 and pneumonia in September, he leaned on the foods he grew up with, like salmon and cod, to help him recover. Mr. Osterback is Aleut and was raised near the Bering Sea in Sand Point, Alaska — home to one of the largest fishing fleets in the Aleutian Islands.

During his 10-day stay at the Alaska Native Medical Center, one of his favorite meals was the hospital’s salmon Caesar salad — which he said was great mix of traditional and modern foods.

“A large part of what I received from the cafeteria, and from the folks cooking there, actually helped heal me,” Mr. Osterback said.

Such dishes are part of a donation program that brings familiar foods to Indigenous patients as they recover.

The hospital is managed by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium — the largest tribal-run health organization in the country, and the second-largest health care employer in the state. People from all over Alaska travel to the hospital in the state’s largest city, Anchorage, for therapies, operations and other care that is limited or nonexistent in much of the state. On any given day, there can be about 5,000 staff members and patients on campus — with most patients coming from outside the city, said Cynthia Davis, the consortium’s campus food services manager.

Ms. Davis helps run the Traditional Native Foods Initiative, a program bringing donated Alaska Native foods such as moose, herring roe and seal to the hospital for patients.

Smoked salmon bellies and salted and smoked hooligan are staple foods for many of the patients visiting the Alaska Native Medical Center.Credit…Ash Adams for The New York Times

The nation’s worst Covid-19 outbreak is happening in Alaska, where the state’s fragmented health care system has been strained as supplies run low, patients are treated in hallways and doctors ration oxygen. In early October, 20 health care centers around the state moved into crisis standards of care, with staffs having to prioritize scant resources among patients.

“In these pandemic times, for all people who have family in the hospital, maybe we can’t see them, but maybe we can bring them the traditional foods of our family,” said Jennifer Andrulli, a Yup’ik professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage who teaches applications of ethnomedicine and traditional foodways. “The fear and the stress response in our body, of being in the hospital, is supported by nutrient-dense forest and tundra foods.”

Such traditional foods offer not just nourishment but also many layers of cultural connection, said Meda DeWitt, a Tlingit traditional healer. She said seeing traditional food honored and respected brings her “a lot of joy.”

To Ms. Andrulli, what the hospital is doing with its traditional foods program is “community providing subsistence — that goes back to our connection we have with all living things. This relationship is giving back, reciprocity and support.”

Most patients did not grow up eating chicken noodle soup or peanut butter and jelly, Ms. Davis said. For Alaska Native people, comfort foods can look like a bowl of seal soup, smoked salmon on a Pilot Bread cracker, or akutaq, a mix of wild berries and animal fats. The hospital’s menu includes the typical offerings patients would find in any other hospital, like burgers, soups and clear liquids. But dishes with traditional ingredients are always highlighted on the menu.

Amy Foote, the executive chef at the Alaska Native Medical Center, said that seeing the generosity behind the growth of the Traditional Native Foods Initiative has been a humbling experience.Credit…Ash Adams for The New York Times

“We have a huge population base that maybe doesn’t even eat traditional foods, but we also have folks that have never eaten anything but traditional foods,” said Amy Foote, the campus chef. “It’s reconnecting to culture for those that maybe haven’t ever been exposed to it. To me, there should be a program like ours in every hospital, whether it’s a Native hospital or not. It should be a connection to the people that you serve.”

While working for Southcentral Foundation’s elder program, Vern Luckhurst was able to regularly try the foods Ms. Foote and her kitchen prepared for catered events. In May, after being retired for two years, Mr. Luckhurst suffered a heart attack and received care at Alaska Native Medical Center.

“I was in the hospital there for a while, and oh my goodness, they have really good food,” Mr. Luckhurst said. “They try to make it for all Native people. They have food there that they’re all used to eating, from the different cultures or different areas. It makes you feel good because that’s comfort food — especially elders, it makes them feel more comfortable.”

Mr. Luckhurst is from Dillingham, Alaska, a Yup’ik community and the regional hub for the huge Bristol Bay salmon fishery. He said the reindeer stew at the hospital “is out of this world.”

“Over the years, they’ve gotten different recipes from people, and they make it just like you would have it at home,” he said. “I mean, it’s really good.”

Only salmon, cod, halibut, reindeer (a domesticated cousin of caribou) and some beach and sea greens can be legally purchased. It’s illegal to sell big-game meat in Alaska, and animals like seal or whale can be harvested only by Alaska Native people. So for most indigenous foods, the kitchen is reliant on donations arriving from around the state.

When the program began, Ms. Davis called on vendors to see what they could gather for the hospital.

“Our produce vendor was able to harvest fiddlehead ferns and beach asparagus for us, and next thing you know, Amy’s got a little fiddlehead fern pizza on the menu, and is making salads with beach asparagus,” Ms. Davis said.

Amy Foote, the executive chef at the Alaska Native Medical Center, makes use of Alaskan ingredients such as reindeer sausage, beach asparagus and blueberries.Credit…Ash Adams for The New York Times

Since the kitchen began taking in donations in 2014 — many of them from professional hunting guides, lodges and tourists who don’t take their meat home — more than 25,500 pounds of plants, berries, fish and other proteins have been given to the hospital, including 3,850 pounds of moose, 2,500 pounds of deer and 1,500 pounds of caribou. The campus has been able to offer moose and hooligan, a type of smelt, on a regular basis.

Seal and seal oil are highly requested items, but can be more rare than others, depending on availability and harvest.

“When we’ve made seal soup and have been able to serve that to patients, and really watch as they take the first couple of bites, it transforms people,” Ms. Foote said. “You can watch them relax. They share stories. They talk about not being in the hospital anymore. It’s really beautiful.”

Tim Ackerman, a Tlingit seal hunter in Deishu, Alaska, is gearing up for the upcoming seal season — which begins this month as snow returns to the bay. He’s been harvesting seals for the hospital for about five years.

“Not everybody has the funds or the means to go out and catch it themselves, so we kind of fill that gap,” Mr. Ackerman said. “We spend our own money, and we don’t worry about it. It goes to a good cause.”

As a trained chef, Ms. Foote knew generally how to butcher animals. But she has had to consult Alaska Native elders and develop new skills to process meat respectfully and ethically, so nothing is wasted. She uses as much of the donated ingredients as possible, like bones for broth and salmon heads for fish stock.

To Ms. Davis, the traditional food program is simply another aspect of the hospital’s healing mission.

“I do not believe that people go into a hospital for a gastronomic experience,” Ms. Davis said. “I believe that they’re in a hospital because they’re sick or in pain, and they need care. They want comfort foods, foods that someone made for them when they were younger — someone who loved them and made it with love. And that is our role.”

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