Story and photos by Babbie De Derian

Juneau Alaska Historic District Sign

JUNEAU, Alaska
A City Rich in History and Culture is a Delicious Place to Visit

“Haa aani ya... this is our homeland”.

The Huna Tlingit (Klingkit) Indians enjoyed a rich social and cultural life in this cool temperate rainforest, relying on the resource-rich  environment to provide all that was necessary for food, clothing,  shelter and tools. They fished for salmon, halibut, and rockfish in the  sea and hunted for animals on land; they came together for weddings,  births and deaths; gift giving, singing and dancing were elements of these “potlatch” events.

Juneau Tlingit Mask

Tlingit stories and history are communicated in wood carvings and weavings,  hand carved crafts such as totems and woven regalia share identity and  family lineage, history and recount important events. Through their  mother, children inherit their clan and are either of the Eagle or Raven moiety. Traditionally, one would marry a person of the opposite moiety, and one’s identity is closely linked to their clan and family. Totem  poles were carved and placed in front of one’s home to identify the  resident; they were the social security number of the time.

In the 1800s Chief Kowee of the Auk Tribe revealed samples of gold ore which led the way to the famous “gold rush” and the growth of the town.  Times and lives have changed since the mines shut down in 1944. Tourism and commercial fishing remain the key components of the economy. On the brighter side, through a sense of renewal and government support, the  Tlingit language is now being taught in schools; traditions, stories and songs are being shared and perpetuated through the work of many  individuals and agencies. Efforts are being made to resume traditional  harvesting; clan treasures, considered lost, are being returned. There  is much work yet to be done as I learned on my recent visit to the  Seascape Museum where I met Leoni lei Johnson, daughter of artist Ray Watkins, whose work is on display in the American Indian Museum in New York City

My Delta non stop from JFK to Seattle connects to an Alaskan Air flight to Juneau. Travel Juneau is waiting when I disembark. They have organized a late lunch at Salt, a popular upscale restaurant. I am wowed by their “crab meat putanesca” thick with capers, black olives and chunks of seafood. My room at  the Goldbelt Hotel, conveniently located, is large and the bed quite  comfortable. A sign on the night table reads: “Tourism helps us sleep at night; please invest in Alaska Tourism, Our business depends on it”.

Juneau Tongass National Forest

Juneau, a city of 2 million acres, including the Juneau Icefield, is located in  the heart of the largest temperate rainforest in America. (It covers  nearly 17 million acres which accounts for its biodiversity); it boasts  of more hiking trails than roads; is home to 74,000 harbor seals; became the state capital in 1959, but remains a small community.

The Blessing of the Fleet €takes place the 1st Saturday in May, honoring men and women who work in the fishing industry.  Commercial fishing boats line up in Gastineau Channel, facing  “Fisherman’s Memorial”; a priest blesses the captain, crews and boats  for a “safe and bountiful harvest”.

The not-to-be-missed  SeaScape Museum and gift shop in downtown Juneau tells the story of the Native American  people who have lived in southeast Alaska for more than 10,000 years  and  the cultural values and traditions they developed over many  generations that are rooted in strength, balance and harmony between  body, mind and spirit.

To satisfy the cravings of residents and visitors, Juneau’s culinary  diversity is gaining momentum; chefs who left to study and hone their  skills have returned, and others, self taught, are redefining Alaskan  Cuisine by opening unique venues that pay homage to their individual  philosophies and talents.

Kelly ’Midgi’€ Moore is stirring the pot (so to speak) for the city’s emerging food scene with her fun well planned ”Juneau Food Tours”, a company she started two years ago  that is truly “a tour with taste”Midgi offers to introduce me to Juneau’s eclectic mix of chefs who are  “kicking it up more than just a notch”. I join her and her husband Grant (who has a fleet of charter fishing boats) at Abby La Force’s Zarelda’s Bistro where we exchange food stories and feast on succulent seared scallops  and savory short ribs. Midgi tells me: “Food is memory; there’s no  better way to experience a community than through its food. I am so  proud of our chefs”.

Juneau Gonzo Waffles

The next morning, we begin our day at Gonzo where Alex and Aims Alf, the king and queen of waffles, entice us into a waffle tasting  breakfast with a medley of six dishes, alternating between sweet and  savory.  Their menu is constantly evolving as they experiment with  flavors and ingredients that elevate waffles to an exalted level of  decadence - my favorites: their Greek waffle layered with lamb and  slathered with cucumber yogurt, and the berry berry chocolate peanut  butter ganache.

Juneau V's Korean Mexican

Venietia Santanaopened Juneau’s first food truck, serving Mexican food and east coast grinders. Three years ago she opened V’s Cellar Door, a casual Korean Mexican fusion restaurant. Confident in her food, her  advice to customers: “If you don’t like the taste of your first two bites, send it back”. Her pineapple jalapeño margaritas and Halibut  fusion nachos, made with organic cilantro, onion relish and Asian cabbage slaw win me over with the very first bite.

Juneau Tracy's Crab Shack

Tracy La Bargecame here from Colorado 24 years ago. Her stamp on the culinary scene is  profound as the current owner of four restaurants, including her  original, Tracy’s King Crab Shack, where we taste her famous crab bisque and crab cakes, served with a buttered biscuit.  Tracey: tells  me:” I would like to see  more young people go away to train and come  back to pay homage to our traditions, push the envelope and reintroduce  Alaskan cuisine to the younger generation.  You have to bring up young people as chefs. I have brought up employees since they were young. I  would love for my chef at Salt to buy me out. Cooking is something  anyone from any background can do. I”ve watched my kitchen staff  struggle and rise above the challenges”.

Juneau SALT Restaurant

Lionel Uddipa, the executive chef at Salt, one of Tracy’s restaurants, left to go to culinary school in Georgia.  He believes in supporting local produce and seafood, respecting the way  things are done, using different cooking techniques, planning out your  year, and serving in the purest form. . “I like controllable chaos and  orchestrate what goes on in my kitchen; it’s a beautiful thing; it plays together like music; cuisine is so spontaneous”. We nibble on sweet  rock fish and marinated avocados, served on blue corn tortillas that  chef pairs with a soft chardonnay. 

Juneau Dave Mc Casland

Dave Mc Casland, 26 yrs old owner of Deckhand Dave’s, which he operates out of a food truck and an adjacent tent with a few tables, worked as a commercial  fisherman for five years to pay for college. He wants to open a  restaurant on the water, and wows me with his breaded salmon tenders,  served with homemade tartar sauce: low acid dill pickles, fresh  shallots, finely minced onion, mayo and lemon juice.

Beau Schooler,owner of In Bocca Al Luco,Panhandle Provisions and the Rookery, greets us with a plate of house made charcuterie and imported cheeses.  .“I just want to have room for my cooks to grow. We just want to do our  own thing. I’m  just having fun. My kitchen staff has been with me a long time; we know what we’re about and what we are putting out€.

Our grazing ends at the Alaskan Hotel and Bar where we rest our weary feet and happy palates with a tasting of locally brewed beers. Chef Stef Marnon, who has cooked for three Alaska Governors, joins us with a delectable array of sweet treats she has personally baked.

In the late afternoon, I ride the aerial tram, along with tourists from  around the world, to the top of the mountain where I discover musicians, restaurants, sweeping views and a blazing orange and pink sunset.

Juneau Babbie on Herbert Glacier

A highlight of my visit, and a once in a lifetime thrill, is my  soaring Coastal Helicopter flight over Devil’s Paw ( the highest peak in the Juneau Icefield) and our  landing on Herbert Glacier.  Before boarding we watch a safety video;  and special shoes with clamps are fitted over my boots (necessary for  walking on the ice). As we rise over the majestic mountain, landscapes  carved and sculpted by centuries of glacial advance and retreat come  into view.  Once we land, we carefully navigate around deep crevasses  and cracks in ice, as thick as three times the height of the Empire  State Building, I breathe in the pure exhilarating glacier air, knowing  this moment will leave imprints in my heart.

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