This is a really fun day for me. My story about cake bakers in rural villages wound up on the front page of The New York Times (!), which is something I never really imagined was possible. The story came about because as I traveled around the state doing stories, mostly about subsistence, for the last few years, I noticed that I was always eating cake. So here’s a shout-out to all the village bakers!
Here’s how the story begins:
GAMBELL, Alaska — In a modest boardinghouse on an Alaskan island just 30 miles across the sea from Russia, a handwritten order form hangs on the refrigerator. There are photos of cakes a few women in this village can make for you: rectangles of yellow cake and devil’s food enrobed in buttercream, with local nicknames piped out in pink.
“Happy Birthday Bop-Bop,” one reads. Another, “Happy Birthday Siti-Girl.”
Traveling out here, where huge bones from bowhead whales litter the beach, takes a 90-minute jet ride north from Anchorage and another hour by small plane over the Bering Sea. In this vast, wild part of America, accessible only by water or air, there may not be plumbing or potable water, the local store may not carry perishables and people may have to rely on caribou or salmon or bearded seal meat to stay fed.
But no matter where you go, you will always find a cake-mix cake.
Elsewhere, the American appetite for packaged baking mixes is waning, according to the market research firm Mintel, as consumers move away from packaged foods with artificial ingredients and buy more from in-store bakeries and specialty pastry shops. Yet in the small, mostly indigenous communities that dot rural Alaska, box cake is a stalwart staple, the star of every community dessert table and a potent fund-raising tool.
“Cake mixes are the center of our little universe,” said Cynthia Erickson, who owns the only grocery store in Tanana, an Athabascan village of 300 along the Yukon River in central Alaska. “I have four damn shelves full.”