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Mushrooms in My Hair and Moose in My Suitcase

by Marge Perry on September 30, 2012

In the end, I am glad we made the irrational decision to cook a five-course meal for ninety guests at the Fungus Festival in Cordova, Alaska.

Cordova is a place of rugged, real beauty; it makes pretty tropical islands look like giggly platinum blonds. In Cordova, people talk about getting their moose, secret berry patches, dyeing yarns from foraged plants and, most important of all, how the salmon are running. Cordova is filled with commercial fishermen and their boats. But not with commercial kitchens.

And that is what makes my tale balmy.

This was our second visit to Cordova. I went the first time as a reporter/writer; I returned as a chef to cook at my husband’s side for the Fungus Festival, which was held in the Pioneer Igloo. While not made of ice, the building has withstood eighty five winters in Cordova and is scheduled for a much-needed renovation—later. We were told the kitchen there was not adequate for all our prep: we’d use a restaurant kitchen for that and switch over the morning of the event. The week before we left for Alaska, we learned the restaurant kitchen was no longer available. We would be working in a kitchen in a church basement and would move to the Pioneer Igloo on Saturday for final-hours heating, cooking and plating.

The church kitchen was big and clean.  When we got our quick look at it the day we arrived, we were told we needed an Alaska Food Handler’s license. So at 7am the next morning, Ebo and I took the tests, and can now proudly claim to be Alaskan certified. Are you impressed?

We had lots of local folks volunteering. But we didn’t have commercial equipment—just two ordinary ranges each with four burners; two ovens, one of which took an hour to preheat; one refrigerator and a smattering of every day home-kitchen sized pots and pans. Hey, the counter space was good. And we brought our knives, which were nice and sharp.

Cooking the meal was the easy part. Ebo (aka Chef David Bonom, aka, my husband) could do it in his sleep. With one hand tied behind his back. And a toothache. But it wasn’t about that: it was all about the logistics.

Here’s the thing about Cordovians (or is it about fishermen?): they are used to adverse conditions. (They tunneled each other out of their homes in last winter’s twenty-four feet of snow. That is not a typo: twenty-four feet.) They figure out how to work around challenging environments. Our Cordovian volunteer helpers were a culinary dream team. It wasn’t that they were the best chefs in the universe –I leave that title to my husband. It was their creativity, incredible work ethic, and ability to see every logistical challenge as just a little bump in the road that thrilled me to the core. It helped a whole lot that they also knew their way around kitchens.

Jen Pickett, a fisherman and writer whose blog Pickfish Tales, chronicles her life as a female commercial fisherman, and Beth Poole, who runs the Copper River/Prince William Sound non-profit marketing organization, cooked and peeled ninety hard boiled eggs. (Beth’s beau, Jeremy, is a chef who made the best salmon chowder I have ever tasted. I am trying to get us the recipe.)

The two ladies in the photo below made an incredible (and fun) team: Amy O’Neill Houck, book author, pattern designer and writer of the blog The Hook and I;  and Erica Thompson, a deep sea diver (for sea cucumbers, I believe), while getting her masters while cultivating future environmentalists as an education specialist at the Prince William Sound Science Center…while starting her every day by drinking green slime (I don’t know why she did that, but if it makes her who she is, then I say, All Power to the Green Slime!)

While Ebo whipped up the food fantastic and charmed (?) them all with his patter, I organized. And made dessert. And sautéed mushrooms. And moved ninety boiled eggs in basins of water around. And showed our crew how to do various tasks. Occasionally, I would whirl like a dervish around the kitchen in search of equipment that wasn’t there, and the team would magically find it in someone’s home, or a nearby restaurant—somewhere.

We worked with an incredible array and quantity of mushrooms. The mushrooms in the opening photo of this post were foraged locally, but the rest were brought in.

We sautéd maitake and put them in the salad…

We used loads of meaty oyster mushrooms…

…which we sliced, sautéd and added to the lamb ragout and focaccia

But we didn’t just prep mushrooms. There were the slow roasted tomatoes which took two valuable hours of oven time and might have been our undoing– had it not been for wonderful Mikal Berry, who brought trays upon trays to her kitchen to slow roast. Mikal often came to our rescue. Mikal is a former fisherman (by this I mean she went out for days at a time on a fishing boat and caught salmon, which is brutally hard physical labor) with a fascinating history of involvement in many other industries. Most recently, she had a food truck with a beautiful blue-green mermaid painted on the side and lots of idle equipment. Oh thank you, Goddess Mikal, whose bounty of pots and pans saved our dinner!  And when the ferry crash meant that we wouldn’t get our delivery of mascarpone, Mikal created a worthy replacement by combining one part butter with four parts cream cheese:

After two days that started at 8 am and ended at 11.30pm (with short breaks for dinner, which included a pot luck supper and moose alfredo) and involved as much maneuvering as they did cooking, it was time to move to the Pioneer Igloo. Our transportation crew had to lug all our partially prepped food and equipment up here:

Or, to look at it from another point of view, down here:

This is the reception area:

This is some of the wall art in the reception area:

More wall art:

This is the view into the kitchen from the reception “hall”.

And now, if I may please have a drum roll, I would like you to see the kitchen from which we finished and served these ninety dinners. Here we are, a few hours before the dinner.

My favorite piece of equipment in this kitchen is this warmer that was fully functional. How beautiful is this?!

I also loved the china closet/pantry and the Pioneer dishes:

This is the dining room:

And here, at long last, is the meal we served to guests at the Fungus festival in Cordova, Alaska.

Nibbles:

Wild Mushroom, Caramelized Onion and Rosemary Focaccia with Herb Infused Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Served with Local Kippered Coho Salmon

First Course:

Mezcal Cured Copper River Coho Salmon with Porcini Chive Cream served with Seeded Flatbread Crackers (Ebo’s recipe for this should be in the December issue of Cooking Light)

Second Course:

Frisee Salad a la Allard with Lardons, Maitake and Egg and Shallot-Dijon Vinaigrette

Third Course:

Braised Lamb, Slow-Roasted Tomato and Porcini Ragout over Creamy Truffled Polenta

Green Beans with Golden Garlic Slivers

Dessert:
Candy Cap Cheesecake Phyllo Cups with Toe-Curling, Mouth-Melting, Heart-Achingly Good Chocolately Chocolate Slabs

After the meal was served, there was an auction of many beautiful handcrafted mushroom-related items, including a silk mushroom-dyed gold robe, exquisitely hand painted by our Forest Service host, Erin Cooper. King-Chef Ebo was asked to model it to the guests, and he obliged, which helped it fetch a pretty penny. Here we are, hugging up (or holding each other up?) after a long night in the kitchen.

Post script: We left Cordova far richer than we came. Not only did we make great new friends and spend time with old ones, we brought home two cuts of Erin’s freshly hunted moose. For those of you who wonder, moose is not at all gamey tasting: it is quite mild and fairly similar to beef. And the talented Tanya, who brought french press coffee to our kitchen each morning, gave me a gold mushroom-dyed scarf that is as beautiful as it is filled with fond memories of the Fungus Festival in Cordova, Alaska.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Lauren September 30, 2012 at 1:00 pm

Best blog headline ever, SEO be damned!

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Amy Nieporent September 30, 2012 at 1:12 pm

This should win some kind of blogging award…

Just a great personal story, about a great place, great people, told from the heart….
WOW

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Marge October 2, 2012 at 5:02 pm

Aw, thanks, Amy. <3

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Frank B September 30, 2012 at 2:30 pm

I was very inspired by David up to that robe, not so much now.

Bet food was awesome tho.

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Kristin Hollon September 30, 2012 at 3:14 pm

I smiled all the way thru this. I kind of felt like I was traveling with you! :)

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Tamar@StarvingofftheLand October 1, 2012 at 6:28 am

What a trip! I wish I could have been there — but I have to admit, I’d want to strategically arrive just as that meal hits the table.

And, Ebo, you make that robe look GOOD.

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Marge October 2, 2012 at 5:02 pm

Tamar, you know we’ll cook for/with you any chance we get! You don’t even have to lie about Ebo in that robe…

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Beth October 1, 2012 at 1:07 pm

You two are amazing in so many ways! Thank you for being such wonderful sports and ebo looked so good in that robe!

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Marge October 2, 2012 at 5:01 pm

Beth– we had such a great time seeing you again. The boys look terrific, and thanks to you, we had some of our most pleasurable moments of the trip. Much love and best wishes in your new home. I’ll have to find a reason to visit you there, now!

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Amy October 1, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Maybe you should’ve had mousse in your hair and mushrooms in your suitcase? Still shocked I didn’t get handcuffed at airport security for carrying the uber-aromatic candy caps home with me.

Thank you for the “divine” distractions and scrumptious meal! A town is only as good as its inhabitants and its visitors. Cordova already gets an A+ for its residents, and you two cranked it up a notch.

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Marge October 2, 2012 at 4:59 pm

Our garage smells heavenly, thanks to a tiny little bag of candy caps.

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Mikal October 1, 2012 at 2:29 pm

Lovely article .. miss you!

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Marge October 2, 2012 at 4:58 pm

We’ll be back, you can be sure! And Mikal– we’ll cook together again…xoxox

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Rachel October 2, 2012 at 11:13 am

I love , love love, the pictures of the mushrooms–especially the first one!

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Kurt Jacobson October 8, 2012 at 5:23 pm

Wow, what a great story. I love mushrooms and cooking, plus I lived in Cordova from June of 1985 to June of 1986 working as the chef of the Reluctant Fisherman Restaurant. I was hooked as soon as I saw mushrooms and moose in your headline. You had it tougher than I did with your logistics and a kitchen practically in a treehouse. Great job. I wish I had been there to help cook and eat that awesome looking meal.

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Marge October 8, 2012 at 8:36 pm

Kurt– We could have used your help!
We stayed at the reluctant Fisherman last time, but just dropped by for a quick dinner our first night into town. (It was the only night we didn’t end up at someone’s home). I guess when you lived in Cordova, there was not yet a mushroom festival, but I am sure you cooked for some of the many other fall festivals…
In our short visits here, we have grown to really love the place– but then again, we haven’t been here in 24-feet of snow. Happy cooking, wherever you now do it!

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Kurt Jacobson October 30, 2012 at 11:47 am

Marge
Cordova does grow on you that’s for sure. I now live within an hour of the mushroom capital of the world,Kennet Square PA, and love making monthly trips up there to load up on schrooms. Maitake are my favorite, but they are all good. My new cooking adventure is FastandFuriousCook.com, and should be blogging around November 10th on quick,easy and healthy meals. It’s quite different than anything I’ve done before and could use any advice you could give me.

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Marge November 11, 2012 at 7:09 am

Kurt–
I’ve been to Kennet Square– lucky you, living so close to all those great ‘shrooms!
Congrats on taking on a new adventure with your blog. If you want to talk about it, by all means drop me a line through the contact form on the site with your email address. And GOOD LUCK!
Marge

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Susan Siegeltuch November 27, 2012 at 7:30 am

Just read this Marge-
What a wonderful experience.
When you said the best piece in the kitchen was the warmer, I actually thought you were going to say it was Ebo.
You both look so warm and loving!
Susan

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