One of the first questions people will ask me when they find out we live in Alaska is, “Is there kosher food there?!” The answer is…yes and no.
Eating in Alaska is challenging whether you’re kosher or not because, aside from fishing or hunting, most of our food is flown in from somewhere else and is expensive with limited options. However, I’m a firm believer that there really is kosher food everywhere, if you’re willing to rough it. No matter where I’ve traveled, there have been fresh fruit and vegetables that don’t need kosher supervision. Here in Alaska, we have those, but in winter it is really hard to get GOOD fresh fruits and vegetables and you just never know what the grocery store is going to have from one day to the next. You get used to substituting for things, but fresh produce is really the easiest way to begin to begin to find kosher food anywhere.
In Alaska, we also have many of the same processed products that are available in the lower 48, with the same kosher certifications. There are some odd things that are hard to find, like, for some reason, hamburger and hotdog buns. I also often have to go to several different stores before I can find exactly what I need, so when I see a hard to find kosher item in stock, I grab it, often squealing with delight. I think people in the natural foods store thought I was nuts when I began jumping up and down when my son and I found pareve kosher chocolate chips, but I’d been looking for them for months!
Meat and cheese are another story altogether and probably the biggest challenge. We have one store that carries frozen cut up empire chicken, frozen ground turkey, frozen stew beef, and some frozen turkey lunch meat along with a few other items. There is some cheese, but the types are very limited. Basically, you have parmesan in a jar, cheddar, mozzarella, and maybe a couple of other choices.
Fish, however, is plentiful and may families who keep kosher go fishing themselves to stock their freezers with wild salmon and halibut. Our shul even accepts donations of salmon. For this reason, it was a big deal this year when my daughter started showing a sensitivity to salmon. Before then, it formed a large part of our weekly diet.
Cost is also a huge factor. Anchorage prices are about the lowest in Alaska and has the most to choose from. You probably simply will not find kosher meat or cheese outside of Anchorage. Even here, a bag of frozen cut up empire chicken will cost us about $23 dollars and last 2 meals. Produce can be expensive as well. I once spent $25 on a bag of 5 apples. The further you roam from Anchorage, the higher prices generally are and the harder it is to find anything with kosher supervision. I have heard that in some villages, a gallon of milk will cost $12.
SO…how do kosher keeping Jews survive up here?
I know some families that go together to have meat and other rare items shipped up by air through one of the airlines from Seattle. For us, we mainly forego meat for most of the week and eat dairy sparingly. For most of the week, I simply cook vegan meals, with the kids drinking milk to supplement. We eat meat on Shabbos and it really is a great treat that we look forward to all week. In some ways, our diets probably more closely resemble the shtetl dwellers in Fiddler on the Roof than our modern counterparts in bigger cities, but they also survived.
Kosher visitors to Alaska probably have it harder than the locals during their short visits because they don’t have a freezer full of wild salmon or a kitchen to defrost and cook chicken in. We often see them when they come to our Chabad house for Shabbos and the shul works hard to put out a very nice kiddush for everyone. For those who are concerned about being able to find food, taking a cruise might be a better option than a more conventional visit because many of the cruise ship lines do have kosher options for dining.
And this would be why when people ask me how I could move to an “out of town” (not in the tri-state area) community with JUST 1 or 2 kosher grocery stores and ONLY 1 or 2 kosher restaurants, I can’t help but smile. To me, that will be absolute luxury, let alone the fact I can probably count on the regular grocery stores always having staples…like onions.
Alaska teaches to you cherish and be grateful for what you have, whether it is sunlight or pareve chocolate chips. I hope I can hold onto that when there are so many more resources right at hand and not take it for granted.