(Adapted from my most recent book, “The Bush Doctor’s Wife”)
Tanana, Alaska 1957
For Ruby Leppke Gaede, “mother” and “wife” meant cooking meals; cleaning house; keeping the ironing basket empty; making cupcakes for school events; creating birthday cakes that resembled mountains, hens, or houses; and sewing or purchasing clothes for her family. Her tasks were made more difficult by the lack of services in the wilderness.
Her husband, Elmer, had brought the family to Alaska in 1955 when he had accepted a physician’s position with Public Health Services (PHS) at the Alaska Native Hospital in Anchorage. Anchorage was a city compared to the village of 300 people along the Yukon River, which was not accessible by road or rail, and with one general store. PHS transferred their employees every two years, and before the Gaede’s departure from Anchorage, Ruby had calculated how many canned and boxed goods would feed her family of five for the coming year.
From an ordering list, she’d selected items and amounts for Cheerios, Shredded Wheat, and Kix cereal; Cream of Wheat and oatmeal; flour, sugar, Jell-O, Spam, cake mixes, canned peas, corn, pears, and peaches, instant potatoes, powdered milk, orange Tang, pork-and-beans, yellow mustard, rice, laundry detergent, bar soap, and so on. Her order amounted to over 100 cases of staples, cost $1,000, and was shipped by railroad from Anchorage to Nenana, and then placed on the Yutana river barge to Tanana. When the supplies arrived on the barge, the food filled the basement pantry.
Ruby had grown up on a farm outside Peabody, Kansas, and was not equipped to prepare meals without homegrown produce. In her growing up years, she had walked through the screened porch, under which kittens scrambled in mock fear of the collie dog, out to the homegrown store of groceries. Contingent on her destination, she carried a tin bucket or a bushel basket, and depending on the need, she walked to the garden, field, washhouse, chicken coop, or barn.
In the damp and cold “Dairy Section,” otherwise known as the washhouse, milk, cream, and butter stayed cool for a short time. The chicken house provided eggs. Corn arrived in the farmyard on flatbeds pulled by a farm truck. Ruby stripped the scratchy husks off the fresh roasting ears, which were later boiled, smothered with golden butter, and speckled with salt and pepper. At other times, she and other apron-covered women sliced corn kernels off the cobs to can or freeze.
In another section of “Produce,” succulent tomatoes, green beans, and peas in crisp pods waited at her fingertips. Peas were boiled, thickened with a mixture of cream and flour, sweetened with sugar, and blackened with pepper. Small, translucent-skin potatoes, ranging from the size of a thumb to that of a golf ball, were sliced and fried in butter, mashed with cream and butter, or boiled, then fried in butter.
In the “Meat Department,” farm stock provided a selection of beef, pork, and chicken. Ground pork sausage was stuffed into the thin tubes of cleaned pig intestines. Nothing was wasted.
This bountiful and assorted harvest was not available to Ruby in Tanana. Cooking required more than following a recipe; it called for substituting ingredients. Canned milk was used instead of cream. Cranberries filled in for raisins. A tablespoon of vinegar was added to a cup of powdered milk for recipes calling for buttermilk or sour milk. Canned peas, corn, and green beans were rotated throughout the week. Potato flakes could be whipped into a substance similar to that of mashed potatoes.
Powdered eggs, which smelled like sulfur, could be used in baked goods, but scrambled or poached. Ruby learned from her missionary friend that the popular chiffon and sponge cakes, as well as merengue, were not possible with powdered eggs. If real eggs actually showed up in the store, the yokes would be deep orange, with barely a jiggle.
Fortunately, the farm girl could still make other desserts that were all the craze: tapioca pudding, vanilla pudding dabbed on top of vanilla wafers, cream puffs with a pudding filling, and Jello salads.
The Wilderness Wife had not grown up in the wilds of Alaska; however, within her was planted the grit, perseverance, and ingenuity of her foremothers before her. Life in the Alaska wilderness would be one more adventure in the history of strong women.
(“The Bush Doctor’s Wife” can be purchased on amazon or at http://www.prescriptionforadventure.com.)