Alaska Native hospital showcases plants as food and medicine
The courtyard at the Alaska Native Medical Center is not your typical garden. While you’ll see flowers there, you’ll also find plants Alaska Natives have long used as food and medicine. Chef Amy Foote, who oversees the hospital’s kitchen, has a passion for incorporating wild foods into the menu.
This time, she comes to raid the garden’s sour dock patch – a green, leafy plant, which looks like spinach but is a cousin of rhubarb. Alaska Natives typically use the greens in soups, but Foote plans to mix them into her recipe for akutaq, or “Eskimo Ice Cream,” which includes berries from the garden, seal fat, vegetable shortening and sugar.
Sour dock has an acidic, citrus taste to it.
“A little bite at the end,” says Foote, who believes this vegetable has a lot of potential in other recipes. One day she’d like to use sour dock to make pesto.
The garden is too small to provide food for patients on a regular basis, but it does give staffers like Foote a chance to experiment. And then there’s simply the sight of the plants themselves.
“To see that taste of home, that calming, comfort factor, when you’re in the hospital and don’t feel well,” Foote says, is a way to ease homesickness and create a better environment for healing.
The hospital tries to work fish, reindeer and other wild foods into the menu when they’re available. Donations of wild game, which must meet state and federal guidelines, are occasionally served.
Foote, who is originally from Boise, Idaho, is excited to work in a hospital with patients who live off the land and sea.
As she holds in her hand, some fat from a harbor seal donated from a Ketchikan hunter, she marvels at how it melts at room temperature.
“It’s the neatest fat,” she says, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, known to reduce inflammation and the risk of heart disease.
“The trick is to get that nice and whipped up, and your hand is your best tool in this,” she recommends as she stirs in bright red currants from the garden.
“They have a little tartness to them. These are really beautiful.”
The currants are also loaded with vitamin C.
“And if they get through a frost, then they turn to sugar, so then they’re sweet too.”
About 60% of the meals cooked in the hospital kitchen are made with traditional ingredients.
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