Whether it’s enjoying a pumpkin pie for dessert or Atz Lee preparing a wild game dish, the Kilchers of Alaska: The Last Frontier make Thanksgiving a special family holiday. (DISCOVERY CHANNEL)
The following appears in the November issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY CHRIS COCOLES
By the time Nov. 23 rolls around and we celebrate Thanksgiving, grocery stores will have been pilfered by the masses and their cavalcade of carts, coupons and checkstand lines four and five deep.
It’s a quick process that usually means supermarket runs a day or two before the holiday, and then it’s over save for the cleanup and the multiple meals the leftovers will provide.
But how does a homesteading family like the Kilchers of Alaska: The Last Frontier give thanks? It’s a traditional meal that’s planned and harvested months in advance.
The Discovery Channel series usually treats viewers to a Thanksgiving-themed episode, which is held at someone’s homestead (or in one instance, at the family’s revered and hallowed “barn” originally built by patriarch Yule Kilcher).
Not surprisingly, Thanksgiving with these folks doesn’t include store-bought turkey or instant mashed potatoes or pumpkin pie.
In an earlier season episode, the menu included food caught, grown or shot by the family, highlighted by the turkey raised by Eve and Eivin, Atz Lee’s black bear shepherd’s pie, Jane’s silver salmon dip, and a beef dish from Otto’s beloved but aging cow.
“I think (the stories) make it really fun, and it makes everyone stop for a moment and it serves as kind of a blessing before the meal,” says Atz’s brother Otto Kilcher. “It’s about giving honor to not only to whoever cooked it but for that one critter that may have lost its life to give us our bounty. It’s really an important tradition for me.”
We chatted with Otto and his wife Charlotte Kilcher for an inside look of how the Kilchers roll on Turkey Day.
Chris Cocoles Thanksgiving is important for my family and me – my dad always hosts his brothers and their families – but I get the sense that it’s sacred for the Kilchers and how much planning it takes.
Charlotte Kilcher I get what you mean. We’ll do different focuses for the (Thanksgiving episodes) each year, but really it could almost be the same. We do grow a lot if not all of our food. For us, if you’re going to have a turkey for Thanksgiving, you’re going to have to think about that in the spring. Or for your vegetable garden you have to be planting the seeds. It’s such a long-term preparation compared to if you’re just going to go to the store. You’re working through the whole year for that wonderful family meal.
Otto Kilcher Our family is so scattered, and Thanksgiving is one of the times of the year when we do get together. It is sort of a time when almost all of us are together, compared to just a few here and a few there. It’s a celebration of all the projects you’ve done … I think we just take that moment to appreciate where our food came from, and sometimes we hear some pretty crazy stories.
CC Otto, what are some of your early memories of Thanksgiving with your mom and dad?
OK Of course, our Thanksgiving dinners growing up were in the family cabin, which isn’t allowed to be on television because of the family’s personal reasons, but the barn (next to the cabin), we lived in that barn for quite a few years. And there, also, was a place where we all could get together. The meals were more than just the usual fare. It was a time when you could eat that goose you’ve been saving all year. You’d eat that special cut of moose meat or maybe somebody got a sheep. The meat was special and usually the bread was baked special. It was the best (food you had). And boy did we look forward to that.
CC What kind of cooks were your parents, Yule and Ruth?
OK My mom was an absolute excellent cook. She hardly ever used a recipe and did everything in her head. And really I learned about cooking from her skills. Dad was pretty much a meat, potatoes and stew guy. And later on, after Mom was gone, he was sometimes awesome and sometimes awful. He came up with some of the best and some of the worst stuff for dinner. But he loved to bake his own bread – the nettle bread. But he was one of those meat-and-potatoes cooks.
CK He was really good (making) sourdough.
CC Do you have a holiday dish that you prepared or harvested that brings back a Thanksgiving memory?
OK Probably for us it would be some kind of yam or potato dish because Charlotte is a vegetarian, so it wouldn’t be furry or feathered.
CK I do eat fish, and usually at the family Thanksgivings there’s a turkey or some kind of fowl, and usually we’ll have some kind of salmon and I’ll eat that. But usually I’ll bring a vegetable dish and our Thanksgivings are always potluck. That way no one has to take the responsibility of cooking everything for that many people.
OK If it’s our house and Charlotte cooks a big vegetable dish, I’ll save a prime rib of some old cow or some choice cut of meat. On Thanksgiving at our house, no one will ever go home hungry.
Charlotte (left) and Otto KIlcher are looking forward to the family’s usual Thanksgiving gathering on Thursday. (DISCOVERY CHANNEL)
CC And your menus run the full gamut. One year’s episode I saw Atz Lee made some shepherd’s pie from black bear and a brown bear stew.
OK He could have that bear (laughs). I don’t really eat a lot of bear. There’s not very much that I won’t eat, but I don’t like bear.
CC Have you eaten some moose and caribou Thanksgiving dishes also?
OK Oh, boy, there’s almost nothing better than a real succulent moose roast. That would be my choice. But for me, I don’t really feel a need to shoot a moose; I love seeing them around, so Charlotte’s rubbed off me on a little bit in that regard.
CK And we’re not really as big of hunters as others are in our family. But on our Thanksgiving table we’ll usually have other types of game besides the meat from what we get from Otto’s cattle.
CC And I saw a previous episode when Otto got very emotional after you made the decision to take the meat from one of your older cows that was with you for a long time but was near the end. What was that like for you? I got kind of choked up when I saw it.
OK It was hard but you came to the realization that this cow would suffer (had it stayed alive through the winter), and you feel thankful and appreciative. I feel that you’ve almost done this animal a favor. It’s ironic because we’re talking about Thanksgiving. But a good way to say it is, it ain’t easy.
CC I live in a big city and grew up in a big city, so grocery stores become a necessity to get our holiday dinners. But you must take so much pride that you can grow and harvest what you put on your Thanksgiving meal.
CK Yes, I think that’s a very satisfying feeling that we do that year-round, but definitely when you have Thanksgiving and you’re thinking about being thankful and thinking about the food and how it got onto the table. And that adds so much to it when you’re able to have that lifestyle and be so close to the food that you’ve raised. There’s something about the experience of collecting that food.
OK And I have to say also that we’re all so busy all year and everyone is doing his or her own thing. But a real big thing to be thankful for, our food is a symbol of people taking their time and not being too busy to come over. To some degree, Thanksgiving probably does symbolize that – hey, let’s stop and for everyone to put any little arguments aside.
The Kilchers’ work hard mantra will pay off when they enjoy their harvesting at the table during the holidays. (DISCOVERY CHANNEL)
CC As parents, do you two and Atz and Bonnie get emotional when you see your kids and grandkids all together for the holidays?
CK Definitely. I think we’re so grateful to have our kids living nearby and our grandkids are right next door and that we can share much more than just one or two holidays. We can celebrate life with them.
CC Is (daughter-in-law) Eve [see sidebar] the best cook in the family?
CK She probably has earned the name as the family cook. But I have to admit, there are a lot of good cooks in the family [laughs], but Eve definitely has a flair for it. She takes such pride in the ingredients that she uses and in preparing all her own food. She’s very dedicated to the homesteader life. She’s an amazing gardener.
CC Do you appreciate that so many of the Kilcher kids have embraced the homesteading way of life and choose to live near their parents?
OK Absolutely. Charlotte and I have four boys between us and we feel so blessed that we have them among us. We all like to be around each other. I know I can’t imagine a better blessing than that.
CK I’m super proud of my kids and the fact that they are living this life with us. Some of them are really dedicated homesteaders, and all of them really appreciate their roots and that they grew up this way. They could still apply that no matter where they went and the knowledge that they gained.
CC Any sneak preview to what you’ll bringing to this year’s Thanksgiving dinner?
CK Probably a vegetable dish [laughs]. And Eivin and Eve, every year they raise two turkeys and name one of them Christmas and the other Thanksgiving. So I’m pretty sure I’m going to have a turkey from those guys.
CC And I guess given the bounty of what’s available, the menu is always a grab bag and full of surprises.
CK For sure, people bring stuff each year. I feel like I’m in a bit of a rut with what I bring. And I’m probably the most in the rut. But although you can’t grow yams in Alaska, I can’t imagine a Thanksgiving without yams. So I’m always the one bringing yams.
OK You know, for me, I’m always good for a big cotton-pickin’ roast. ASJ
Editor’s note: New episodes of Alaska: The Last Frontier air on Sundays at 9 p.m. (check your local listings). For more, go to discovery.com/tv-shows/alaska-the-last-frontier. Follow on Twitter (@AlaskaTLF) and like at facebook.com/AlaskaTLF.
Sidebar: YOU’LL GO CRAZY FOR EVE’S CORNBREAD STUFFING
From the book Homestead Kitchen
Otto and Charlotte Kilcher’s daughter-in-law Eve (Alaska Sporting Journal, November 2016), married to their son Eivin, has taken her cooking skills to the publishing world with a cookbook, Homestead Cooking (available at most retail outlets, including Amazon and Barnes and Noble.).
“She really knows the local plants and makes good use of all the local spices and seasonings,” Otto Kilcher says of Eve. “Especially compared to me; I’m just a meat-and-potatoes-with-salt-and-pepper kind of a guy.”
The following recipe is reprinted with permission from Homestead Cooking, published by Penguin Group LLC:
Makes about 10 cups, enough to stuff a large turkey
3 tablespoons grapeseed oil, plus more for the baking dish
Four celery stalks, finely diced
Two garlic cloves, minced
Four carrots, finely diced
2 cups finely diced onion
One recipe of whole wheat cornbread (see below)
Four fresh sage leaves, minced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
½ cup dried sour cherries
½ cup pine nuts
1½ to 2 cups homemade vegetable or chicken stock
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-by-14-inch ceramic or glass baking dish.
In a large cast-iron skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the celery, garlic, carrots, and onion and cook until they are tender, about 10 minutes.
Crumble the cornbread into a very large bowl. Add the sautéed vegetable mixture, sage, thyme, rosemary, parsley, cherries, and pine nuts and mix well. Add the stock and stir together to make a moist mixture. Spread the stuffing in the prepared dish. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the top is golden brown, stirring once after 15 minutes.
WHOLE WHEAT CORNBREAD
4 tablespoons (½ stick) salted butter, plus more for the baking dish
? cup plus 1 tablespoon whole wheat flour
½ cup organic fine cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking powder, sifted
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup fresh, canned, or thawed frozen corn kernels
½ cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons honey or maple syrup
Two large eggs
½ cup sour cream
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. With butter, generously grease an 8-by-8-inch baking dish or 9-inch cast-iron skillet.
In a large bowl, mix together ? cup of the whole wheat flour, the cornmeal, baking powder, and salt.
In a small pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon whole wheat flour and whisk until the roux begins to smell nutty and has a nice light brown color, about three minutes. Add the corn and cream. Whisk until the mixture thickens; this should take only a couple of minutes. Mix in the honey and remove from the heat. Let cool slightly.
Add the creamed corn mixture, eggs, and sour cream to the bowl with the flour and stir the ingredients well to combine without overmixing.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
RECIPE NOTES: You can also bake the bread in a loaf pan, but you’ll want to increase the baking time by 15 to 20 minutes. For a little added sweetness, a homemade honey or maple butter is the perfect topping for this cornbread.
A word to the wise: It’s a good idea to double this recipe, because you’ll surely want to consume one loaf fresh out of the oven, leaving nothing to serve later. ASJ