A National Park-Inspired Blueberry Pie
What’s more American than blueberry pie? Apparently, pie made with rendered bear fat.
Over the past few years, I’ve started a collection of national park-inspired recipes. This isn’t your typical granola trail food. Instead, I’m looking for food narratives that help us better understand our land and our history. Since food is culturally universal yet infinitely variable, it’s been a delicious way to explore the American identity.
In honor of the Fourth of July, a time of picnics and barbecues, I dug up a recipe that dials back the clock 100 years, to a time and place where “homemade” was the only option and everything was locally sourced.
There were no convenient grocery stores on the Alaskan frontier, and asking your neighbor for a cup of sugar probably meant a very, very long hike. The remoteness forced culinary creativity and a lot of advanced planning; forgetting to preserve food when it was in abundance meant very hungry stomachs during the depths of winter.
This blueberry pie recipe comes from Fannie Quigley, a pioneer and entrepreneur who followed the Alaskan gold rushes, arriving at gold strikes with her mobile kitchen and “Meals-for-Sale” sign. She later set up residence in Kantishna, creating a permanent home even when the local gold strike proved a bust. For the years that followed, she and her husband were the welcoming committee in Kantishna, delighting visitors with memorable meals like roasted porcupine and moose muffle jelly (Google at your own risk). Today, remnants of her homestead and garden can still be found in Kantishna, now protected within the borders of Denali National Park and Preserve. They serve as a reminder of the ingenuity and perseverance required to live in such an environment.
Below is her original recipe, transcribed in her own words. I’ve also included a more contemporary version, since rendered bear fat is hard to find, even at the trendiest of grocery stores.
Fannie Quigley’s Blueberry Pie
First, pick five gallons of blueberries as they ripen on the back of your mining claim. Then, in early fall shoot a good fat bear. Haul it a quarter at a time to your cabin. With sufficient snow use the dog team to haul 10 or 15 cords of wood for the woodstove for the winter. Using a large kettle and the wood you’ve hauled, render the bear fat into lard.
Then mush your dogs 125 miles to Nenana for 100 pounds of flour and 50 pounds of sugar. Use the bear fat lard and flour to bake a dozen flaky pie crusts in the oven of the wood cookstove. Keep the stove well stoked to maintain a high temperature. Mix the blueberries with some sugar, and add enough flour to bind up the juices. Put the filling into the crusts and bake.
Don’t let the stove get too hot, or the pies will burn. Cool the pies, then store them frozen in the permafrost mining tunnel behind the cabin.
A Simple Pioneer Pie for Modern Cooks
Pie Crust Ingredients
- 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- 4 tablespoons ice-cold water
- ½ teaspoon coarse salt
- 4 cups frozen blueberries
- ¾ cup sugar
- ½ tablespoon coarse salt
- 3 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon butter
In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine flour and salt. Add butter and use a pastry cutter or fingers until the mixture becomes coarse and pea-sized. Add the ice water and mix with your hands so that the dough comes together.
Roll the dough out into a thin, flat circle. Drape over a pie pan, trimming and shaping the edges as necessary. Cover with a plastic wrap and transfer to a refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375° F.
In a large mixing bowl, combine blueberries, sugar, salt, and cornstarch, mixing until the blueberries are evenly coated.
Remove the pie crust from the refrigerator and add blueberry mixture. Dot the remaining butter on top of the pie.
Cook for 60-70 minutes, until the crust has turned golden and the filling is thick and bubbling. Remove and let it cool for 1-2 hours until the filling has set. Or just eat it right away and enjoy the delicious mess.
Michael Liang has worked as an interpretive park ranger and visual information specialist, developing publications, multimedia projects, and web and social media campaigns. Throughout his seven-year career, he has worked at North Cascades National Park in Washington State, the Northeast Regional Office in Philadelphia, and he currently works at Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in Los Angeles. When he is not designing creative media in the office, Michael can be found cooking in the kitchen, painting in the studio, running on park trails, or driving off on weekend road trips and camping adventures.
Photo credits: Michael Liang, Photo of Fannie Quigley courtesy of DENA 29-7.4/Denali National Park and Preserve Museum Collection, Photo of Denali National Park and Preserve by National Park Service/Jacob W. Frank