Who Are These Alaskans?

Alaska's own Martha Stewart:
Bringing The Heat To Alaska: A Tale Of Chili To Chillier.

Martha Stewart From AlaskaWhen Thad and Martha Stewart discovered a Mexican restaurant for sale in Haines, Alaska, just eighty miles northwest of Juneau, they decided to buy it. Not that either of them had ever owned a restaurant much less cooked in one, but that was not the point. They knew they had to live in Haines and that was all.

As Martha explains; “with a great radio station, library and a town center within biking distance, it was the perfect fit.”

“She loves feeding people,” says her brother-in-law Kirk, “one time Martha and I were driving thru New Mexico hauling a teardrop trailer full of camping equipment and she asks me what I wanted to eat, Mosey's Cantina, Haines AlaskaI jokingly replied Boeuf Bourgoignon; soon after we were eating the best Bourgoignon I had ever tasted great by the side of the road in the desert.”

You could say The Great Outdoors is where the Stewarts are truly at home. Before moving to Haines four years ago, they made their living on the river. They have been river rafting guides running tours in Arizona and most recently Utah where they built a dream house. But when they discovered the wilderness of Alaska and the chance to go hiking, river rafting, bald eagle watching and kayaking in one of the least densely populated areas in the USA they started to spend all their summers there.

With the same fearlessness that Martha negotiates the ever changing rough river currents, Martha has a way of doing the same on land. How to support her love affair with Alaska rivers? She finds a catering wagon and turns it into The The Burrito Wagon. She loads this kitchen on wheels with better commerical Moseys Cantina Haines Alaskaequipment including a state of the art convection oven and she and Thad start serving Burritos outside of Denali National Park 125 south of Fairbanks where all the tourists are. As Martha says: “When you grow up in Arizona eating Tex/Mex, it becomes a way of life; scrambled eggs with chili, in casseroles, as a snack. I knew if we brought Alaskans high quality freshly roasted chili we could make a living during the summer months.” But Martha soon tired of the carnival/ circus type atmosphere surrounding the great 7,000 square mile wilderness preserve. Haines would be the antithesis of that and very shortly she would have the town addicted to red and green roasted chili.

Martha Stewart dresses in yellow bandanas, western shirts and cowboy boots as her everyday clothes. A far cry from the wedding planner/cake decorator starched white shirt variety more popularly associated with the same name. This is the real McCoy Martha, the kind that thinks nothing of transporting 1600 pounds of freshly roasted green chile 3058 miles in her Toyota Tundra on the ultimate road trip.

Cooking ChilliesOnce a year, Martha travels to Gus Wagoners Chili farm, owned and operated by four generations of Wagners since the 1900’s, to Corrales New Mexico for her “chili run.” There are huge bins of tomatoes, melons, peaches, pumpkins, green beans, jalapenos, ristras Big Jim Medium chili, Sandia Regular Hot, Extra Hots, but it is by far the the smell of the chile as it gets roasted in giant roaster drums that is the main attraction. Nine roasters are fired up blistering and charing the raw chile. For Marthas “run” it takes four or five men monitoring the chilis in roasting drums as they snap crackle and pop and know when the are just at the right point to come out.

After four to five hours the hot roasted chilis (1600 pounds) get poured into forty giant plastic bags then loaded onto the back of Marthas truck.


Sweating ChilliesMartha and a friend are helping the chili roaster men swing bag after bag of chili onto the back of her truck. “This year, I need to find some chili peelers,” she says to her friend “I am certain that without the skins I will pay a lot less freight charges on the ferry.”

Tonight the bags of chili will “sweat” in the plastic bags causing the steam to loosen the skins The cool autumn nights now in October work well as their refrigeration.

The day after the roasting, Martha gets up at 6:30 am,.packs the chilis in quart freezer bags and then puts them in ice chests, drives an hour to Rinconada(between Taos and Santa Fe) to start the chili peeling process. A friend who owns a river rafting business in Rinconada will let her set up camp and use her refrigeration hookup if she supplies champagne, beer, tequila, food and some sort of wages for some chili peelers she hopes she can find.

Peeling ChilliesAfter the chiles are peeled, packaged and once again loaded onto the truck, Martha drives 12 hours to Utah. At their home there, they can hook up to a giant freezer where the chili stay until Feb or March. From Utah, she goes to Bellingham, Washington, drives the Toyota onto the ferryboat (as well as her German shepherd Mosey) sails for three days and four nights on the Alaskan Marine Highway then docks in Haines.

When I speak to Martha four months later back in Haines, she was pleased that the chili run went more or less as she had calculated She said that without the peels the chili were 505 pounds lighter which saved her one third of the cost for freight. She also would never have missed the chance to swap river rafting adventure stories with some old friends as they peeled chilis over the course of 4 to 5 days down by the Rio Grande.

Chillies of Alaska Ferry“I kinda have a plan each year of how the chile run is going to go.” Says Martha from her home back in Haines, “but each year it’s different. I just pray that the truck won’t break down.”

One of the last stops for the chiles is on the snow covered ground in front of their restaurant, Moseys Cantina, before Martha does the very final re -packing for her own restaurant freezers.

The first year the restaurant was open, the customers showed up with buckets in October so that they could stash away chile sauce for the winter when the restaurant shuts down. The Smoky roasted Ranchero Sauce, The Oaxaca Mole Sauce, the Chili Red Pepper Onion Sauce, the Lime/Chipotle Sauce and the Tomatillo/Poblano Sauce has to taste even better when the temperatures can reach below freezing.

Martha Stewart on horsebackMartha wants me to see the picture of the mural she had commissioned to have painted on one side of the Burrito wagon that she has since sold. It shows a cowgirl on a horse clutching a rolling pin in one hand and a skillet in the other riding off into the wild blue yonder.

Happy Trails wherever you are!

anina marcus june 2009

Story and photos of this article copyright © 2009 Anina Marcus To contact the author aninamar@prodigy.net
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