When 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, I jokingly replied Boeuf Bourgouignon; soon after we were eating the best Bourgoignon I had ever tasted 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 in Utah where they built a dream house. But when they discovered the wilderness of Alaska, 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.
Martha acts with the same fearlessness on land as she does when on the rivers negotiating the wild currents of Alaska. How to make a living in this great state?
She finds a catering wagon; turns it into a Burrito Wagon, loads it with commercial equipment before you know it, she and her husband are in a booming business selling gourmet burritos outside of Denali National Park 125 miles outh of Fairbanks where all the tourists hang out.
“I knew if we brought Alaskans high quality freshly roasted chili we could make a living during the summer months.” says Martha. The carnival/ circus -type atmosphere surrounding the great 7,000 square mile was definitely not her style. Haines would be the antithesis of that and soon she would have the entire 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.
Once 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 annual “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. It takes four or five men monitoring the chilis as they snap, crackle and pop.. After four to five hours the hot roasted chilis (1600 pounds) get poured into 40 giant plastic bags and then loaded onto the back of MarthasToyota Tundra.
Martha 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 chile will “sweat” in the plastic bags causing the steam to loosen the skins The cool autumn nights are natural refrigeration.
The next day, 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 setup 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.
After the chiles are peeled, packaged re- loaded onto the truck, Martha drives 12 hours to Utah. At their home, they can hook up to a giant freezer where the chilis stay until Feb or March. From Utah, next stop is Bellingham, Washington. She drives the Toyota onto the ferryboat along with her german shepherd Mosey and sails for three days and four nights on the Alaskan Marine Highway then docks in Haines.
When I speak to Martha 4 months later back in Haines, she was pleased that the chili run went more or less as she had calculated. Without the peels, the chili were 505 pounds lighter which saved one third of the cost for freight; but, more importantly,She could spend time swapping river rafting stories with some old friends while peeking chilis down by the Rio Grande.
“I kind of have a plan each year of how the chile run is going to go.”says Martha from her home back in Alaska, “but each year its 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 the very final re -packing their 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. A definite insurance against the Alaska winters. The Smoky roasted Ranchero Sauce, The Oaxaca Mole Sauce, the Chile 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.
The picture painted on their original Burrito Wagon (long since sold) 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 winter 2008 ([email protected])