“Today on Check the Pantry, it’s a battle royale featuring mustard,” Jeff Lockwood’s voice says over the radio. Lockwood’s cooking show, Check the Pantry, which began in 2018 on the local public radio station KBBI, explores food culture one ingredient at a time in Homer, Alaska, and today, he and local food columnist Teri Robl have each made a mustard from scratch that they’re pitting against two commercial mustards. A group of three locals will try each mustard with Lockwood’s homemade sausage, Robl’s homemade egg rolls, and soft pretzels. “All I want is unbiased opinions,” Lockwood says to his judges.
“Well, this one kind of looks like scat,” one judge says. “It’s like a deer ate a bunch of mustard.”
Lockwood, a retired commercial fisherman and former restaurateur, left the continental U.S. for Alaska in 2000, celebrating his 22nd birthday on the ferry to his new home. His interest in food comes from a nomadic early life. “My past is somewhat chaotic,” he says. “I moved here because I literally wanted to live somewhere where I wasn’t ever gonna move again if I could help it, because I moved around so much when I was a kid. I remember very distinctly one day, driving around and saying, ‘I really don’t want to live in a city. What about Alaska?’ because it was as far away as I could get without having to get a visa, basically.”
Homer, in south-central Alaska, has an estimated population of about 5,800. “In Alaska that’s a pretty big town,” Kathleen Gustafson, KBBI’s interim news director, tells me. In fact, Homer is Alaska’s 11th-largest city, perhaps known best as the longtime home of humorist Tom Bodett, who recently came back for a speaking engagement at one of the area’s high-end lodges. Bodett immortalized the town as the fictional End of the Road, a reference to the single highway that leads through the Kenai Peninsula and into Homer. His 1986 story collection is called As Far As You Can Go Without A Passport, the same idea that tantalized Lockwood. “There are still people who live here who remember when there was no road,” Gustafson says. Anchorage is about 220 miles northeast and a world away, leaving Homer to flourish as a hippie town that welcomes creatives along with Alaska’s usual roster of eclectic locals, Alaska Natives — especially members of the Sugpiaq people, around Homer — and tourists.
Alaska is one of the least-populous U.S. states and by far the least densely populated; public radio can be as vital as utilities like gas and electricity. There are more than 200 full-service AM and FM radio stations for 735,000 potential listeners; by comparison, Illinois has 500 for a population 17 times larger. “Public radio in Alaska [is] really important,” Lockwood explains. “It [can be] the only link to the outside world for a lot of people. For three and a half years my wife and I lived across the bay, off the road system, and people who don’t live in Alaska are like, ‘Wow, that’s really remote, how do you live way out there?’ But in Alaska that’s suburban almost.” Gustafson says KBBI has a listenership of about 10,000 between Homer and its outlying residents and townships. “Often there’s no cell service, or even things like cable or satellite dish,” she says. Public radio is ubiquitous, and Check the Pantry reaches almost everyone.
Homer has five full-service stations, including KBBI. Small public radio stations can end up acting as repeaters for national shows, especially well-made programming offered by organizations like NPR and American Public Media. But rights are costly, and federal funding for public broadcasting has been under threat since 2017, presaging cuts to Alaska’s public broadcasting budget by Republican governor Mike Dunleavy in June 2019. When KBBI sought new original programming that could save money, draw private donors, and create stability for the station, Lockwood had an idea.
Check the Pantry began as a one-off cooking episode of a KBBI call-in show. “We do a weekly show where local people call in, and it was a cooking-themed [episode] right around the holidays,” Lockwood says. “I had a couple of people [as guests] who wound up being regulars on Check the Pantry. It was fun and we got a lot of positive feedback.” There had been earlier holiday cooking specials, but Lockwood had the right background and was already a weekend and morning host for KBBI. He decided to start a cooking show that would run in short seasons year-round.
The first episode is about chickpeas, from falafel and hummus to vegan aquafaba meringues. Lockwood introduces frequent guests Robl and Skip Clary, a wine connoisseur from Homer liquor store the Grog Shop. “Each week we pick a different ingredient and say anything we can think of to say about that ingredient,” Lockwood says in his introduction. Robl is from Wisconsin but has lived in Homer for 36 years, and, like Lockwood, Homer is her forever home. Her husband, Mark, is Homer’s chief of police, and they moved up to the Aleutian Islands when he was still in the U.S. Navy. She was guesting on KBBI call-in cooking shows long before Lockwood arrived, and says his research-and-experiment approach to food is welcome. “He’s younger than I am,” Robl says. “I say, ‘Jeff, how do you learn all this?’ and he says, ‘Oh, I just read.’ He’ll say ‘soubise,’ things like that. And I’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s onion sauce.’ Sometimes I get a little intimidated by him because he’s so knowledgeable. And he’ll go, ‘What’s your oil-to-flour ratio, Teri?’” She laughs. “He loves the science of it.”
After chickpeas, the first season covered pork shoulder, cabbage, brown sugar, and apples before concluding with oysters, a favorite of Lockwood’s after his time in both commercial fishing and restaurants. And that episode’s guest, shellfish farmer Weatherly Bates, returned for a Season 3 episode Lockwood is particularly proud of: a trip to Kachemak Bay to talk about mussels. When Lockwood says he and his wife lived “across the bay,” he means Kachemak, the narrow body of water that separates Homer from a floating settlement called Halibut Cove. Only one road leads into Homer, but no roads lead to Halibut Cove, which has fewer than 100 permanent residents and a handful of businesses that cater to tourists. Commuters to Homer like the Bates family make a half-hour crossing on the bay to shop for groceries or go to school, the inconvenience of which is offset by Halibut Cove’s waterfront location, where the Bateses can farm oysters and mussels from their home.
The Bates family moved to Alaska in 2007, bought their farm in 2010, and expanded into mussels in 2013. “They wanted to move to Alaska, they were tired of Maine, so they got a job running this oyster farm in Halibut Cove,” Lockwood says. “They wound up buying it. They moved here when I was living in Halibut Cove, so the first night they were here I made them a pizza.” Lockwood worked on oyster farms near Halibut Cove for his first several summers in Alaska, including the one the Bates family bought.
“We really like working with Jeff,” Weatherly Bates says. “He had his own restaurant and he’s also been a chef at a lot of the local restaurants. We feel like he knows our product so well.” The Bates family visited Homer before deciding to move there and connected with Lockwood then. Having an ally made a big difference later on when they were configuring logistics over the phone from Maine. By the time they moved to Homer, they felt Lockwood was a trusted friend within an unpredictable situation. “So it was a really big, scary move, and the first night we were ever there, Jeff and his wife had us for dinner,” Bates says. She’s hopeful that Lockwood will feature their new cultivar, seaweed, in an upcoming season of the show.
The Bateses and their farm are a unique feature of Homer, but they tap into a local attitude of both making do and capitalizing on Alaska’s local resources. Lockwood’s approach to preparing and cooking mussels on Check the Pantry is similarly pragmatic. The most popular way to eat fresh mussels is from a steamer basket fragrant with white wine and garlic, but leftover mussels are this episode’s ingredient. “After you’ve had your fill of steamed mussels, which takes a while,” Lockwood says in the episode, you can dress them simply and make a salad using other leftovers like roasted vegetables. He makes a dressing with olive oil, lemon, and garlic, then adds anise flavors like fennel and Thai basil. Each step feels doable and informal, but at the end, Lockwood has a dish that sounds like something from a magazine. He’s introduced how to layer flavors and complement the main ingredient without sounding snobby or inaccessible, and that’s by design.
”It’s kind of a joke here in Homer that we get the worst produce,” Lockwood tells me. “The ships all come in and stop in Anchorage first, so all the Anchorage stores get all the really nice stuff, then it goes down the road to the next couple big towns between here and Anchorage, so by the time it gets down here, because we’re at the end of the road, we just get all the leftover crap.” In Homer, confidence in flavor combination can mean the difference between bland, repetitive meals and inventive ones. “It was a very memorable time when I went to the store and there were no onions,” Lockwood says. “They’re, like, the one thing. It’s the base of every cuisine in the whole world. If you don’t have onions, what do you do? Do you just eat oatmeal?”
Robl tells me there are two grocery stores in town. “There’s a Safeway and in the summer they can’t keep it stocked as much as they’d like to because there’s so many tourists,” she says. “And there’s a funky little store — if you take a dollar store and a Whole Foods and a Trader Joe’s and some kind of seedy old neighborhood grocery store 25 years ago and throw it together.”
Later in the episode, Lockwood introduces tiger mussels, a Spanish tapas dish like croquettes fried in mussel shells. “Croquettes are a famous way to use up leftovers,” he says. Tiger mussels use a sauce binder instead of egg and breadcrumbs. He makes a roux and explains that it can become a bechamel or a veloute depending on what liquid you add next: milk for a bechamel, stock for a veloute. I ask if he runs into resistance with more adventurous food ideas. “It’s a tough needle to thread, because there’s a lot of anxiety around food with a lot of people,” Lockwood tells me. “I try to be aware of that, but also, I’m from Louisiana. Food’s what we do.”
“Did he tell you about the controversy with metric?” Gustafson asks. Someone called the station to complain that Lockwood was measuring in weights instead of good old American cups and tablespoons. But overall, she says, “People love it.”
That love is earned because Lockwood wants Check the Pantry to empower home cooks by meeting them exactly where their skills are, not to mention where their rural kitchens may be. “My kitchen at home is tiny. It’s like a 4-by-8-foot kitchen. I don’t really do super-elaborate things, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect anybody else to do it, either,” Lockwood says. “It’s not that I don’t learn — obviously I read stuff that’s, like, serious food-engineering people and I learn a ton from it. Sure, challenge yourself! But I always try not to be like, ‘You have to have all this expensive gear in order to be able to make decent food.’”
Caroline Delbert is a writer, book editor, researcher, avid reader, and an enthusiast of just about everything.
Andrea D’Aquino is an illustrator and author based in New York City.
Edited by Rachel Kreiter