“Homestead Kitchen” was born out of the same kind of connection that started the Kilcher family’s reality television show — a Facebook message to Eivin Kilcher.
“Alaska: The Last Frontier,” the Discovery Channel show that made the Kilchers a family name known in households across the United States, had been on for about three years when a literary agent reached out to Eivin and asked if there was interest in writing a book. Coincidentally, he and his wife Eve had tossed the idea around of writing a cookbook around before, so they pitched it.
For Eve and Eivin, writing about the food they raise and cook is a good fit.
“Eve is one of the best cooks in the family,” Eivin said.
While writing a cookbook seems fitting for someone like Eve, some parts of the process were tedious for her. She does not enjoy being in front of a computer a lot, a task necessary when typing up outlines, stories and recipes for a book.
The vision for the book that became “Homestead Kitchen” was a cookbook with narrative throughout, to make it distinctive from others on the market, Eve said. The finished product has stories about life on their homestead woven in between recipes and broken up into categories that coincide with the origin of ingredients. Sections have names such as “from the garden,” “from the henhouse,” “from the sea,” “from the root cellar” and “from the hunt.”
“Cookbooks need to be divided and we wanted people to think about where food comes from, so we divided it by where the main ingredient is from,” Eve said. “Dividing it that way gives a peek into our lives because this is what we do.”
Eve can be found in the kitchen cooking and baking for the family every day, from fresh bread to hearty soups and much more. In the cookbook, the couple talks about their division of homestead labors.
Eivin builds structures — such as a milking shed — hunts and looks at the big picture of the homestead’s operations. Eve tends to the garden, takes care of their chickens, turkeys, ducks, goats, horses, cows and dogs, cooks and cleans.
In the book, Eve notes that though these jobs fit traditional gender roles, they are by no means limiting. They are simply the jobs each person enjoys and does efficiently. Eve also hunts when she has time, and Eivin helps to harvest and forages. However, with one foraged species, he cannot be trusted to bring home more than he eats.
“I love picking and eating blueberries, but I don’t like putting them into a bucket,” Eivin said. “I like putting them in my mouth.”
Though the first connection was made three years ago, the journey the Kilchers went on before starting the book was lengthy. Not only did they have to pitch the idea to publishers with the help of their agent, but they also had to negotiate a contract with Discovery in order to write the book, Eivin said.
A year and a half later, the Kilchers had a publisher who paid them an advance for the book. About the same time, they also found out that Eve was pregnant with their second child, Sparrow Rose. Though Eve was not thrilled at the prospect of writing a cookbook while expecting, they already had the payment, so they went forward.
Eve’s pregnancy was not the only challenge in the mix. The kitchen pictured on the cover of Homestead Kitchen did not exist yet — the Kilchers were remodeling their kitchen while writing the book as well. Their long-time friend and photographer for “Homestead Kitchen,” Brian Grobleski, took photos of the food on the right side of the kitchen by two bay windows while construction was happening not far to his left.
“When I was shooting the cookbook, nothing was in there. I had an empty floor to myself. There were so many challenges with that because they wanted to do construction so I was getting forced out of my little corner,” Grobleski said. “Like with low light, long exposures are necessary. Findley would run around, shaking the floor. There’d be vibrating from tools. There were some challenges. I took four to six months to shoot it. I worked very slow, very deliberately, methodically.”
Grobleski shot all the photos in the cookbook using natural light coming in from the windows in the Kilcher’s kitchen, instead of a studio set-up. Grobleski used the light by regulating the amount that came in the windows, sometimes shooting all day to get the perfect photo.
“No flash, no lights. Just a little bit of duct tape and cardboard,” Grobleski said. “There’s beautiful light in Alaska; depending on the time of year you have the opportunity to work longer hours. There were days when I could shoot up to nine at night and still get decent available light. I think light it important for photography, but for food it’s definitely important to give ingredients their due by bringing out the color, texture, their curves, their natural characteristics. … So to start with, a beautiful product creates a beautiful image more than light, and then if you give it light, good light, the photo makes itself.”
Grobleski is a friend of the Kilchers who came to the homestead as a World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms worker one summer when Eve sold her produce commercially, which she no longer does as filming the show in the summer and producing for the household keeps her busy enough. The friendship grew from there and Grobleski returned to Homer to work on the homestead and help with their children. He also was the chef at Emily Garrity’s farm-to-table dinner in 2014.
Grobleski graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He’s worked in New York, Chicago and Dallas, but felt burnt out on the restaurant chef life where he was often stuck in basement kitchens. He came to Alaska to work on a farm and get closer to the food he cooks.
Now, he is working to pursue food and nature through photography, aiming to work with publications like National Geographic.
When their publisher asked if they had anyone in mind to take photos, the Kilchers said they wanted Grobleski, Eivin said. They trusted him in their home and they loved his photography. Though the publisher initially insisted it would be better to have a more experienced food photographer shoot photos for the book, once the Kilchers sent samples of Grobleski’s photos, the publisher agreed.
“I had complete faith he would do a good job. We’re very, very happy,” Eivin said.
“Homestead Kitchen” is the first cookbook Grobleski took photos for, and while it was nervewracking at first, he is pleased with how it turned out.
“There’s something really rewarding when you get a shot and you sit back and look at it and it looks really good,” Grobleski said. “Or I love having my hands in the earth and the connection to the food so (there is) pride that you get in taking a picture, looking at a picture, and saying ‘I planted those seeds. I pulled them from the ground, I gave them purpose.’ When you take something, it’s like taking the life of an animal. Someone who cares put work to give that thing value and purpose. And then to get an image and get a response from the community that it’s beautiful, that’s kind of my favorite part.”
Eve and Eivin’s home is about 40 feet off the Kilcher homestead and looks out onto the bay. Eivin remembers visiting the property as a child when his father Otto Kilcher bought it and remarking that there was no view. All he could see was tall trees. As time and spruce beetles changed the landscape, the property ended up with a remarkable view. In the cookbook, Eivin writes that the last conversation he had with his grandfather Yule Kilcher was about how the landscape of the forest had changed since he built the homestead.
Over the years they have lived on their homestead, Eivin and Eve have transformed a small, dry cabin without power into a large home with cellars to store their harvest and a kitchen to cook it in. With their first cookbook and a newly completed kitchen, they look forward to more years of the life described and pictured in Homestead Kitchen. The prospect of a second cookbook, however, is still uncertain.
“Maybe, we’ll see,” Eve said.
“We joke about it,” Eivin said. “At first she said no way, but then she’ll be like this would be a good recipe to put in another book.”
Anna Frost can be reached at email@example.com.