This Alaskan town is a crucial stop on the Iditarod—for its pie
Nell Huffman’s blueberry pie (recipe inside) makes the grueling dog-sled trek worth it.
This story originally featured on Saveur.
In the shadow of Alaska’s Kuskokwim Mountains, nestled in a valley along the banks of a winding river, there’s a town called Takotna with a population of a mere 49 hearty souls. Each March, this cozy hamlet doubles its numbers as mushers racing the Iditarod Trail come here for their mandatory 24-hour rest. On a course that traverses just under a thousand brutally cold and snowy miles from Anchorage to Nome, the racers and their dog teams have gone about a third of their journey when they reach Takotna. So what makes this place their stopover of choice? Pies.
“It’s basically our Super Bowl”
Weeks before the competitors set off from Anchorage, the folks here start preparing for what is without question their biggest event of the year. The whole town chips in to help, including the kids, who end up developing their baking chops at an early age. The exhausted and hungry mushers are greeted with pastry-based delights of all kinds—apple, cherry, pumpkin, lemon meringue, banana cream—as well as plenty of other stomach-warming, race-fueling fare, cooked around the clock by enthusiastic locals. As local Barney Anselment puts it, “It’s basically our Super Bowl.”
The place has gained a reputation for its dessert-laden hospitality. “The first year I ran the Iditarod, Jeff King, a four-time champion, told me I had to stop in Takotna because they had good steaks—and pie!” says Kristin Bacon, who has participated in the race three times. “How can you turn that down?”
Mushers have long since come to expect the famous pies. One year, a racer even had pecans shipped to the town with a special request that someone prepare his favorite. The physicality of the race dictates that this is a moment for indulgence. As Bacon puts it, “It’s a time in your life when you can pretty much eat whatever you want.”
The town initially garnered popularity as a checkpoint along the course back in the 1970s, when Jan Newton, who had run a restaurant in Idaho, moved to Takotna with her husband. Newton began making meals for the mushers passing through, and her hearty cooking got the racers’ attention. Though she prepared everything from moose steaks to chili, the woman later dubbed “Queen of Takotna” by proud residents became especially renowned for the double-crusted fruit pies, hearty pumpkin pies, and delicate cream pies that she dished up as the weary participants rolled into town.
Today, checkpoint coordinator Nell Huffman, who works at the Takotna Community Association and has been a resident of the town for the last 34 years, has taken up the mantle of pie coordinator and greeter-in-chief. (Newton passed away in 2012.) “We see these people when they come in, and they have no energy left,” she explains. “We just want to help them.” It’s a family affair, with Huffman’s five children pitching in over the years; last year, her adult daughter, Tabatha, helped to care for the dogs outside. Every resident does their part to make the mushers’ stay the best it can possibly be. During the racers’ stopover, the teenagers in the town keep the fire barrels lit where people are gathered. One year, a kid really went above and beyond, helping to track down a racer’s missing false teeth. It’s for good reason that Takotna’s hospitable reputation looms large.
This year’s race is set to begin on March 7th, and the citizens of Takotna will once again be ready. When asked why the town goes to such great lengths to host the Iditarod teams each year—with pies, and so much more—Huffman answers without hesitation:
“From the littlest kid to the oldest resident, we try to include everybody, so it truly brings Takotna together. You know the saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’? Well, it takes a village to host a race.”
Nell Huffman’s Blueberry Pie Recipe
Yield: makes One 9-inch Pie
Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
- Dough for two prepared pie crusts, homemade or store-bought
- 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling the dough
- ½ cup sugar
- ¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
- ¼ tsp. nutmeg
- ¼ tsp. kosher salt
- 6 cups (1 lb. 14 oz.) blueberries (fresh or frozen)
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- 1 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- 1 large egg yolk
- 1 Tbsp. whole milk
- Coarse sanding sugar, for sprinkling (optional)
- Preheat the oven (with one of its racks positioned in the lower third) to 400°F.
- 15 minutes before you plan to roll out the pie dough, remove it from the refrigerator and allow it to soften slightly. Lightly flour a clean work surface and a rolling pin and roll one of the pieces out to an even, ¼-inch thick circle, then carefully lift the dough into a 9-inch aluminum or glass pie plate. Use a sharp knife to trim the edges, leaving 1 inch of overhang all the way around. Set the shell aside while you make the filling.
- To a large bowl, add the flour, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt and stir to combine. Add the blueberries and vanilla and toss well to coat, then transfer the filling to the reserved pie shell, mounding the berries slightly in the center. Dot with the butter and set the pie aside while you roll the top crust.
- Once again, lightly flour your work surface and rolling pin. Roll the second piece of dough out to an even, ¼-inch thick circle, then carefully lift the dough over the pie. Use a sharp knife to trim the edges, leaving about 1½ inches of overhang all the way around, then tuck the edges of the top crust under the edges of the bottom crust. Pinch the edges together decoratively to seal, or crimp them all the way around with the tines of a fork. Use the tip of a paring knife to make 6–8 slits on the surface of the crust to vent. Transfer the pie to the freezer just until the crust is firm, about 15 minutes.
- In a small bowl, beat together the egg yolk and milk. Brush the surface of the chilled pie crust with the egg wash and sprinkle with coarse sanding sugar, if desired. Place the pie on a large, rimmed baking sheet, transfer it to the oven, and bake until the crust is set and just beginning to brown, 20–25 minutes. Drop the temperature to 350°F and continue cooking until the crust is evenly golden brown and the juices are bubbling and thickened, 30–40 more minutes for fresh berries or 60–70 minutes for frozen. (If the edges begin to darken before the filling has thickened, cover them with strips of aluminum foil to finish baking.) Cool to room temperature before cutting into wedges and serving.