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In Alaska, Sesame Chicken With a Side of Perspective

Health Correspondent Betty Ann Bowser reports in Toksook Bay, Alaska.

Somehow sesame chicken is never going to be quite the same … and it’s all because of Alaska. Trust me.

Our health unit recently went there to do a couple of stories, not on the health effects of Chinese food, but on access to dental care in the United States.

Now, I was no neophyte who didn’t know her way around a goose down coat. I had been to “The Last Frontier” before. In fact, I’ve been there twice.

And like everybody else who gets a chance to explore this incredible piece of American real estate, I had been knocked out by its beauty. The minute you step off the plane in Anchorage and look around, your eyes are immediately drawn to the snow-capped mountains that surround a crescent of the city. They’re impressive. And this is from someone who lives in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado!

Travel just an hour or so outside of Anchorage and on a lucky day you can find all kinds of wildlife most of us have only seen on the National Geographic Channel or at the zoo: brown bears, American eagles, big black ravens, hawks, and bright red salmon swimming upstream in the rivers in late summer.

People who live in Alaska (at least the ones I’ve met) are something else, too. On this last trip we met a hypnotherapist who tried to convince me that if she could put me under, it would solve all my problems. Then there was the 73-year-old semi-retired cardiologist who builds boats. I’m not talking little row boats here. I mean big boats, made out of metal. He sailed one of them with his wife from Alaska to Seattle in open water. I’m getting seasick just thinking about it.

The folks up there almost always talk about Alaska as the last great American Frontier and enthusiastically embrace the live-and-let-live attitude that so many people who migrated there treasure. But what gets left out a lot is the price people pay for all this beauty, diversity and freedom.

I’m a pretty well-traveled correspondent. Been to every state in the country. I can name all the five-star McDonald’s restaurants from coast to coast and have lost count of the sleepless nights I’ve spent (and it wasn’t in Seattle) staying at some minus-star place with a name like “The Dew Drop Inn.”

But until recently I had NEVER paid $4 for a bottle of water. Or had the great Sesame Chicken encounter.

Believe it or not it can cost $4 in an ordinary restaurant for a bottle of water in Alaska … and the further you get from Anchorage or any semblance of civilization, the higher prices go for EVERYTHING (I do hope my NewsHour accountant is listening).

In a remote Native American village called Toksook Bay, I saw a price sticker on a plastic container of Coffeemate that read $7.35. In that same village a gallon of gas was almost $8 … and no one seemed too bothered by that. It was just an accepted part of life.

Alaska has no sales tax and is one of only two states with no income tax. But a small apartment in Anchorage can easily rent for over $1,000 and a condominium can sell for a quarter of a million dollars and not be anything to write home about. Go figure.

I kept asking people why everything costs so much.

It became apparent pretty quickly. Almost nothing of importance is manufactured in Alaska. There is no statewide road system to move goods and products. There are vast areas of the state where there are towns with no roads in or out. Period. So everything that gets there — whether it’s a can of Coffeemate or a new pick-up truck – has to be brought in, much of it by air. And that’s expensive.

The Alaska Airlines commercial flights are unlike any we’d seen in the lower 48. The planes are configured so that all the space on board forward of the two wings is reserved for freight. Only a back section of the plane is set aside for passengers. Imagine what it costs to bring a refrigerator from Anchorage or Fairbanks to a small town like Bethel, in the state’s far southwest corner, which has exactly seven miles of paved roads. The rest are all made of dirt.

All of that means that people’s lives in small Alaska towns like Bethel are very basic. You don’t see designer jeans. North Face is big, but that’s because the general store in Bethel sells it due to the cold temperatures.

There are only a handful of restaurants in Bethel. I heard a story about Bethel’s new Subway sandwich chain. When it opened, it broke the record for business in the entire chain. Sounds far-fetched, but I believe it. You can’t just go find a sandwich somewhere for lunch.

One night, after a long shooting day that involved chartering 200 miles west to a native Alaskan village, my cameraman, Brian Gill, and I went looking for a place to eat in Bethel. We finally found a take-out/eat-in place that served Chinese food, Italian pasta and steak. We figured Chinese was a safe bet and ordered the sesame chicken.

When dinner came it was one medium-sized plate with a small amount of Sesame Chicken on one side and a huge pile of steamed rice on the other. Each of us had a bottle of water and the bill came to almost $30 each.

Brian did what any sensible person would do. He cleaned his plate.

But I struggled and quit with about half the food still left.

The waitress seemed to be quite distressed with me for not eating all of my food and twice asked me if I was sure I didn’t want anymore. When I said I was through eating a second time she lowered her voice and asked me if I would mind it if she took my leftovers home. And it was clear they weren’t meant for the dog.

“Food is very expensive here,” she said quietly.

No argument from me. A plate of chicken and rice plus a bottle of water for $29.36? Ouch!

All of this took me back to childhood and my mother. She always made me sit at the dinner table until I finished every morsel. As I would sit there trying to get through stewed tomatoes or boiled collard greens I would swear under my breath that when I grew up I would NEVER finish every piece of food on my plate again just because somebody said so.

I was also embarrassed. Here I was complaining about a lack of restaurants and how much money a plate of sesame chicken cost when this young woman was ecstatic to take my leftovers home.

Travel DOES put perspective on things. And I can tell you this. I’m not sure I will ever order sesame chicken again for as long as I live. But if I do, I will clean my plate.

Be sure to catch Betty Ann’s report from Alaska this week on the PBS NewsHour broadcast, where she’ll explore a controversial solution to America’s mounting dental crisis. Follow her on Twitter @bettyannbowser.

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