Cooking in Juneau, smoking in Elfin Cove

Head of legislative lounge works in 2 worlds

Posted: Friday, February 08, 2002

Patti Lewis is a singular personality leading a double life.

Eight months of the year, she lives in one of the most remote locations in Southeast: Elfin Cove, a fishing community on Chichagof Island that has an official population of 32 people and that is accessible only by boat or floatplane. There she operates a smokehouse, F.P. Smokers, the full name of which isn't printable in a family newspaper.

The other four months, Lewis works in the seat of state government. She cooks breakfast, lunch and sometimes dinner for members of the Legislature in the second-floor lounge of the state Capitol. If lawmakers don't take salt in their food, they get it in conversation with her.

Local legend has it that Tlingits would not spend the winter in Elfin Cove because of evil spirits. Some people might take a similar view of the Capitol during session.

Lewis, during a break in food preparation this week, drew her own parallel between the two places. "I don't think this job is much different than the one in Elfin Cove. The job out there, I deal with fishermen and they're full of B.S., too."

The legislative lounge is the inner sanctum of the Capitol, in which even the governor is never seen. Staff can order from the kitchen, but can't eat in the lounge. It's the one common space where lawmakers can be free of public and media scrutiny.

Lewis, 57, the legislative cook since 1991, doesn't discuss politics, although she jokes: "I feel if everybody did the job as good as I do mine, we wouldn't have any special sessions. ...

"I've always said I have the best job in the Capitol building."

She's a long way from her native Eureka, Kan. She and her former husband, Jim Lewis, joined his brother in Seattle in 1963, looking for work and an adventure. A Boeing strike depressed the economy about the time they arrived.

But Jim had a chance meeting in the Seattle harbor with a husband-and-wife fish-packing team from Wrangell who also owned a grocery store in Elfin Cove. Within a couple of days afterward, the Lewises were traveling north through the Inside Passage toward new jobs.

Asked her first impression of Southeast, Patti Lewis said: "Puking. You don't take a dirt farmer on a boat and expect her not to puke. I couldn't believe anything so beautiful could make me puke."

The first summer in Elfin Cove was tough as well, she said. "It rained every day. I came from sunshine country."

A self-described "redneck," Lewis said she quickly met people who hailed from the South Pacific to Scandinavia. "Everybody kept telling me I talked funny."

The Lewises spent a couple of winters in Seattle, but ended up in Elfin Cove permanently when Jim bought a boat. After having two children, they eventually divorced, but both of them have remained there for 20 years since.

"Now you couldn't pry me out of there for nothing," Patti Lewis said. "There are some of us old rednecks who are out there because we want to get away from everything."

Becky Nash of Haines, who co-owns a summer lodge in Elfin Cove, describes Lewis as "a big-hearted, generous, fun-loving but no-nonsense gal."

In Elfin Cove, "Patti tends to stay away from the town's politics," Nash said. "But once in a while they get her hackles up."

A friend who worked for the Legislative Affairs Agency alerted Lewis to the vacancy in the cook position, but she never considered living in Juneau year-round.

Still, she doesn't go home during session because there's no guarantee with unpredictable winter weather that she could return to the Capitol on time. "That wouldn't bother me, but I know there'd be a lot of whining politicians in town."

Her partner, Mike Nelson, a welder who filets fish at her smokehouse, misses her while she's gone, she said. "He says no, but yes, I know he does."

Lewis, who has two assistants at the Capitol lounge, describes the job as very demanding. She comes in about 4-4:30 a.m. daily. Early in the four-month session, she can leave by mid-afternoon, but when dinner is added in April and May she often finishes up at 10 p.m. "Hell," she calls it. "You're on your feet all the time."

Lewis decides the menu. "They don't get what they want. They get what I cook. I tell them it's not Wendy's; it's Patti's."

Tradition has dictated clam chowder on Fridays, and meatloaf is a favorite, she said. "I am not a chef. I am a cook. It's just good old down-home cooking."

The name of one soup of hers is semi-legendary as a reference to a legislator in a sex scandal, Nash said. When people asked what it was, Lewis called it "a little weenie in hot water."

Lewis said her relationships with legislators are good. The depth of feeling became apparent two years ago when legislators and staff rounded up an airplane ticket and pocket money for her so that she could take nine days off during session to see her dying sister in Oklahoma. "My response to them was, 'Oh no, now I've got to be nice to you.' "

Her own state representative, Albert Kookesh of Angoon, said: "Ever since I've been in the Legislature, Patti has been a breath of fresh air in the Capitol building, which desperately needs sunshine once in a while. She is always cheerful and fun to be around. To top it off, she is a great cook."

Lewis estimates she has only one or two legislative sessions left before she stays in Elfin Cove year-round. "I don't think my feet and legs are going to let me (go longer). Old age and greater weight take a toll."

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