I Am the WalrusWhen you study Alaska Native foods for a living, you have to be prepared to try anything once
It was March, cold and snowy. A funeral feast was under way in a Yup’ik Eskimo village, 400 air miles from the nearest city, and I, despite never having met the deceased, was invited. I entered the family home, eyeglasses fogging up immediately, my puffy coat making me bounce like a beach ball off the 30 or so people gathered in the small living room. Children crawled between legs; adults passed plates of food overhead, and elders were respectfully seated at the only table, a folding Formica affair from the 1960s. I was ushered toward the kitchen counters. Every available surface was covered with Pyrex, aluminum, and plastic bowls full of food. Just the typical comfort foods that you’d find at a Midwestern church picnic: wild rhubarb in seal oil, air-dried whole tomcod, smoked salmon strips, baked Canada geese, moose meat soup, salmon soup, blueberry agutuk, sourdock, herring eggs in kelp—that sort of thing.
Plate in hand, I advanced eagerly toward the buffet, only to stop abruptly at a tray laden with . . . what? Anthropology and nutrition classes hadn’t prepared me for these. They were dark brown and about the size of my hands, to which they were remarkably similar in structure, with glistening, articulated digits. The smell was of the sea yet profoundly mammalian.
“Are those, um, flippers?” I inquired oh-so-casually of the person next to me.
“Yup,” he said laconically. (Friendly folk, just not very talkative. I remember one afternoon in a village watching a guy and his two sons struggle to put their snowmobiles up on the roof of a shed for the summer. “Pretty heavy?” I asked. “Yup,” the man said, sweat dripping off his nose.)
“Um, like, what kind of flippers?” I ventured.
“Ahh. Walrus.” Gamely I picked up the barbeque fork and speared me some walrus flipper. Damned if I had a clue how to eat the thing, but I was determined to try.
In my work as a research nutritionist focusing on cancer and chronic diseases, I’ve had the honor of sampling Alaska Native dishes all over the state. Alaska contains many food climes, from the deer, salmon, and shellfish of the Panhandle, Aleutian chain, and southeast, to moose and caribou in the interior, to the more esoteric wild resources of the north, including bowhead whale, seal species, and walrus. In all areas, wild berries and fish are central to the diet. Yup’ik Eskimos—related to the Inuit in Canada and Greenland and the Inupiat people in northern Alaska—inhabit the western part of the state. Funeral feasts like this one help them keep their traditions alive.
I found a place for myself on the floor near the woodstove and dug in. Wild rhubarb and sourdock taste much more astringent than spinach, and cook down to what can only be described as a pudding. A green, leafy, mucilaginous pudding. Tomcod is a kind of whitefish, and when air dried and shredded, it has almost no flavor. But all the better to dip in seal oil.
Seal oil is one of those foods like bleu cheese—either you love it or you hate it. From the first taste, you know you are eating a fat that came from a mammal, one that eats sea creatures and isn’t too proud to let the fishy flavor shine through. I have tried to love seal oil and failed.
Moose soup in these parts contains noodles and white rice and maybe some potato, which renders it a thick and filling pottage, with chunks of moose throughout. Moose is not particularly gamy, and is much leaner than beef, so you end up chewing for a while, which is problematic when you are being asked how many children you have, why you are there, where you are from, how you like the village, if you have seen an ice road before, if you like traveling . . . Next time I’ll stick to the salmon.
Then I tried a Canada goose drumstick—absolutely delicious, though smaller than a chicken’s—and some herring eggs attached to kelp, pale yellow against dark green. Each egg was too small to be truly crunchy, but as I chewed the slightly rubbery mass, the sum of them together released juice full of sea salt and good flavor.
Wild foods like these don’t just taste good. They are good for communities—the act of acquiring and sharing wild foods brings people together. They are good for the pocketbook, especially here in rural Alaska, where a small DiGiorno frozen cheese pizza can go for $12 to $16. Wild foods are also better for you, as they are higher in healthy fats (like omega-3 fatty acids), vitamins A and C, and minerals such as iron, zinc, and calcium. Moose meat contains six times as much iron as pork does, and is lower in saturated fat. Finally, subsistence hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering provides a physical workout, which, along with traditional foods, may decrease the incidence of chronic diseases.
But the old ways are fading. The diet of most Alaska Natives is becoming more and more akin to that of other Americans, with a corresponding rise in heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Agutuk (ah-GOO-tuck), or Eskimo ice cream, embodies the contradictions in modern Alaska Native food use. Agutuk is traditionally made with berries and fat—seal oil, bear grease, or caribou fat. The berries can be some combination of wild blueberries, salmonberries (red, yellow, and orange berries with lots of seeds like a raspberry, but a mild, sweet flavor), and crowberries (similar to blackberries, but smaller and having a dry, pinot-noirish flavor). Some recipes include shredded dried fish. The more modern versions use vegetable shortening in place of wild-animal fat, as well as add sugar and, sometimes, instant potato flakes. The resulting foodstuff is much less nutritious, but it is consumed in quantity and is still considered “traditional.”
At the funeral feast, Yup’ik delicacies competed with foods from the local store: white bread with margarine, cake with frosting, Pilot crackers, canned corn, Pepsi, and coffee. As I sat cross-legged on the floor, I could see how food preferences differed from old to young. Elders sat smacking their lips over the salmon strips dipped in seal oil; the kids stuck to moose soup and cake. Everyone, young and old, drank soda pop. A colleague of mine once saw a plane land at a village in bad weather, when no other aircraft were flying. The pilot unloaded the cargo of food goods he had risked his life to deliver: cases and cases of pop.
Many explanations for these dietary changes have been advanced. Some people point to the attractive taste of sweetened and fatty processed foods. Like the ad says, you can’t eat just one, even if you live 200 miles from a paved road. Others blame a decline in the availability of wild game and fish. Regulation has imposed tougher limits on subsistence use, and climate changes are causing animals to migrate to different areas or to produce fewer offspring. It is a complex issue, and one without easy answers.
None of which is on my mind as I face the last item on my now sodden and collapsing paper plate: the walrus flipper. I have absolutely no idea how to approach this object, which is starting to seem less like food and more like a wall decoration, or maybe a dog toy. Do I try to cut off a joint, bite into the meaty palm, or suck on the edges as with a buffalo wing? I briefly consider putting it back, but, no, people are looking, first at me, then at the flipper, then at me again. It is time.
I take my fork and knife and cut a small piece off one inky brown knuckle. I bite in and chew, grateful to live in a place where I still get to have this kind of disconcerting experience, pushing me beyond my comfort zone and into the edges of unfamiliarity and panic. We are what we eat, and right now I am partly made up of a creature of blubber and cold oceans, facing the dangers of polar bears and rivals. For a moment, propelled by my muscular flippers, I can swim with the best of them.
In her work as a nutrition research specialist with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, DIANA REDWOOD, N04, often finds the unexpected on her dinner plate. She grew up in Palmer, Alaska, and earned an M.P.H. and an M.S. in nutrition from Tufts. When she’s not sampling local delicacies, she’s engaged in another Alaskan pursuit, ice climbing.