Friday, December 2, 2016

My Dinner Plate Was and Is My Witness

I've traveled from the most Southern part of Alaska to the most Northern 
and my dinner plate was and is my witness.


Food has its own geographical origins. Some are hybrids of many cultures and others are unique to a place - or at least, how it is prepared before being served. I ate smoked and jarred salmon weekly, if not daily, when I lived and worked in Juneau, located in Southeast Alaska: salmon spread, salmon loaf, salmon with deviled eggs and the list goes on. My body was drenched in Omega 3s. My women friends posted on Facebook that they stripped and smoked; salmon humor only Alaskans would truly get. I ate salmon while the ravens danced and cawed hoping I would share. I often did.


Baked Salmon


Jarred salmon and smoked/kippered sockeye salmon

Last year, when I lived in Metlakatla, the most Southern part of Alaska, salmon remained a staple in my pantry and expanded to include salmon jerky and Hawaiian sticks. Met, as they call it, is where I first became a harvester; engaging in a subsistence lifestyle. I foraged for my food and the list of what I brought home from the field and the beach grew: fireweed, beach asparagus, devil's club, abalone, octopus, seaweed and more. 


May, 2016 - Negative tide - harvesting abalone - Metlakatla, Alaska.



Some of the abalone I harvested on an early Spring morning in 2016.
Most of the above was used to make abalone chowder. 
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When I returned to Juneau, having spent a year teaching in Metlakatla, I harvested "popcorn" seaweed from the waters of Slocum Inlet, named after my great-great grandfather. I dried and then dehydrated the seaweed; sustaining my subsistence lifestyle. 


"Popcorn" seaweed from Slocum Inlet.

When I moved to Barrow (now renamed Utqiagvik) in August of 2016, I knew I would be living above the tree line and that my harvesting of plants would cease. Yet, I anticipated eating salmon. I had no thought otherwise. If you lived in Alaska, salmon was somewhere in your house, or so I thought. I was greatly surprised when I was told the waters were too cold and the journey too far for salmon to migrate to the top of the world. Instead, I was introduced to muktuk (whale) / uunaalik (boiled whale), bearded seal and walrus.

Excerpt from my diary dated August 2, 2016                                       Barrow, Alaska

Today, at the community pot luck, I ate a few small pieces of whale or muktuk sprinkled with salt. Parts of it were easy to chew and others were hard like rubber - too dense to chew into pieces - so I swallowed quickly. Twenty minutes or so later, I had this strong smell on my hands. Something had seeped into them like a stain - whale. I had never smelled that scent before, let alone on my body.  I will never forget it, ever. I heard this stated by an elder during our community pot luck, "The ocean is our garden."


The Inupiaq word for whale meat is muktuk. 
The above is boiled whale and is called uunaalik.
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Excerpt from my diary dated August 10th, 2016                             Barrow, Alaska

When I first arrived in Barrow, I ate whale meat which was offered to me by tribal elders. Today, I ate three small pieces of bearded seal. My belly is struggling to understand and digest these new foods so loved by this community. The dried and jarred seal (kept in seal oil) is called "black candy" by locals. Children love it, as many adults do. For me, it was if a seal was swimming in my mouth. The taste was so strong and game-like. I reached for a cake nearby and swiped a narrow strip of frosting from its edge, quickly welcoming it into my anxiously awaiting mouth. 

My senses are laughing at the smells and taste brought into their memory tonight.  A vegetarian embracing subsistence living at the top of the world one bite at a time. 



Dried bearded seal in oil or uqsrug.
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My now favorite subsistence food is pickled muktuk. It is pictured below; pickled with onions, banana peppers and cloves, among other spices. I don't get offered this often, as it is a favorite among many and mostly distributed among families. I am grateful when I find a piece or two on my plate. (In the photo below, there is a strip of smoked salmon on the plate - a gift from Southeast Alaska friends.)

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Gone is the fireweed, beach asparagus, abalone and salmon. Gone are the thimble, salmon and blue berries. Here is the seal, walrus and whale. My plate is my culinary passport. Yet, the scent of whale and the taste of bearded seal testify, too, of my travels thus far. What's next? Maybe caribou or tuttu, as it is called here, or white fish caught in nets down the road. I will write of it all; of its taste and its smell. I will chart my travels around the rim of my plate navigating the palate of this far off place.



Locally made ulus, a traditional Inupiaq tool; an almost 
semi-circular, handcrafted knife used for cutting meat and fish. 



1 comment:

  1. I did not see any entry on eating Walrus.Please add for my sake.
    And dont tell me its red meat. Bear is quite tasty. Tried that?

    ReplyDelete