Monday, January 26, 2009

Alaskan Food: Straight from the Whale's Mouth

Dear Michelle,

I have just started to have an interest in Alaska. I found your blog yesterday and have been trying to read the whole blog to catch up.
I do have some questions. One is are you a native of Alaska? Another is about your recipes--why don't you have Alaskan native dishes that might include, moose, caribou or whale? I read another blog yesterday and the guy was traveling to Alaska to take pictures and every time his family ate out they never ate any Alaskan foods.

I'm used to getting all kinds of questions about Alaska: what kind of currency do we use? Do we live in igloos? Do we have polar bears for pets? In fact just a month or so ago I got an email from an Australia television crew who were looking for an Alaskan mother to film and they wanted to know if I cooked seal and drove my children to school in a dog sled. I kid you not. (The answer is no. On both counts).

However, I had fun this past week exchanging emails with the person who wrote the above letter and I'll tell you what I told her about Alaska food.

First, no I'm not a Native Alaskan. Native with a capital "N" that is. Native Alaskans are those who belong to one of several tribes of people around the state including the Athabascans, Aleuts, Haida, Alutiqs, Yupiks, Inupiats, Inuits, Tlingits, etc. I could write posts about these cultures and how they have shaped Alaska's history, they're unique and fascinating, and maybe I will down the road but for now all you need to know is that Alaska Natives are those people who claim ethnic origins with one of these tribes.

I am considered a native Alaskan (lowercase "n"), having been born and raised here. My grandparents moved to Anchorage in 1949 when Anchorage was little more than a tent city and most of my family still lives here which is a little unusual. Most non-Native people in Alaska came up following the oil market that boomed in the 70s and are transplants from other states.

Now it's very common for people all over the state, including Anchorage residents, to hunt and fish. We personally have lots of friends who go hunting for moose and bear or fishing for salmon and halibut to stock their freezers for the winter, that's not unusual at all. Moose is probably the most popular meat next to salmon but people also regularly eat bear and caribou (reindeer are the domesticated version of the species).

I don't care much for moose myself (though I'm not a big meat eater anyway) but I do like caribou well enough. In fact there's a guy who has a hot dog cart in down town Anchorage who sells reindeer hot dogs with onions that he caramelizes in Coke and they are TO DIE FOR. He's so popular that plenty of competing carts have sprung up over the years and I read in the paper that he sells enough reindeer dogs (an oxymoron if ever there was one) to spend his winters in Hawaii. That's the life.

Our family eats lots of salmon and halibut because it's plentiful and I've met others who own shrimp pots or go crabbing though that's a bit more unusual. I've know people who swear bear and musk ox are good to eat, (apparently musk ox is very lean and red) though I haven't had a chance to try it.

However, once you leave Alaska's cities (some would call them towns, Anchorage is by far the biggest with only 300,000) the people in rural communities are predominantly Alaskan Natives and live a subsistence lifestyle which means that they hunt and fish for food to survive. Caribou, walrus, seal, salmon, whale--these things are still hunted and eaten regularly by Native people all over the state as part of their tradition and livelihood.

We less-hardy city folk? Well we don't typically have whale on the menu. Native cuisine consists of mostly meats and berries because very little actually grows on the harsh tundra that covers much of the state. Vegetables, spices and herbs aren't easy to come by so if you want to talk about authentic Alaskan cuisine you're really talking about meat, fish and berries with very little else except maybe a little cow parsnip thrown in for variety.

Maybe you've heard of "fish ice cream" which is the modern nickname for a dish of caribou suet mixed with flaked fish and berries. If caribou isn't in season then modern mixes might use straight Crisco but fish ice cream isn't something you're going to find easily here in town, being an acquired taste and an ethnic tradition rather than something you'd find between a bun at McDonald's.

My husband works for a company owned entirely by Native Alaskans and last Christmas in much the same way you'd expect people at your office to bring in plates of fudge or cookies some of the women he works with brought in muk tuk and mikiaq (mi'-kee-ack).

Muk tuk is raw whale blubber which is commonly served after a whale hunt (a community event filled with tradition and ceremony) and mikiaq is raw whale blubber that has been left to soak and ferment in the whale's blood.

If you don't know my husband I should mention here that he's what you'd probably call a picky eater. Tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, pickles, olives, guacamole, sour cream, cherries, the list of things he won't eat tends to be rather long so for him to walk into the office Christmas party and be faced with raw whale blubber would really be a Kodak moment.

Luckily the people he works with are very kind and understanding so they weren't offended when he politely refused a chance for some of the mikiaq. In fact one of his coworkers confessed that though he loves the stuff he can only eat a small amount at a time because it bothers his stomach and makes him quite sick.

One has to wonder how mikiaq became popular with a review like that but then I suppose it's no different from when I lived in North Dakota and all the Norwegians cooked up the lutefisk each Christmas. Lutefisk is cod cured in lye--you know, the stuff that can kill you? So I guess each culture has its delicacies that are an acquired taste.

So to finish my story Andrew's coworkers were kind enough to accept his reluctance to sample the muk tuk and mikiaq though I don't know that they understood completely. One woman confessed that at her house when they make mikiaq her children fight over which one of them gets to do the daily stirring of the whale blubber as it sits in the bucket of blood, fermenting. They each want to be the one to stick their arm into the bucket and stir so that they can lick the juice and blood from their skin afterward.

All I can say is that Andrew was very grateful for their graciousness as he went for a plate of fudge instead.

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Technorati tags: Alaska, travel food

53 comments:

Robin said...

Oh man, I'm with Andrew on this one. I don't even like fish (except salmon and canned tuna fish) - whale blubber fermented in blood would send me right over the edge!

Pass the fudge please. I'll gladly donate my portion of the blubber to those who'd appreciate it.

illahee said...

oh wow, i think that's a delicacy that i could pass on. and i thought the japanese had some pretty nasty...uh, i mean culturally traditional...foods!

The Source said...

Ugh...poor Andrew! Fermented whale blubber. I can't even imagine what that smells like! I guess Alaskans wouldn't blink at the squirrel stews, robins and eel that my husband's family eats.

Sage said...

Oh boy, Andrew has my vote... there are few things I wouldn't want to try and if you didn't tell me what it was I might unless it stank to high heaven when I would refuse...

Have you ever tried the local delicacy of uk tuk and mikiaq?

Jennifer said...

You should have put a warning at the front of this post to not read while eating or pregnant!

Edi said...

Something involving raw meat and or blood- I couldn't do it. Sushi perhaps if I knew it was prepared properly - but I'm even a bit scared to try that. I've always had a fear of undercooked meat even - so intentionally eating raw meat - not something I could do.

I've noticed that as I've gotten older I've appreciated more the traditional foods I grew up with...nothing like whale blubber - my family is Ukrainian/Polish. The other day I was cooking some traditional-ish food and I thought how the smell of my house reminded me of my grandmother's.

Erica said...

Fascinating, you should definitely write the articles on Native Alaskans, I love hearing about other cultures.

Chas said...

I must confess, raw whale blubber would be the best diet food imaginable for me. I'd never eat,and therefore would lose weight like there's no tomorrow.

My mother makes ox tail soup occasionally, and fortunately she still loves me even when I turn that down. I never thought of myself as a picky eater, but I guess I'm a bit pickier than I thought.

Melissa said...

That was a really interesting post! (Not that your others aren't, but it's fun to have a peek into cultures I haven't been around before.) Thanks for sharing about life in Alaskan cities and some of the Native Alaskan cultures, too.

Pencil Writer said...

I'm trying to decide if it was good to eat my simple breakfast of peach yougurt before reading this insight into some of the fine dining of Alaskan Native culture.

(Don't get in my way to the bathroom, if you value your . . . 'scuse me!)

Kara said...

With those reviews, I can't imagine why you don't eat the local cuisine! ;-) I don't think you have to be a picky eater like Andrew to not indulge in whale blubber.

Michemily said...

Wow! All of that sounds so exciting. I hope I get the chance to try some of those delicacies some day . . . ;)

shaz said...

wow, very fascinating, thanks for posting this. altho i would prolly be grossed out if i saw this stuff in person, it really just seems like a delicacy of a different culture. fascinating.

fruitfulwords said...

Interesting review on Alaskan foods.

When I lived in Anchorage (1st grade) I had some blubber candy. I rememeber liking it. Although now I can't imagine that being the case. Maybe it was a case of selective memory.

So I'm with most everypne else, pass the fudge.

fruitfulwords said...

On second thought, maybe they just told me it was "candy."

Headless Mom said...

Um, eew? But fascinating!

Daisy said...

I'm still laughing at the lutefisk reference! My Norwegian ancestors made it at Christmas. Those who married into the family ate meatballs instead. Garrison Keillor wasn't making that up when he put lutefisk into his Lake Wobegon stories.

Motherboard said...

I was reading along in a dreamy state, fantasizing about Alaska
when I read "They each want to be the one to stick their arm into the bucket and stir so that they can lick the juice and blood from their skin afterward."

And then I sort of threw up in my mouth.

My son is praying he goes to Alaska on his Mission.(in 9 more years...) I hope he does so I can come visit your beautiful state!

melinda said...

what i am wondering..do they still sell moose poop sculptures? my sister still has hers, from eons ago.

Annette Lyon said...

Well that just totally blew my image of you. I had glorious visions of your dog sled and seal cooking. LOL!

Jenna Consolo said...

HOLY YUCK.

But give me that salmon or halibut any day. We ate it twice a day every day while we were there.

Chris said...

Aw, now I'm so disappointed. I thought you lived in an igloo ;)

I don't think I could do whale blubber, though I am curious: it's a mammal but it lives in the ocean, is it fishy? Or does it taste like cow, pork, chicken? (That's a legitimate question, I swear!)

Around here some older people eat cod tongue. No thanks.

Heather said...

Ugh that turned my stomach a little!

Lucrecia said...

This made me laugh! When I lived in Alaska - on a little island (Sitka) I was always asked by people back home "how far above sea level are you?"

Beck said...

You know, I always thought that Alaska and Northern Ontario wouldn't be too far apart, lifestyle-wise, but that whale story? ICK!

Jenn said...

FUDGE for me please!

This was a gripping post. I loved all the history. I would like to read more if you ever decide to post more of it!

Alice Wills Gold said...

I don't know if I told you but we lived in Tatitlek for a summer. A small village close to Valdez.

We LOVED LOVED LOVED Salmon berries...I would give anything to be able to buy those in the grocery store. :)

cndymkr / jean said...

I think Andrew was very brave and polite. I would have gagged and left. Sorry. I've often wondered if you ate the various foods mentioned but I was afraid to ask. I'm glad you cleared this up and now I'm going to eat some chocolate to calm my stomach. Sorry again.

Mom24 said...

So interesting, but oh so gross. I'm sorry, I know I'm showing my ignorance, but that visual of those children is going to stay with me for quite a while.

Karen Olson said...

I think you should say that you take your kids to school in a dog sled. A silly answer to a stupid question.

And I never hear anyone invoke the name of lutefisk...it is the Christmas tradition of my people and has the most awful, Jello consistency that would make the native Alaskan food look good.

Holly Crosley said...

WOW! I am so not a picky eater and I don't think I could even give that a whirl. My husband, much like yours, would not even know a polite way to turn that down.

Heather said...

I consider myself to be fairly adverturous when it comes to eating wild game, but I'd pass, too.
As I am always looking for the silver lining, I'm saving this post in my favorites to help with my diet. I have absolutely no appetite after reading about anything fermenting in whale blood. :o)

Steph at The Red Clay Diaries said...

I told my 11yo son about the stirring the whale blubber thing. After we both stopped our involuntary shuddering, we agreed that we were glad that even though my hub cooks some "interesting" cuisine, he's never made us lick whale blood off our skin.

Then we decided we need to share this with/gross out his sisters too.

Bobbie in AK said...

Born and raised here, I remember growing up only eating moose and fish. When we did have beef it was pretty rare.

In conversation with my knitting teacher a few weeks back I told her I would gladly give up beef and pork, but would never give up moose.

My Diary said...

Interesting stuff. I was born in Anchorage Alaska but moved before I was 1. I wonder if that makes me a native with a n.

Kathryn said...

I'd have to say that my personal favorite "Alaskan" food is Caribou! I am so glad for the Road Kill program. I was very suprised when I was in the Midwest last summer that people don't eat the deer that get killed on the road! That meat could have fed LOTS of homeless people.

I think I would try muk tuk if I ever got the chance but I will never try mikiaq(mostly because of the blood). I can barely watch my husband eat his rare steak! I did try his steak once though and it wasn't to bad so you never know.

Robyn said...

Wow -- I thought only we New Mexicans had to answer questions like whether we need a passport to go to other states. We also have our own cuisine, in a way, but it does not include things such as raw blubber, thank God!

3 Bay B Chicks said...

Really? You don't live in an igloo and use the Euro? Interesting. :)

Have you ever considered just making up a few stories about your life in Alaska? Example: Yes, I do live in an igloo and if my kids want to sleep on their bed of ice at night, then they must go out and hunt and fish for our dinner.

People are funny. Sometimes I just can't resist the temptation to say something completely ridiculous in response to the questions we receive.

-Francesca

luckyzmom said...

Thank you so much. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I had an Uncle (Orval Thurman) who moved to Alaska around the time your grandparents did. My stepdad worked there on salmon ships, my brother worked there for awhile fixing snowmobiles, one of my dear friends husbands works there now, flying home once a month or so and on and on. Oh, and my dearest friend's husband and his brother were in Alaska for a chartered fishing trip when I visited her in Virginia in July. All speak of how beautiful it is there.

When we lived in Germany we were traditionally served lard with our bread in restuarants. So,I wasn't disturbed by the whale blubber. But, I wouldn't touch the other.

I have posted a meme.

Flea said...

Oh. Oh ew. Michelle, that's ... oh. I'm a huge fan of crawfish, but it's cooked. Cooked. Ew. I think I hear a stomach bug calling. Excuse me ...

Kathy G said...

Thanks for all the information.

Becky said...

I just finished reading a book set in Alaska to my kids. It's called The Year of Miss Agnes and was very informative about the culture of Native Alaskans. When I was in Alaska, I spent most of my time with those implanted oil boomers you mentioned. Fairbanks, Healy, Anchorage, Soldatna, Seward, Homer. That's the bit of Alaska I've seen. Not a big bit. But gorgeous and unforgettable.

Becky said...

Also, your description of the whale blubber does sound a bit daunting, but now that I think about it, when I was in The Philippines, my favorite dish there was a raw fermented fish dish. In fact, it's the only fish I've ever liked. So...now I'm curious to try mikiaq.

Miche said...

Wow, that is such awesome information on your home! Bill and I would LOVE to go on a cruise up there for our 5th anniversary this summer.

jan in nagasaki said...

my kids school lunch yesterday was spicy fried whale (like fried chicken, only whale...)

I grew up in alaska and i bet the meat in the freezer was moose (or bear?) but I never knew... I bet my mom didn't tell us....

we had a dog sled......

we pulled it behind our snowmobile and rode all over....our subdivision wasn't completely developed yet and we had lots of run-around space.!!! I think Anchorage was a great place to grow up!!

Ni Yachen said...

Andew is lucky. In all the time I spend in Bush Alaska I have never had a chance to eat those types of foods.

The Dunns said...

You know, Anchorage is really a suburb of Seattle. So, I guess a "native" restaurant would be Starbucks. ha-ha!

That e-mail made me chuckle. I guess Alaska probably does seem exotic, like Hawaii or Siberia or something. But after living here and realizing how "normal" the big cities are, it would be like me going to Portland and asking where the native Oregon restaurants are. :)

Jen at Semantically driven said...

I'm very embarrassed to be an Australian having read this. Even I know more about Alaskans than to assume you all live in igloos, and this was before I started reading your blog. They can't have read your blog properly ey?

MoziEsmé said...

Fudge definitely sounds much better...

All Rileyed Up said...

That sounds like an interesting food. I'm actually kind of speechless at the thought of it. It kind of reminds me of when I was in third grade and was in the Philippines and learned what balut was.

Organizing Mommy said...

Totally hilarious!! I think I'd rather ralph than eat the mukluk and all.

Anonymous said...

Great topic. I hate I just got back in town. But at least I did catch the blog. Thanks again. I enjoyed it. I'm with Andrew all the way. AnitaFoxx

Steve said...

I run a hot dog cart in Saint Louis and I got a kick out of the reindeer hot dog guy. I wonder how they would sell down here...

Great blog. I bookmarked you in the socials and linked to you from my blog Hot Dog Cart
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