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
Monday, January 26, 2009