Monday, April 28, 2008

Seal Soup, Anyone?

A fabulous article in the Anchorage Daily News ( this morning was titled "Fighting Cancer with Native Foods". In it a physician and former cancer survivor described her desire to eat her Native diet while recovering from a battle with leukemia. The article reminded me of how much I had to learn when beginning my work with elders in Bush Alaska.

Last June I went on a trip to Dillingham, about 500 miles as the proverbial raven flies, due west of Anchorage. My mission was to provide training to staff of the Dillingham Senior Center and the one Assisted Living Home ("Grandma's House) about Alzheimer's disease and related dementias.

There are a lot of things one needs to be aware of when visiting Bush Alaska; clothing choices (fleece and jeans), awareness of time (there is none), and food.

Native Alaskans have lived the subsistence lifestyle for centuries, and the arrival of the White Man did little to squelch this desire. Depending upon the geographic locale, Natives dined on seal, mouse nest roots and herbs, berries, caribou, and the ever-present moose. Grocery store? Not necessary, unless the kids need some Coke and Cheetos (a drawback, according the the elders, of the White Man's influence).

I took Yukon with me to experience Dillingham, mostly because his sense of adventure far outweighs mine, and later on I was eternally grateful for his boundless exuberance towards our hosts. By the time we left, he could have asked them anything and they would have done their best to accommodate him. Why?

Yukon loves food. Not volume, mind you, but the concept. He appreciates the process, the set-up, and the effort involved to prepare a meal, much less one for a bunch of White folks. (Photo of his plate is shown).

My training had unknowlingly been scheduled during two days of a Federal HUD Housing "field trip" consisting of a bunch of mucky-mucks from D.C. inspecting their financial handiwork of the assisted living. The home, in return, put on a genuine Yup'ik potlach. And oh, my, what a meal it was.

After helping the administrator do a bit of spit-shining of the facility (my years of working for an anal-retentive boss in my own facility finally paid off), we sat as guests at a long table fairly groaning with food.

Moose roast, lean as could be, took the main stage next to a huge platter of caribou meatballs. Beach greens made the color contrast (beach greens taste like turnip greens, and are, yes, picked on the beaches nearby; don't ask me what they are.) Pickled herring, smoked salmon, barbequed salmon, indian fry bread, Pilot bread (anyone remember that?), wild seagull eggs, scallops, and for dessert, Eskimo Ice Cream.

For those not acquainted with the latter's delicacy, I shall describe it to you, in a way you might recognize. Take an ice cream scoop full of Crisco, add a cup or so of wild berries, and mix. Then eat and try not to gag when the oily mass congeals on the roof of your mouth. And smile, smile, smile. The recipe, if done right, is made with blubber, and is called Akutaq.

The meal was a spectacular event, served with the gentleness of a people who give a new meaning to the word "host". And Yukon did himself proud. He took pictures, raved to the cook, and accepted leftovers with eternal gratitude.

Nothing we ate came from the grocery store, and it was probably one of the best meals we had ever eaten. Check out the article, it is a good read and might give some perspective given the high grocery prices we are all experiencing these days. A word to the wise, however. Do not eat the moose lips. They are only for old men.

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