For Native Alaskans, Holiday Menu Looks To The Wild | KERA News

For Native Alaskans, Holiday Menu Looks To The Wild

Nov 26, 2014

When Americans sit down to their Thanksgiving meal, most tables will feature traditional fare: turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberries. But should you be looking for a different kind of holiday meal, head for rural Alaska.

That's where Nellie Gamechuck lives, in a village squeezed between tundra and a bend in the river in the southwest part of the state. Ask her what's for dinner on Thanksgiving, and she opens up the deep freeze. "Walrus meat, moose meat," she says. Digging down through the layers, she reaches the dessert level: salmonberries.

And where does all this food come from? "The wilderness," she says.

Native Alaskans depend on the wilderness, in part because grocery store food is so expensive. A big box of saltines can set you back $9. But people also just like their traditional foods.

Julia Apalayak, an 87-year-old "auntie," as her neighbors call her, says in her native Yupik that her favorite holiday treat is dried fish dipped in seal oil. Judy Itumulria, who interprets for her, adds that a typical Thanksgiving meal also includes salmonberry akutaq or agutak — which is salmonberries mixed with Crisco.

That's right: berries mixed with Crisco.

Kelsey Wallace, who is Yupik and works for the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, admits that to nonnatives, that might not sound appealing. "It's delicious, though. It's so good," Wallace says.

The dish, she says, has a long history. "They call it Eskimo ice cream," she says.

Sometimes, different caribou fats are used, she says, but these days, in southwest Alaska, they substitute Crisco. Sometimes sugar is added. She says a big part of the appeal is the frothy texture.

"Some people add potatoes for fluff," she says. "Some people add milk. And the water will mix the sugar with the Crisco, and it'll dissolve the sugar into the Crisco, and then you slowly add the berries," she says.

In a cold-weather climate, you can kind of see the appeal of a sweet treat that's suspended in frothed-up, silky fat. But there are some Yupik delicacies that are less likely to cross the cultural divide.

"We used to eat a lot of ... fermented, salted fish heads that are buried underground for six months," she says.

It's just not something I could eat. But I have to remember that the highlight of our Thanksgiving is cheesy potatoes topped with corn flakes. It's all about the food you grew up with.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

When Americans sit down to their Thanksgiving meal, most tables will feature traditional fare - you know, turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberries. But should you be looking for an offbeat holiday meal, NPR's Martin Kaste suggests you head for rural Alaska.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: One of my favorite things to do when I'm in rural Alaska in the fall is to ask politely for a peek inside people's pantries.

NELLIE GAMECHUCK: This is my dried - dried fish.

KASTE: Oh.

GAMECHUCK: Whitefish.

KASTE: Dried whitefish. It's been hanging there..

GAMECHUCK: Salmon.

KASTE: Salmon...

GAMECHUCK: Yeah, silver salmon.

KASTE: This is Nellie Gamechuck. She lives in a village that's squeezed between the tundra and a bend in the river in Southwest Alaska. She's showing me the salmon that's drying like laundry inside a chicken-wire enclosure. But salmon is everyday food. Ask her what's for dinner on Thanksgiving, and she opens up the deep freeze.

GAMECHUCK: This is - walrus - walrus meat, moose meat.

KASTE: Digging down through the layers, she reaches the dessert level.

GAMECHUCK: Salmon berries are way down there - cranberries.

KASTE: And where did all this food come from?

GAMECHUCK: From wilderness.

KASTE: Native Alaskans depend on the wilderness, in part because grocery store food is so expensive in the Bush. A big box of saltines can set you back nine bucks. But people here also just like their traditional foods. Julia Apalayak is an 87-year-old auntie, as her neighbors call her.

JULIA APALAYAK: (Speaking foreign language).

JUDY ITUMULRIA: Let's see...

KASTE: She's describing her favorite holiday treat, dried fish dipped in seal oil. Judy Itumulria is interpreting for her. She describes the rest of a typical Thanksgiving meal here.

APALAYAK: Moose, salmon berry akutaq or blueberry...

KASTE: You said salmon berry akutaq. I don't understand what akutaq is.

APALAYAK: Akutaq means Eskimo ice cream.

KASTE: Eskimo ice cream?

APALAYAK: Yeah.

KASTE: (Laughter). Will that be part of dinner too?

APALAYAK: Yeah, yeah.

KASTE: And explain what Eskimo ice cream is.

APALAYAK: It's berries.

KASTE: The berries are mixed with what?

APALAYAK: Crisco.

KASTE: That's right. She said berries mixed with Crisco. Kelsey Wallace admits that to non-natives, this may not sound appealing.

KELSEY WALLACE: It's delicious though. It's so good.

KASTE: Wallace is Yupik and works for the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. She says the dish has a long history.

WALLACE: They call it Eskimo ice cream if you can't pronounce akutaq. Traditionally, like, up north, they used to use different caribou fats.

KASTE: These days, in Southwest Alaska, they substitute Crisco. She says a big part of the appeal is the frothy texture.

WALLACE: Some people add potatoes for fluff. Some people add milk. And the water will mix the sugar with the Crisco, and it'll dissolve the sugar into the Crisco. And then, you slowly add the berries. That's basically akutaq.

KASTE: In a cold weather climate, you can kind of see the appeal of a sweet treat that's suspended in frothed-up silky fat. But there's some Yupik delicacies that are less likely to cross the cultural divide.

WALLACE: We used to eat a lot of - we called it sulunaq. They're fermented, salted fish heads that are buried underground for six months.

KASTE: It's just not something I could eat. But I should remember that the highlight of our Thanksgiving is cheesy potatoes topped with cornflakes. So maybe it's all about the food you grew up with. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.