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Know the West

Foods harvested throughout the seasons make up a wintertime meal

An Inupiaq writer describes the fellowship and delight of a Native supper.

Any time I ask Timm, my husband, if he wants nikipiaq for supper, he says yes. On a recent Sunday, the northeast wind blew cold Arctic air against our home, the woodstove crackled steady all day, and I wanted Native food. The entire spread, shared with my Dad and my brother’s family, is a meal made up of fare gathered, plucked or hunted throughout the year, and harvested for nights like this. 

Timm was at the kitchen island, cutting clean the surface of a block of beluga maktak the size of his hand. We saw the motion-sensing light turn on outside. It was Dad showing up for supper, his footsteps crunching loud on the snow on the hollow deck. Our son, Henning, promptly squealed and ran to hide. The door opened. 

 

“Where’s my mon?” Dad said, using his nickname for Henning as he smiled and looked around for him. As fast as he had run to hide, Henning ran out again, laughing, to give his Papa a hug. 

“I put three trout on your deck,” Dad said as he peeled off his jacket. “They’re not real big, but they’re good sized.” On any non-windy, not-too-cold day, Dad drives his snow machine eight or so miles up the Unalakleet River to spend the day jigging for Dolly Varden trout through the ice. 

The light outside turned on again.

“There’s Uncle and Auntie,” I said to Henning.

My brother, Fred Jay, and his wife, Yanni, took off their boots and jackets, then walked into the kitchen carrying a plastic food storage container full of bowhead maktak and a gallon-sized Ziploc bag of dried pink salmon.

In Unalakleet, we aren’t bowhead whale hunters, as the large whales do not migrate through the shallow ocean waters of the Norton Sound. But my brother is adept at trading with acquaintances on St. Lawrence Island, where they have long traditions of hunting the 60-foot whales, and he always seems to have the maktak in his freezer — maktak valued both because of our own inability to harvest the rich food and for its mild flavor. He trades dried pink salmon for the prize. 

“They’re not real big, but they’re good sized.”

Our table was set with two ulus, several small bowls and saucers for seal oil, and five deconstructed cracker and cereal boxes, which would serve simultaneously as cutting boards and oil-soaking plates. Timm and Fred Jay picked up the ulus to cut the three Dollies from the porch into bite-sized pieces. We loaded our cardboard plates with dried fish, dried ugruk meat, bowhead maktak, carrots, boiled potatoes we’d harvested from our garden last fall, quaq, or frozen fish, and other picked-from-the-land-and-water delights. 

“Ooh, popped eggs,” Fred Jay said when he noticed the large bowl full of butter-yellow steamed eggs we’d taken from herring bellies last spring. The herring had arrived back in May, after the ice was gone. Just like every spring, we’d boated 18 miles down the coast, to the black, volcanic-rock shores of Shorty Cove, to harvest the eggs they’d laid on kelp. But the herring hadn’t yet spawned. The silvery fish were stacked on top of one another, three feet out from the edge of the beach, the females eager to release their eggs and the males their milt. 

So we picnicked in the warm sunshine, then collected their eggs a different way. My cousin Allen scooped his dip net, usually used for silver salmon fishing, into the cold ocean water and piled herring into a small, gray fishing tub. Timm and I sorted the still-wriggling fish. We threw the live males back into the ocean. The females with full bellies we grabbed with both hands and literally popped open their swollen bodies to harvest the rich, sticky eggs inside — a carnival-like chore that leaves your face tacky with sea water and your hands covered in a layer of gummy eggs that even soap can’t remove. We gathered the eggs in a clean, white one-gallon bucket and placed the spent bodies back in the water to nourish the ocean. Once home, we vacuum sealed the eggs in quart-sized bags, the perfect amount for a meal.

Maktak in Kaktovik, Alaska.

Two days later, our family boated back down to Shorty Cove to harvest black trash bags full of eggs the herring had spawned since the last time we were there, translucent dots thickly coating the green fingers of seaweed that clung to the rock shore. The eggs pop between your teeth like Pop Rocks candy, and the seaweed embedded inside the thick layers of eggs adds flavor and rich nutrients. The night we had my family over for dinner, offering both spawned-on-seaweed and popped herring eggs felt like indulgent dining, like ordering both French fries and onion rings with a burger.  

Closing my eyes, I enjoyed the combination of salt, spice and fat, and went back for more. 

“There’s tukaiyuks, too,” I said, making sure everyone got some greens to go with their protein and starch. Placing tukaiyuks on my plate, I sprinkled a bit of salt on the oily, still fresh-looking leaves. 

My plate full, I used my thumb and forefinger to squeeze a few leaves of the parsley-flavored tukaiyuk into a cold piece of quaq, the tips of my fingers covered in seal oil — my favorite combination. The meat wasn’t frozen solid, making it smooth and easy to chew. The salt on the greens rounded out the flavors of herbed fish and soul-calming oil. 

On my cardboard plate was a small pile of thinly sliced, half-inch pieces of bowhead whale maktak. I dribbled a small amount of soy sauce and a smaller amount of chili garlic sauce onto the pale pink fat and black skin and savored my first bite. The fat was tender and buttery, the skin chewy and firm. Closing my eyes, I enjoyed the combination of salt, spice and fat, and went back for more. 

After crunching on herring eggs and carrots and filling up with dried ugruk meat, I noticed that everyone was slowing down, so I got up to start the kettle and pull out the tea. 

A quart-sized Ziploc bag of frozen salmonberries thawed on the counter. We had picked them in July, after driving our four-wheeler to tundra just above the tidal flats that lie down the hill from our home. I dumped the orange, tangy, not-quite-thawed berries into a bowl, and, as I chopped and separated them with a fork, I smiled. All throughout my childhood, I heard my mom or my grandma chop frozen berries after a nourishing meal of nikipiaq. It felt good to do this simple, loving act, just like them.

Laureli Ivanoff is an Inupiaq writer and journalist based in Uŋalaqłiq (Unalakleet), on the west coast of what’s now called Alaska. Her column “The Seasons of Uŋalaqłiq” explores the seasonality of living in direct relationship with the land, water, plants and animals in and around Uŋalaqłiq. 

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