January 3 marks the 55th anniversary of Alaska’s admittance to the Union. And what better way to celebrate that day here at Hungry History than by taking a look at some traditional Alaskan foods? For thousands of years, Alaska’s indigenous Inuit, often referred to by the more pejorative term Eskimos, have had to make do with native ingredients that might sound outrageous to most inhabitants of the lower 48.
Most Americans wouldn’t think about eating seal liver, caribou intestine or salmon eyes. But the Inuit hunted all these animals, and had to eat every part of them in order to make up for other nutritional deficiencies in their diet. Their access to fresh fruits and vegetables was often limited. Wild berries, including strawberries, cranberries and even more unusual varieties like salmon or moss berries, grew in abundance in the summer months, and the Inuit dried these berries for use all year round. Seaweed was also a useful vegetable. Surprisingly nutrient-dense, cooks added it to soups and stews, and even dried it for eating as snacks.
But berries and seaweed could only go so far. And, as it happens, organ meats have a much higher percentage of vitamins and minerals than muscle meats of the same animal. The Inuit diet was saturated with the organ meats of whatever large game and fish could be hunted; moose, caribou, seal, whale, walrus and even polar bear. Most of this meat was eaten raw, to further maximize the amount of nutrients a diner would receive. If meat was cooked, it was generally boiled as a kind of soup along with some native roots for extra fiber. The cooking liquid was eaten as well, to provide even more nutrients.
Pemmican and the so-called “Eskimo ice cream” are two of the most well-known native Alaskan foods. Many native peoples throughout North America ate pemmican, a light and portable cake made of animal fat, meat and dried berries that was often brought along on hunting expeditions. “Eskimo ice cream” is more correctly known as “aqutak.” To create this treat, cooks whip the fat of seals or bears to a loose paste, and then mix it with snow and dried berries for a fatty, slushy dish. Sugar wasn’t available to the Inuit, so it wouldn’t be added. While calling it “ice cream” would be a stretch for most Americans, it’s another great example of the inventive nature of the Inuit diet.