I peered dubiously into the depths of the Styrofoam cup clenched in my 14-year-old hand. Experimentally I dabbed at the contents with my flimsy plastic spoon. I could identify a thin broth with globules of grease skating on the surface, a few grains of white rice, and some shreds of meat. But what was this other stuff? Some of it looked like wide, small diameter rubber bands. There was also a quantity of an amorphous, porous gel-like substance. At my elbow somebody was talking. Nearly hypnotized with morbid fascination as I was, it was difficult to tear my gaze away from the Styrofoam cup, but when I managed to do so, I beheld Moose Hole elder, Jacob Thaddeus grinning at me. The beating of drums and Athabascan singing that accompanied the current dance made it difficult to hear what he was saying. I leaned closer.
“Moose nose stew.” He jabbed a finger at my Styrofoam cup. “Eeee, so good! My daughter, he cook for potlatch. Make you strong!”
He was right. It did make me strong. Just hearing the stuff identified was already having that effect on me. I felt my abdomen muscles tighten. I found myself clenching my teeth together with a strength I did not know I possessed, as I held back an undeniably strong impulse to gag.
As a young feller growing up in Moose Hole, Alaska, I attended quite a few potlatches. I will never forget the experience. Very few white men have even heard of a potlatch, even fewer know how to spell it, but it is a miniscule percentage of modern white guys who have actually had the privilege of attending one. I hold my head high today, proud to be among the initiated ones. Of course, when I first came to Alaska, I didn’t know what a potlatch was either. The first time I heard the word, I assumed it was something that kept a honey bucket from accidentally popping open. Boy was I wrong!
It turned out that a potlatch is a North-Western Native American tradition that involves a lot of food, gifts, food, singing, food, dancing, food, speechmaking and more food. A potlatch can go on for days. In spite of the description at the beginning of this article, some of my most vivid gastronomic fantasies are rooted in the memories of those potlatch feasts. If it wasn’t for the dancing, I think every participant would gain 15 pounds during the course of a ceremony.
Nowhere before or since have I seen a row of tables groaning under the weight of such a smorgasbord. It was the best food Alaska has to offer, all in one spot—for three days straight. At the time I found it bewildering and cruel to be expected to choose between moose liver, caribou stroganoff, grizzly chops, Dall sheep roast, alder smoked salmon, bison sausage and deep-fried ptarmigan. Of course, that’s not even counting the washtubs of potato salad, baskets of fry bread and five-gallon coolers of red Kool-Aid. For condiments and side dishes we could fill in the cracks with crowberry jam on sourdough biscuits, low bush cranberry and orange salad, currant and rose hip chutney and a steaming cup of Labrador tea! Excuse me for a moment while I wipe the drool off of my keyboard.
Now, believe it or not, the purpose of this article is not to wax loquacious about five-star potlatch dining. There are other more sinister aspects to potlatch eating. You see, alongside all of this trusted and lip-smacking food came other dishes. These were traditional foods borne reverently to the table by grinning Athabascan women, accompanied by a laughing, chattering, leaping, wrestling knot of kids. The arrival of these dishes, however, did not provoke quite as much enthusiasm among we descendents of those pale-faced interlopers who had stumbled upon the Great Land only yesterday as Raven calculates time.
There were delicacies such as roasted porcupine, boiled beaver tail, salmon head soup, baked lynx, and fried muskrat. Everybody who tasted them lapsed into a raving monologue about how delicious they were. Clearly, the flesh of these animals contained some sort of neurotoxic alkali, which induced instant insanity. I vowed to avoid them.
In spite of myself, one potlatch I narrowly avoided becoming a victim when I was offered a cup of Eskimo ice cream. “Ice Cream”. The name sounded so innocent and all-American; deceptively evoking nostalgic memories of birthday parties and Fourth of July celebrations. Flavors like vanilla and cookies ‘n’ cream and raspberry ripple flooded my mind at the mention of the term. Around me, giggling Athabascan kids were gobbling the Eskimo ice cream out of Styrofoam cups.
Hold on! Styrofoam cups? That was a red flag! Jolted out of my nostalgic coma, I shook my head to clear it. All my senses klaxoning a code red alert, I tiptoed to the table where the Eskimo ice cream was being served. I tried to appear nonchalant as I stole furtive reconnaissance glances at the concoction. The best that I could determine, it was not icy, and it didn’t appear to contain any cream. Suddenly, a cute little girl loomed before me, thrusting a Styrofoam cup in my face. Graciously, I flailed out at her, sending her sprawling before fleeing to the opposite corner of the community hall to cower, trembling, in the corner.
Gradually, my blood pressure began to subside, and I became able to hear something beyond the jack hammering of my own heart, and the gasping rasp of my breathing. What I began to hear was a slurping noise. It came from Klondike Clancy who happened to be sharing my corner. He was a bear of a man swathed in furs and beadwork and beard hair, packing a Ruger .44 magnum and 14-inch Bowie knife on a gun belt. At the moment, he was meticulously spooning the last dregs of Eskimo ice cream from a Styrofoam cup.
“What is that stuff?” I shuddered.
A couple of decayed teeth appeared within the tangled thicket of his beard, and his eyes twinkled. For Klondike Clancy, that was as close to a big grin as it got. “Agaduk.” He warbled. For such an imposing hulk of a grizzled mountain man, he sure had a disconcerting voice. He sounded like a Vienna Choir boy. Rumor had it that he had talked like that ever since a hunting accident years ago. Something about his .44 firing before he had gotten it clear of its holster.
“Yeah, I know it could gag a duck, but what is it?”
“Agaduk! Aqudak! Akutaq! However you say it, it’s Eskimo ice cream. You should try some. It’s delicious.”
“But what’s in it!”
“Traditionally, the Eskimo cook whips seal oil until it is creamy and then folds in freshly fallen snow and tundra roots. Aqudak was served on festive occasions, such as a young man’s first successful polar bear hunt or wedding.” Clancy fancied himself to be a historian.
“You’re telling me you’re eating seal oil, snow, and tundra roots?”
“Oh, no, no, no! The Athabascan version was made from whipped caribou-leg marrow, cooked meat flakes, and berries.”
I felt myself getting strong again. “Oh, that’s much better.” I paused a moment to allow my gag reflex to subside. “So you’re eating whipped caribou-leg marrow. Nice.”
Klondike Clancy laughed, then. It was a sound like wind chimes being batted by a kitten. “They don’t make it that way anymore. Not at all! Nowadays, you just stir frozen berries into a mixture of half sugar and half Crisco. Very Fred Meyers. You better get yourself some before it’s all gone.”
I just stared at him, speechless for a moment. Finally, I stammered, “Well, it certainly sounds healthy enough. They say that berries contain lots of antioxidants.”
“Yep. I see they have a couple of cups left. You better grab some before I do.”
“Aw, no, really. I couldn’t. You go ahead and help yourself. I think I’ll just have me one of those delicious cups of moose nose stew.” It was a desperate ploy—a last ditch attempt to fend off a cholesterol and glucose overdose.
The moose nose stew wasn’t nearly as bad as I had expected. There were subtle nuances to its flavor—some yummy, some yucky. For instance, it tasted like the result of somebody putting rice in a kettle, adding water, dropping in a fresh moose nose and boiling the daylights out of the whole mess until the meat fell off the nose and the nasal contents dissipated into broth. Although not all of the nuances of flavor were this delicious, I ate the whole cup full. I felt like I had just experienced a rite of passage. Picking a moose hair out of my Styrofoam cup, I used it to floss something rubbery that was stuck between my teeth.
Jacob Thaddeus sidled up. “I thought you not like moose nose! Soon you learn to cook old way. Snare link. Make basket from birch bark. Put him in. Cook him with hot rock. You goin’ to try him now?”
I explained to Jacob that I was stuffed. I couldn’t possibly eat another bite. Perhaps I could sample the lynx in a few hours after my digestive system had finished rejecting my moose nose stew. Hastily I excused myself and found a quiet place under a spruce tree to commune with the Sphagnum Spirit that we white men call Ralph.
I never did find out what lynx tasted like. When I was finally able to tolerate the thought of food again, I couldn’t bring myself to pass up the smoked salmon in favor of burnt dead cat muscles. A very insignificant and disowned part of me regrets my weakness; berating me that now I will never know if lynx tastes better than moose nose. To this charge, the rest of me replies, “All I know is that cooked lynx looks and smells like turkey.
That’s a fairly pleasant memory. Why don’t we leave it there? Let’s allow the Athabascans the dignity of keeping some of their customs undigested by white bellies, shall we?”