Saturday, December 03, 2005

Akutaq: when reality whips the romance

My grandfather, who loved French Vanilla Breyers, would sometimes wax nostalgic for the "Eskimo Ice Cream" that he and my grandmother would enjoy when they were stationed up in Alaska during World War II.

I'm not sure if he was waxing nostalgic for the Eskimo ice cream, or for the memories of courting my grandmother in a large wild territory amidst the simultaneously alert and tender days of World War II. But I do know that he was keenly appreciative of the experience of both. He and my grandmother married and were later moved to Germany, where my mother was raised. Eventually they came back to the U.S., but they settled in California. Alaska, however, never strayed far from their thoughts. Sometimes the memories popped up in the form of stories about eskimo ice cream. But more commonly, the memories popped up in stories of the bravery and ingenuity and cultural strength that so impressed my Grandfather about Alaska.

But back to eskimo ice cream....Akutaq is what this Alaskan legend is called in Yup'ik, the most predominant language in town.

Grandpa used to tell me about how, in Alaska, ice cream is made from whipping rendered seal oil into grated reindeer fat. Snow was added to make it cold. Sometimes mashed potatoes or whitefish would be added. But, always, berries would be added to sweeten it.

I have been meaning to try it. And today, while Christmas shopping at a local craft fair at the VFW hall, I finally did. Seeing a woman offering paper cups of akutaq next to the offering of seal mittens and beaver hats, it seemed like the perfect time to transform one of Grandpa's stories into a part of my own story. J. and I bought a cup to share.

But times have changed since Grandpa's day.

Halfway through our cup, we ran into a friend who has been here for 30 years and asked him to settle a debate. J. thought I was joking about ice cream being made from seal oil. He maintained that there was no seal fat in our akutaq. I maintained that there was.

Our friend had a laugh. It appears that we were both kind of right. 30 years ago, akutaq was made from whipping rendered seal oil with reindeer fat. Apparently, however, it is made today by mixing berries with Crisco.

Yes, J. and I had been eating Crisco by the spoonful.

It was delicious .... but .... I just can't help feeling that what was so memorable to my Grandpa, that icecream that kept my Grandfather waxing nostaligic for Alaska, wasn't made with Crisco. But I guess I am also glad that a seal wasn't hunted. So I really don't know where I'm left with my first introduction to Akutaq.

Perhaps my ambivalence is best described as an admiration for a culture that has thrived and survived for thousands of years in the harshest of conditions, and a sad sort of acceptance at how quickly less-admirable influences have seeped in. But I can't help but think that my recent arrival to Alaska, with no winter gear and a headful of romantic notions about living in the last frontier, isn't a bit of an allegory to Crisco itself.

Maybe I'm not going to be eating the akutaq of my grandfather's day, but I guess I'm also not the "pioneer" that he was. I do however get the benefit of my Grandfather's story, as well as my own memory of my own astonishment at realizing that I was eating Crisco by the spoonful....and enjoying it.

(this is a copy verbatim of the recipe originally published by Alice Smith in the local newspaper, the Tundra Drums, and then reprinted in Cooking Alaskan by Alaskans)

"If you use fresh seal oil you don't get the strong taste. Put a handful of Crisco in the bowl. Work it with your hand and add a little cold water. Put in the seal oil and work it more. The real Eskimo way was to make it with reindeer fat, chopped in small pieces. They put it on the stove to melt it. They never used to put sugar in. They used no sugar, just berries. Then later we used to put sugar in. Stir in the sugar. If you keep your hand working it a long time all the sugar melts, it dissolves. It will just fluffy up, now watch. You keep adding water, more water. Every time you put sugar in it will fluff more. Keep working it and you can't smell the seal oil. Then put in the salmonberries. There should be blackberries too. And then I put it up in my little freezer up there, let it coll off and eat it. If you just want to have a little spoonful now, you may."


Blogger FishTaxi said...

I just tried some Eskimo Ice Cream the other day myself at a potluck at work. I liked it well enough but wasn't able to finish what I put on my plate. Very filling! And like yours it was made with crisco. And blueberries & halibut.

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