Subsistence food weaves a web of many theads

Seth Kantner
Jars of bear fat with tinnik berries
Cutting up caribou meat

Last summer I helped Colleen Swan and her family till a garden and plant a raised bed garden box in Kivalina. Colleen has been getting more and more interested in growing food. Afterwards, her parents, Joe and Lona Swan, invited me inside to eat lunch.

It was hot and sunny. For a change the wind was not blowing. I'd gotten a lot more mosquito bites than I ever expected to get in that village and had almost given in to offers of mosquito dope. I washed up and sat down at their table.

The food was just what I hoped for: kauk (boiled walrus skin and blubber), tukaayuk (sea lovage) greens in seal oil, dried trout and dried ugruk meat (otherwise known as black meat).

I hadn't had walrus since Oran Knox gave me some years ago. I pulled out my sheath knife and got quiet and busy. It wasn't until a few minutes later I realized that other people at the table were cutting the hair off the skin. I shrugged and kept eating. I guess it's my upbringing. As kids my brother and I weren't told to trim the hair off boiled caribou lips, beaver feet or muskrat tails -- we just went ahead and ate it.

I glanced around again and realized a very cool thing. There wasn't any white man food on that table. Not even a Lipton's teabag. Here in Northwest Alaska there's endless rhetoric about subsistence this, subsistence that, but generally you run into a thousand variations of brightly packaged store-bought food: Wonder bread and pizza, fig newtons, hotdogs and Slim Jim jerky, Rockstars, Red Bull and all the rest.

There was none of that on the Swan table. It was pretty reassuring to see.

Gathering food -- and gathered food -- for some reason is close to my heart. Preparing food, caring for food, sharing food. Traveling around Alaska -- and the Lower 48 -- I'm finding there are a lot of people who feel more or less the same.

The sharing network of that food is a convoluted web, and a satisfying one. I guess I'm a small part of it, and enjoy and appreciate the way it connects us to each other and the land.

Recalling just the last few seasons, my mind fills with food trades.

Last fall I gave Obbie Greene a bag of turnips and carrots I grew. He wouldn't let me leave his yard without heading into his shop to get me some bowhead muktuk.

In Ambler I gave Mary Williams caribou. She sent me downriver with fresh bread and seal oil and paniqtuk (dried strips of caribou). Her son Alvin gave me a big hunk of bear meat and fat.

Once you have rendered bear fat you need tinnik berries to put in it. Erika Rogers in Tok picked me a few cups and sent them U.S. Priority Mail. Meanwhile, I dried caribou to send to my parents in Hawaii. They sent what they grow: coffee beans, dried bananas and mangos.

When a nice looking caribou comes my way, I give Red Seeberger a quarter. On our table we've always got jars of her beautiful akpik jelly, and occasionally nagoon berry jam.

From down in Sitka, those black cod longliners Linda and Kent and Jeff sent my daughter home from art camp with carefully collected halibut cheeks and black cod collars. Talk about splendid food from the sea. It took me awhile, but I finally got a musk ox hindquarter down to them in slight repayment.

From down in Montana my old journalism classmate's ex-boyfriend sends me potatoes from his farm. I send him salmon. Over in Minnesota, those Chippewa sisters, the Erdrichs, send me wild rice and dried apples. I return jarred salmon and salmon berries and dried caribou.

There's a lot that goes into hunting and gathering and gardening, everything from hip boots to hunting knives, but somewhat less macho and, I'd say, more important is simply care. Care of the food.

Just before freezeup last year I got an extra fat caribou. I hung it two days and then gave a hindquarter to Obbie. I pay a lot of attention to fat -- of course -- and aging the meat, and keeping it clean and no sand. I thought I was pretty cool giving him that perfect piece of meat. I tried to escape without him giving me anything.

He wasn't about to be outdone. He led me into his spotless shop, opened an equally spotless freezer, handed me two quart jars of black meat in seal oil.

"You don't have to give me anything," I protested.

He didn't comment, just handed me cold packets of vacuum-packed muktuk and then a ziplock of smoked salmon strips.

At home, I sat down to eat. When I opened the muktuk I found it had been pre-sliced in one inch slabs. The strips of smoked salmon looked liked they'd been cut with a laser -- all exactly the same length. You could carry one of them for a ruler.

I'm friends with Obbie's son, so I asked him about it. I found out his dad had been trained by the old reindeer herders and he didn't allow even one caribou hair on his meat.

I couldn't sleep that night. I'd been careful with that whole caribou, but I could guarantee there were some hairs on it. And I hadn't washed those turnips and carrots -- or the ones the previous fall. I'd had some kind of foolish pride, believing the dirt on them proved they were homegrown.

That caribou hindquarter was what really kept me awake. I always put a lot of care into my caribou, but at the same time figure a stray hair or 10 simply proves what kind of meat it is. We didn't have a freezer when I was a kid and my family stored meat outside for the winter, still in the skin for protection from the elements. As a result, even now pawing through the freezer I'm not very talented at telling my Ziploc bags apart. Frustrated, I started joking that I was going to keep bags of moose, musk ox and caribou hair handy -- to sprinkle on the meat -- so there'd be no guessing and I could instantly tell a musk ox roast from moose or caribou.

Anyway, that encounter was a humbling lesson. The good part is I'm accustomed to it. There's been plenty over the years. Bob Uhl couldn't believe I didn't know to wrap fresh caribou meat in the skin and bury it in snow in winter to age the meat even when it's 30 below outside. I remember Clarence Wood watching me gut a caribou, shaking his head and gesturing. "Take it off other side. Always be easier." This, after him cleaning a caribou while wearing a dress shirt, and not getting a drop of blood even up his wrist to his shiny metal watch.

I remember Aana Carrie Uhl being disgusted that I was picking blackberries too early, before they were ripened to her standards. Here in Kotzebue, Red Seeberger's daily trips to the tundra to check the berry progress over the years also has showed me that I wasn't paying attention nearly as well as I thought.

Last winter I was getting my pride back and, as always, was intent on learning more, caring more and doing a more perfect job gathering food. About then my daughter ran into Madeline Stalker at the post office. "Tell your daddy get me caribou," she said.

We were right in the middle of a cold spell and I didn't know where any caribou were, but I couldn't be happier. I went out on a snowmobile and found some.

It was hard to keep my fingers warm and binoculars from fogging up, but I watched the herd a long time and picked out a fat cow with antlers. I put down the binocs, raised my rifle, scraped the fog off the scope and aimed a foot above the neck -- because they were far across the tundra -- and shot. The caribou folded, a perfect shot.

When I arrived the dead caribou had no antlers. I peered around, confused. Worse, I could count every rib on the animal. I'd made the shot -- only it was the wrong caribou.

Up on the ridge a quarter mile away, the caribou I wanted for Madeline was alive and well and getting out of there. That next shot, ahem, was not so perfect.

Right around that time in the winter, my Hawaiian friend Kalei gave me a jar of jam that his wife, Lehua, had made. (Actually, he gave me two jars, because the first one wasn't visually up to her standards.) She intended the jelly to be divided horizontally, two tone -- the bottom half orange colored lilikoi or passion fruit and the top beautiful red Ohelo. Tied on both jars with grass bows were typed labels:

Volcano Jelly. Aloha, Kalei & Lehua.

It was amazingly good. For lunch I'd eat muktuk and bear fat and tinniks and smoked salmon and then have a cracker with jelly and a cup of my dad's hand-picked coffee -- and think about how I was outclassed.

Seth Kantner is the author of "Shopping for Porcupine" and the bestselling novel "Ordinary Wolves." He lives with his wife and daughter in Northwest Alaska and can be reached at His column runs on the second Sunday of each month in the Daily News' Arts and Life section.

Seth Kantner
Around Alaska