EEK — Early August in Southwest Alaska means berries.
At the start of the month, word was spreading around town that the atsaq were ready — salmonberries ripening from pinkish red to a glowing sunset shade of orange. Skiffs anchored in the pebbly riverbank by town with five-gallon buckets brimming with berries. They bulged in zip-close bags tucked into qaspeq pockets or clutched on the back of zooming four-wheelers.
There were little patches in town, on the boggy tundra next to the airport road or behind a little subdivision of newer housing. But many in Eek, a village of around 400 people on a tributary a few miles inland from the mouth of the Kuskokwim River, hop in boats and head out to to the tundra for their subsistence picking.
A lot of those berries get used for akutaq, a staple dessert across much of Alaska. It’s traditionally made by combining whipped animal fat or tallow with dry meat or fish and wild berries. Nowadays, recipes vary based on region, what’s available, and family touches refined over time.
On a recent evening, Theodora Agwiak was making a version with halibut.
“My son got his first big one this year,” Agwiak said, showing a phone photo of a young boy holding a slick halibut roughly the size of a sled dog.
“Other places don’t really get halibut,” Agwiak said of communities across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region, as she squeezed the excess water from fist-sized hunks of boiled white halibut flesh like wringing out a sponge.
Growing up, her mom made akutaq mostly with white fish like sheefish or pike, sometimes chum salmon.
“Halibut is less fishy taste than the others,” said Sally Teeluk, Theodora’s mother. Now that they’ve tried it, she added, other families have started using halibut in their akutaq, too.
“Akutaq is always on everybody’s birthday plate,” Teeluk said, alternating between Yup’ik and English in her living room as Theodora sprinkled sugar into the mixing bowl. “That’s the main dessert.”
They feel lucky for the halibut: Fishing for it means burning a lot of gasoline to get out into the chop of the open ocean just for a shot at hauling a few of the bottom-feeding flatfish out of the water like floppy wet futons.
“I worry when they go out,” Teeluk said. “It’s expensive. Worrisome, too ... No big boats, just in skiffs.”
Teeluk’s own mother used to make akutaq as a special treat, which required chipping frozen berries out of a wooden barrel left outside the house.
“No freezer, no refrigerator, just the porch,” Teeluk said.
She has a special recipe she makes just for herself from time to time.
“I use salmonberries, seal oil and little bit of sugar. Only in a bowl because the kids don’t like it with seal oil,” Teeluk said, grinning.
Paired with dry fish and salmon strips, most of Agwiak’s akutaq was quickly gobbled up. The remainder would be a “put-it-away-for-later snack,” said her father, Billy Teeluk, seated in the corner with his arm perched on a chest freezer near a large Bible and a VHF radio.
Agwiak’s parents thanked her for the evening’s dessert and how it turned out.
“Coulda used more fish,” she said with a thoughtful look toward the cherry-red standing mixer. “I mean, it’s still good.”