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Edible heirlooms: New cookbook collects traditional Aleut recipes

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published October 9, 2014

Alaska foodies who want to give their cookbook shelves local flavor have no shortage of publications. There are a number of collections of berry and fish dishes, some with a gourmet angle. Several offer indigenous recipes and home-grown ingredients. Many are on the light side, like "Serving the North Slope," a small, comb-bound collector's item from 1990 with cartoons and instructions for making Eskimo donuts, salmon sausage and pickled muktuk, among other things.

But there hasn't been anything quite like "Qaqamiigux: Traditional Foods and Recipes from the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands." The big 381-page full-color volume published by the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association combines recipes for traditional foods with hard scientific data, illuminating interviews with elders, historical and contemporary photos and specific information about how to harvest and preserve the food.

It could fit in the history, nutrition or -- despite its low $25 price -- really-nice-coffee-table-book categories.

Recognizing the significance of the book, the National Indian Health Board presented a "local area impact" award to lead author Suanne Unger at its national conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Sept. 8.

Unger, who has been involved in various projects with the APIA since 2001, said the book was several years in the making.

"We were looking at local foods, examining them for nutrients and contaminants," she said. "There's a lot of focus on contaminants in traditional foods. But I started to feel that it was more urgent to focus on nutritional benefits. What are people really getting sick from? Not contaminants, but diet-related illnesses. Hypertension. Cancer. Diabetes. Heart disease. I agree that there's a need to monitor for contaminants, but you see those same contaminants in food in stores. So I think it's an unrealistic fear when you don't understand the context."

A dietary survey asked APIA members whether they were eating more traditional food than in previous years or less -- most were eating less -- and why.

"We were told: Because my grandmother passed away. Because no one in my house knows how to prepare them," Unger said.

"It was very clear that there had been a loss of knowledge. There was a lot of research about traditional food out there, but no resource, no book."

Unger wrote up a two-page proposal to present to the association's board of directors. "That same week, a request for proposals from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came out," she said. "We realized that (the book) would fit right in."

Twenty-five elders were interviewed about hunting, gathering, preserving and preparing traditional foods. Their personal stories and remembered legends were collected, along with the recipes, to put the food into cultural context. Old photos of people butchering whales or drying fish were sought out. New photos of people turning raw products into table-ready meals were taken. Linguists supplied the names of the food in different dialects of Unangam Tunuu, the Aleut language.

"Significant contributors" identified at the front of the book include the late Mary Bourdukofsky of St. Paul, Moses Dirk of Atka, Sally Swetzof of Atka and Douglas Veltrie, professor emeritus of anthropology at UAA.

The hardest part was chasing down the amount of calories, vitamins and dietary fiber in certain items.

"The nutritional graphics were particularly challenging," Unger said. "There was no USDA database for sculpin so far as I know. We had to get that from a Japanese database."

Other listings for the protein, carbohydrate, sodium and saturated fat levels of assorted plants and animals came from Canada.

In the end, the relevant data was found and aggregated into standard nutrition charts like the ones on food packages in grocery stores. They appear in the book's chapters on everything from whales and limpets to chocolate lilies and cow parsnip. Yes, you can eat those giant putchki, or "pooski weeds," but gathering and handling them requires taking some precautions.

Color-coded pages direct readers to sections on sea mammals, birds, fish, land animals, plants, tidal foods (shellfish, seaweed, etc.) and post-contact cultural favorites like Easter bread and corned beef hash. Appendixes address issues of language and pronunciation, refrigeration and freezing, bacteria and parasites.

Nutritional values are illustrated in imaginative graphics. One in the chapter on pinnipeds uses piles of meat to show how much you have to eat to get the same iron as in three ounces of bearded seal -- 25 ounces of beef pot roast, 24 hot dogs, 68 chicken nuggets or five cans of Spam.

The dogs, Spam, chicken and beef stand by themselves in the infobox. But the chunk of seal, about the size of a pack of cards, is held in a hand. That's on purpose.

"We always showed a human hand holding the traditional food," Unger said. "That way you know it's the 'real food.'"

A more rewarding challenge was managing the enormous amount of information that came in while the book was being prepared, the volume of images, personal accounts and scientific background.

"It turned out a little more textbooky than I'd imagined, to be honest," Unger said. "But I decided I'm not going to edit it down. I'm just going to put it all in there."

In fact, she said, she wished some parts had been even bigger.

"The plant section is -- I don't want to say insufficient, but I could have written a huge book just on the plants."

One of the benefits of creating a cookbook is that you get to sample a variety of delicacies. Unger mentioned seagull egg pie, halibut salad, mossberry fritters and octopus patties as some she particularly enjoyed.

She was also thrilled with John Gordioff's detailed instructions on how to butcher a sea lion.

"I also really liked Mary Bourdukofsky's story about why St. Paul people don't eat hair seal," she added. Others contributed insights into values like sharing, helping the elderly and cooperating with neighbors.

Above all, Unger said, meeting the elders and talking about food with them was an experience that can never be repeated.

"More than half of the elders we interviewed have passed away," she said. "There's a bit of urgency in documenting those recipes and stories.

"I feel so lucky that I got to do this. It was, like, the coolest job ever."

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