I started thinking about how food enhances setting while I was reading The Alaskan Laundry by Brendan Jones, and that, pretty quickly, made me remember a food moment from And She Was by Cindy Dyson – the decayed seal flipper.
There’s a scene in And She Was where Brandy and some of the others from the Elbow Room bar have a get-together at Carl’s bus home. During the course of the party, they share a traditional Aleut food item.
Lusta broke the threatening mood. Carl brought a Baggie of grayish brown stuff and passed it to Les first. Les opened the bag and stuck his nose in.
“Shit,” he said, “that’s rank.” He grimaced and turned away, passing the bag on to Bellie.
Bellie reached in and broke off a small dried piece and placed it on her tongue. She handed the bag to me.
“What is it?”
“Decayed seal flipper,” Les said.
“Just don’t smell it. Put it right in your mouth,” Bellie advised.
So, of course, I stuck my nose in the bag. I nearly vomited.
They all laughed at me. “Plug your nose,” Marge said.
As I’ve said before, I hate the idea of having some weird food right in front of me and not trying it. I figured people had been eating the stuff for eons, so it wasn’t going to do permanent damage.
That seems to me the right attitude to have when it comes to tasting traditional foods of a place that’s new to you. I’m not sure I could emulate it, but then I’m not nearly as willing to try all of the various drugs Brandy has either, so maybe there’s a theme there…
Then she describes how it’s made.
They take a bunch of seal flippers, dry them out, salt them up, then bury them along with fish heads and God-knows-what in a barrel. Next spring, they dig ’em out, nice and decayed and tasting like shit.
I tried to do some research on the web and came across a couple of items. Apparently there has been resurgence in interest in “tastefully rotten” foods–this article interviews an anthropologist who has studied the native people and food on both sides of the Bering Sea. However, with the resurgence of interest have come some changes in methods and equipment which have led to an increase in incidences of botulism poisoning. Basically, people have been trying to use plastic containers (I found several pictures showing the flippers laid out in plastic garbage bags), which, at first thought seems like a good idea, until you realize that fermented foods basically need to breathe to keep from harboring some of the nastier bacteria.
Wikipedia also has a page on fermented fish, which includes a note that Alaskan incidence of botulism has increased dramatically, yet somehow does not include any other information about fermented fish or other foods prepared and eaten by Alaskans.
I also came across a post about processing seal and walrus carcasses from a teaching couple posted on the Seward Peninsula, and I found a wonderful series of pins on Pinterest of Alaskan foods, some of which actually seem familiar after the books I’ve been reading!
I’m sure if I get around to reading Ordinary Wolves, there will be much more of this!