What can I even say right now?
I don’t even want to write.
I have whale in my stomach, my Arctic family has embraced me in a way I never could have imaged and love is thick in the air.
The notebook that I used to record Nalukatuq smells strongly of whale. I think it will smell this way forever.
“Welcome, welcome, welcome.”
There’s a little man standing at the microphone in the middle of the arena that has been created for this event. They’ve made walls by stretching plastic around wood posts, and we’re all sitting in a circle around the seal skin blanket.
The blanket has significance because it is what is used to cover the umiaqs, or seal skin boats that are used by the crews to harvest the whale.
There was a prayer, thanking the whale for giving itself to the community, and then the serving began.
I recognize the man sitting next to me, and strike up conversation. It’s Perry, the pink sunglasses bear guard that I met our first week here. He updates me on everything that has happened in his life for the past two years, and I smile and bask in his positive energy and connection.
A white man who doesn’t seem to have a place in the crowd walks up to us a little later. He’s a musician from New Orleans, some of his long curly blond hair is dyed green, and he talks with a far out “only for the present” voice. We invite him to sit with us, and he excitedly joins our circle.
Lucia, the woman we met at the senior center on Tuesday walks up to us immediately following. She crouches down next to me, “Anne!” and shows me her boots. They are made of whale, caribou, and one other animal. They are indestructible, and will not let any water in. They are beautiful, with a little bobble at the top. She is so beautiful as well, down at eye level with me, looking straight in my eyes and telling me all about life and animals and this moment and this day. I am transfixed by her eyes, which seem to tell a million stories all at once. I barely register the actual stories she is telling me, as I see her life as a painting laid out before me.
“That’s the trick. What you eat will keep you warm,” Lucia tells me. I think to myself that it might be a cold day for this vegetarian…
First up is reindeer soup and goose soup. The servers come around the arena, and give everyone a share of the food, person to person. Most of our team gets the reindeer soup, “we’re sorry, we’re all out of the meat!” the servers say, as they pour broth into my teammates’ bowls. But for the vegetarians sitting on the end, Carinne and I, there is plenty of meat to go around. Sharing a bowl, we are served heaping portions of goose soup- various parts of the goose sticking out of the broth in uncanny arrangements with lots of feathers. Not just one or two feathers by mistake, but so many that you’ve got to think that it’s an essential ingredient in this stew.
And it is good! Goose soup has great flavor, though I have to admit that I was only drinking the broth and the feathers. The gnarly pieces of bony meat spanning the length of my hand were a little too much for me an hour after waking up.
Carinne and I used the fry bread they passed around the soak up the broth. And then we pawned the rest of the meat off to our hungry teammates who were jealously eyeing our bowl.
There are locals walking around with tea pots, and we greedily fill up our mugs with hot black tea and drink as the rain begins to drizzle on us. It’s a cold day, the first cold day we’ve had in awhile. It’s probably 30 degrees, but feels much colder with the wind. I lose feeling in my fingers, and have to put on my big, bulky gloves.
The women next to us are handing us napkins to clean our bowls out, as we prepare for the next course. They are taking care of us. We are strangers, at their most special celebration. And they are taking care of us.
Carinne turns to me and looks into my eyes. “The divine in me recognizes the divine in you.”
I say I agree.
And then the whale is served.
We start out with boiled whale meat. All of our first taste of whale, we cheers each other and dig in. It’s in dark chunks, and resembles a thick wad of beef jerky. I taste it, and it is pleasantly light and smoky.
A lot of my teammates like it, and really chow down on it. We have to let each other know that there is whale in one another’s teeth, though. Everyone is so excited and snapping pictures, and Carinne and I are nibbling on the whale and hinting to everyone that they need to clean their now black teeth.
There’s a guy behind me declining the whale, “Oh. I’m okay Rachel. I had macaroni right before coming here.” He’s a scientist working with a fox trapping crew in Barrow. I have to admit, every time I meet someone and then learn that they are a scientist I am a little bit disappointed. The scientists out here are a little bit one track minded. Which, I mean you have to be really devoted to a science project to fly all the way out to the Arctic for it. But it’s not my kind of devotion.
Regardless, we meet the science crew. Continuing to smile with whale stuck between our teeth.
“It’s cooked with jalapenos!” Rachel, the Inupiat woman sitting behind me tells me about the boiled whale. “You can also dip it in ketchup.” All of the ladies sitting around us proceed to tell us the best condiments to dip the boiled whale in. I make a list of all of it.
Next up is the muktuk, my favorite word. Emma, the Inupiat woman sitting on my left urges me to go to the center of the arena to cut my own piece of the whale.
“It’s the tail. The best part! We give it to the “oloos,” or visitors. This is you!”
I hesitate, and then go forward. Another woman in a little purple parka runs up and hands me a few white plastic bags.
I get in line, and sure enough, a five pound slab of whale tail is plopped into my white trash bag. Muktuk is raw whale meat, and looks like neopolitan icecream. It’s half black, half pink, with a clean cut distinction in the middle. You can see the blood tracing the top of the pink blubber, on top of the smooth black skin of the whale.
I bring this back to my seat, having no idea what I’m going to do with this. Emma, the woman sitting next to me watches me ponder this slab of meat, then asks if she can help me prepare it. I say yes please, and she pulls out a little circular shaped knife, rocking it back and forth across the meat in a practiced manner. She cuts off little bitesized slices, the traditional way to eat it.
And then it’s ready, and we all pop raw whale meat into our mouths.
I have to say, the skin is my favorite part. It’s tougher, and doesn’t really feel like you’re eating meat. The blubber is another story. Overall though, I think muktuk is my favorite dish of the day. If only because of it’s lovely appearance, and name.
Next up is mikiyuk, which is fermented whale. Like I said before, fermented things are a little bit dicey in Alaska. But when at Naluatuk, you can’t really say no. They walk around with big buckets, pulling this sticky black and brown muck out and slopping it in bowls. This is most Inupiat people’s favorite dish- it smells pretty rotten, but it tastes sweet and gives you a buzz similar to finishing a few beers. I try a nibble, and then back away from it.
This happens to be the time that my new friend Perry wanders back over to me.
“This is my favorite dish,” he says. He’s got a plateful, and has brought it over just to share with me. He hands me piece by piece, and watches for me to eat it. Eye level with me, really in the moment.
And I think, do I have what it takes?
And I grab a slimy piece of whale intestines that has been fermented god-knows-how, and I slurp it down.
And then I am offered more, and more.
And I hestitate, “I don’t really eat meat, usually…” and my teammates are cracking up. Because of course I am the one that is being spoonfed the fermented whale. Of course.
For the remainder of the day, I become the girl with the pen. “Ma’am!” All of the ladies are writing down the names of the different cooks on their bags of mikiyuk. Each recipe is different, and they want to know who to thank. It makes me feel like I’m contributing to the day in my own way, and the women really appreciate it. Even if I can’t stomach as much whlae as they can, I can still provide writing utensils.
I begin talking with an adorable woman near by me, her name is Doris. I tell her how welcomed I feel, and how wonderful it is to be here. She tells me “this is a part of us. We have to be here. This is what keeps the community together”. And “you cannot catch a whale alone.”
The women next to me are stashing whale in plastic bags in their coolers. “Oh, goody. Late night snacks.” They tell us to bring all the whale we have collected home, and put it in the freezer. Whale meat is eaten frozen.
“You guys are honorary Eskimos today,” a woman tells us as she walks past us, videotaping. It’s been interesting to note when the word Eskimo is used up here. After a month of living in Barrow I have concluded thus far that Eskimo is an appropriate term, but when you use it you are referring to all of the people who live in the Arctic: Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Russia. So while the word Eskimo is not offensive to most people I’ve met and is actually an embraced term, it is not specific or accurate in describing individual Arctic cultures. When you’re in Barrow, you’re with the Inupiat people, who belong to the larger Eskimo culture.
The woman behind me, Rachel, befriends me. She is strong and outgoing, and lets everyone know exactly what she is thinking. She runs the marathon every Fourth of July, and I will be running it with her next Saturday. Throughout the day, she calls out my name “Anne. Anne. Anne!” to get my attention. I don’t correct her, as I like the way she says “Anne,” and also she doesn’t give me time to correct her, as she has so much to say.
At one point she calls me back, after a native Inupiat song has been performed in the center of the arena.
“I’m sorry for crying, Anne. But today we learned that one of my family has passed.” She proceeds to tell me that they are a strong people, they are a strong people. And I look into her eyes, and I see her. And I say, can I hug you? And she says yes. And we both get up and have a long embrace in the freezing rain.
Toward the end of the day I walk around the arena, and run into Karlin, my plane friend visiting Barrow again. He is lovely as ever, and I just have this feeling that we will keep meeting up in life. He flew to Chicago today, and is there with his family right now.
Toward the end, fermented fruit is served for dessert. And I meet more people. And I am getting cold and have lost feeling in my fingers even with the gloves on. And we head home for the night, to warm up before the blanket toss later that evening.