An original caribou antler and walrus ivory carving by Edwin Weyiouanna guards a bowl of bowhead whale stew.
Outside it was -11 degrees Fahrenheit. The steady 25 mile per hour wind brought the chill down to negative 40, making it a good day to stay inside and cook a big pot of comfort food.
I could feel the frigid north wind seeping in around the edges of the window over the kitchen sink as I stared apprehensively at the three, one-pound cubes of thawed whale meat draining in the stainless steel basin. The odor of the dark red meat was decidedly un-beef-like, but it was mild and agreeable nonetheless – not at all gamey or fishy. The texture was a bit like that of fresh halibut – soft and dense. The meat of the bowhead whale, the largest genus of right whale, might be compared to especially tender filet mignon. I had no idea what cooking would do to the texture, or what the meat would taste like. “Good beef,” I hoped as I rinsed the meat and considered my next move.
For the past 27 years, Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Cookbook has been a faithful companion – my go-to reference when I’m not sure what to do next in the kitchen. I turned to Claiborne’s basic recipe for beef stew, made a few modifications to take into account what we have on hand and our own tastes, and proceeded from there. The end product was probably the best meat stew we’ve ever had (allowing for the fact that our creation would have been improved with the addition of three cups of good red wine, which is, of course, unavailable up here.) The meat was wonderfully tender and no more strongly flavored than, say, strip steak, and complimented the seasonings and other textures in the stew beautifully. I served three piping hot bowls of stew with freshly baked cornbread muffins while daughter Maia cued up the film The Triplets of Belleville on our big movie screen – the perfect recipe for staying warm north of the Arctic Circle.
Translucent pink Muktuk (whale skin and blubber), whale meat, and whole Arctic grayling were passed out to guests at the Point Hope Thanksgiving feast.
Like Shishmaref, the residence of Point Hope generally don’t have big family Thanksgiving celebrations at home. It is a community event. Turkeys and hams flood into the village in preparation for the big feast. (Yes, we do get turkeys north of the Arctic Circle.) Anyone who volunteered an oven received either a turkey or a ham to prepare. We received a 22 pound ham which we cooked and delivered to the school gym. Large quantities of traditional dishes such as stuffing, candied yams, corn and cranberry sauce were brought in to the school pot-luck style. By 4 p.m., volunteers had carved turkeys and hams and all the side dishes were readied to be served.
After key community members gave speeches expressing thanks, the village was ready to share the meal. The first course? Muktuk (the layer of whale skin attached to the pink blubber shown in the above photo) and chunks of frozen whale meat. Many people brought out sharp knives and small containers of seasoned salt and immediately carved into their frozen chunks of whale. Others, like us, had brought Ziplock bags in order to save the pieces to eat later at home. Both muktuk and whale meat are traditionally eaten raw, boiled, or fried. We talked to the owner of the local restaurant who suggested slow cooking the whale meat in a stew. Sounds like a good idea. Tune in later for that culinary feat. The community also shared whole frozen grayling, dolly varden, and big chunks of salmon. Of course, the elders were served first, but there was plenty to go around to everyone.
The next course featured platefuls of traditional Thanksgiving fare. Seated around the perimeter of the school gym on the floor and in chairs brought from home families and friends engaged in conversations. There were probably 500 people altogether. At one end of the gym, tables covered with huge sheet cakes were waiting to be cut and served for dessert.
Obviously, Thanksgiving is not a traditional Inupiat celebration. In our readings of Alaska history and in conversations with history buffs, we’ve learned that the Inupiat people had celebrations and traditions similar to many of the traditions that the missionaries introduced several decades ago. The similarities made it easy for the Inupiat to adopt new holidays. For example, the divvying up of whale meat was already a fall tradition. Folding Thanksgiving into this tradition was logical.