January 1, 1951
The Arctic is a dietician's nightmare, and anyone conscious of vitamins or a balanced diet will make himself miserable. Eskimos are almost exclusively carnivorous--at least, they were until very recently. Now they have developed a taste for the white man's flour, sugar, and other soft foods. Their classical food is meat, and they still live on it almost altogether.
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"Nekretoritse!"..."Come and eat!"
Above the snarling voice of the wind that sweeps across the ice, the Eskimo's ear always catches this call, his neighbor's invitiation to come and eat. He is suddenly roused from his winter revery.
"Nekrekroyatigot!" he announces, clambering to his feet. "They are calling us to eat."
The call is an indiscriminate invitation, to himself and everyone else. The Eskimo hostess never has trouble making up a guest list for dinner. A social secretary wouldn't be of much use to her. For when there is food, everyone is asked, without exception, and there aren't any place cards. The whole camp crowds into the host's igloo, the men taking teh best places, sitting on the skins, the women standing in the middle of the snowhouse, half consciously swafing back and forth to set up a rhythm that will keep the babies on their backs asleep, the children backed agaounst the wal,l blowing on their numbed fingers and banging their chilled feet on the floor.
On a board in front of the lamp is an armful of frozen fish, or a basin of raw caribou meat, or a potful of half-cooked seal meat. If the meat is raw, or frozen, everyone just pitches in. If it is cooked meat, the hostess first squeeezes each piece in her fingers to get rid of the brownish froth, then tosses a chunk of frozen blood into the pot to add piquance to the consomme that will later be consumed as a chaser, after the meal. First she gives her husband his share, then it is every man for himself, and a squadron of filthy hands descends upon the meat pot, closing around the half-cooked food like so many greasy pairs of pincers. It is not a delicate cuisine, and the manners that go with it aren't elegant. The Eskimo takes a huge piece of meat, stuffs it into his mouth, and then, with a quick swipe of the "oloo"--a razor-sharp knife--snips off the part that won't fit in his mouth. All this is done with a surprising nonchalance, and for fifteen years I have been betting with myself, and losing every time, that one of them will miss and leave a piece of nose or chin on the snow.
Fish bones, and other bones they cannot crack and eat, plus inedible bits of gristle or skin, are spat back into the common pot, on top of the rest of the meat, from which you are expected to serve yourself a second helping, if you are so promted.
From time to time, craving a slightly more vibrant flavor, the Eskimo dips a morsel of meat into a rusty tin can filled with rancid seal oil. Another delicacy is meat that has been buried for a few weeks and is nicely overripe, soft and mushy right down to the bone. When the Eskimo gets hold of a piece of such stuff he smacks his lips with delight.
"Mamaronaktok!" he exclaims stuffing his mouth with the spoiled meat. "Now you are talking!"
The missionary, after a few sojourns in Eskimo camps, gets used to the most bizarre items in the Arctic diet and learns to partake of everything with a smile and at least the semblance of gusto, for at stake are both his own reputation and his host's honor. To turn down a choice morsel of rotten meat or a scabrous bit of dried fish would be taken as a mortal insult to the whole Eskimo village and a terrible reflection on the white man's taste.
Most of the time, living as he does, on the trail, in the open, the priest is hungry enough to ignore the smell or unpleasant associaton, and soon learns not only to eat but to relish Eskimo viands. As to quantity, though, he cannot keep up with them.
No one can eat like an Eskimo. The true Inuk eats all day long, everything, and anything, in sight. The poor wihte man, used to eating on schedule, has no chance against such competition. His best bet is to stop after the first course and excuse himself. Then the Eskimos will smile.
"Ah," they will say. "It is true. You Great Eyebrows have a watch in your stomachs."
The Arctic is a dietician's nightmare, and anyone conscious of vitamins or a balanced diet will make himself miserable. Eskimos are almost exclusively carnivorous--at least, they were until very recently. Now they have developed a taste for the white man's flour, sugar, and other soft foods. Their classical food is meat, and they still live on it almost altogether. In the fall, the women and children search for berries, if they don't mind endless hours of labor for a few ounces of food, and they also dig from the ground a root called "Maso," insipid and quite diruretic, but nevertheless appreciated.
The only green that they eat is half-digested lichen and moss taken from the caribou's stomach--a deep green mush, of a dishonest color, though the taste might not be bad if the origin of the food were unknown.
But the diet of most people is ruled by prejudice. We French eat snails and love frogs, though both these make the Englishman wince and the American shudder. The Americans love maize--Indian corn--and eat it in season by the armful, while the French regard it as food fit for chickens. The Englishman regales himself on suet pudding, though this shocks everyone else. The Arabs like locusts, preferring them fried, and I'm told that people unknowingly served grasshoppers pronounce them the gastronomic find of the century. I'm sure that if you dished up a nice fat cat, being sure to put it on the menu as rabbit, everyone would smack his lips and eat his fill--until you produced poor Tabb's head.
So far as the odor and doubtful appearance of some Eskimo food is concerned--well, it is generally known that the best hunters amoung our people prefer their game somewhat high, and certanily connoisseurs of fine cheese maintain that it is best when well ripened. Turkish tobacco, they say, gets its distinctive flavor from being impregnated with the smoke of burning camel dung.
Surely, it is all a matter of taste.
As for myself, I think I can say I have tried every item on the Eskimo menu. I have enjoyed a drink of blood, and, when hungry, eaten meat that was still warm with the life blood of the caribou. I have lived on frozen raw fish, and been thankful for the meat that was almost ready to get up and walk away. I have eatn seal guts braided with blubber--a la mode de Victoria--and sampled all the birds: sea gulls, hawks, owls. Owls, believe me, are very good, and so is the liver of the scorpion fish.
It is surprising how quickly one revises food prejudices, and what a persuading effect on the taste is worked by a fifty mile soujourn in fifty-below weather. Appetite, as they say, is the best of sauces. And the white man who refuses to follow the customs of the country is apt to go hungry more often than not.