This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
Sick Societies is an interesting book, but in many ways it's scattershot. An anecdote out of context doesn't always illuminate whether or not a tradition is the cause of the "sickness," in this case botulism:
The Inuit practice of eating seal blubber raw rather than cooking it has caused an untold number of deaths from botulism, as has eating cattle that have died of anthrax, something that occurred in various parts of the world.
Most of the other "sick" traditions mentioned in this book are those involving less acute miseries, such as ridiculously inconvenient food taboos or genital mutilation. It seemed to me kind of inconceivable that people would have a food tradition that would make them vulnerable one of the most deadly types of food poisoning.
So when I came across this fascinating blog, Body Horrors, via Metafilter, I was excited to see a comprehensive post on the subject. Apparently the Inuit DO have some of the highest rates of botulism poisoning in the world and it is caused by traditional foods, but because they are not preparing them traditionally:
The researcher Nelson reported the preparation process quite evocatively in 1971:
“Meat is frequently kept for a considerable length of time and sometimes until it becomes semiputrid. This meat was kept in small underground pits, which the frozen subsoil rendered cold, but not cold enough to prevent the bluish fungus growth which completely covered the carcasses of the animals and the walls of the storerooms”.
The customary preparation process has since been modified from fermenting food in a buried clay pit, enclosed in a woven basket or sewn seal skin (known as a “poke”) for weeks or months at a time. Food is now stored in airtight, Western consumer goods such as plastic or glass jars, sealable plastic bags or even plastic buckets, and eaten shortly after in a week or month. Additionally, the food many be stored indoors, above ground or in the sun at milder, less optimal temperatures. This move towards storing meat in warmer, anaerobic settings for shorter lengths of time may expedite the fermentation process and, subsequently, enhance the risk of botulinum toxin production (5)....
Fermenting food is a delicate, complex process. As the Eskimo scholar Zona Spray notes, every step of the complex preparation process is carefully executed to ensure a highly acidic environment (3). She mentions that usually elders prepare such traditional foods and are better versed in the “oral history of health and sickness” than the younger generations. This strongly suggests that a failure to transmit traditional knowledge and customs may play an pivotal role in the use of different preservation materials and in skyrocketing incidences of botulism outbreaks in Alaska over the past 50 years (2)(5).
It's a good reminder that important aspects of traditions are often lost in translation to modernity.
Inuit only ate meat right? Wrong, the Inuit have an extensive variety of plant foods as well, documented in this wonderful ethnography.
Hmmm...just got done doing chores and it's time for bed? Nope, it's time to disobey Robb Wolf's wise advice about sleep and continue December's theme of heroes gone wrong.
Today it's Vilhjalmur Steffansson, Arctic explorer who unintionally became a low-carb hero because of his experiments with an all-meat diet and his books on life with the Inuit.
Apparently he was also a sociopathic liar and it's quite astonishing he managed to keep up his reputation over the years, though there was plenty written about him during his time that was critical. That's because he led or planned two notably disastrous expedition and afterward engaged in nefarious behavior to cover up his wrong-doings. But he was charismatic and even people who had suffered under him remained loyal.
One of the disastrous expeditions was to a small island on the coast of Siberia called Wrangel Island. He sent four men to claim it for Great Britain. Problem is that the men weren't so experienced and Great Britain didn't even want the island! Along with the men went a Inuit woman named Ada Blackjack. I just finished an excellent book about her.
She was an acculturated Inuit, which means she had spent her life in a town eating white people's foods like bread. She did know how to sew though and the men brought her along to keep them outfitted, which was important on the cold and desolate island. Ada took the job because her son was suffering from tuberculosis and the money would help pay for a good hospital.
VS said that life in the "friendly arctic" would be easy and that he'd be back to pick them up and resupply the new colony next year.
Two years later, a ship finally arrived. Ada and the expedition's cat were the only ones left.
Admittedly the young men made mistakes. One of them overcooked all his meat and didn't realize he had scurvy until it was too late. The others went for help and supplies. Their fate remains unknown.
But thing's weren't like VS told them. At first game was plentiful, but the next winter it was scarce and starvation became a reality. Thick ice blocked any ships from arriving. When the three men went for help, they left Ada and Lorne Knight, the man suffering from scurvy. Soon Lorne died and Ada was left by herself. Amazingly, she taught herself to hunt and managed to survive. She had nothing to keep her company besides a cat and a Bible. Her desire to get back home to her son keeps her going on the lonely and desolate island. Her story is incredible and I couldn't put this book down and missed my subway stop because of it.
The part that was less fun starts when the rescue ship finally arrives. The boy's families struggle with VS and the rescue's commander for the diaries left behind. Both VS and the commander wanted to use them for profit and spin their contents to suit their stories. Ada is a reluctant star and simply wants to live a quiet life with her son, but she struggles financially and with the memories of the tragedy on the island.
If you are interested in adventure books I'd definitely recommend picking up a copy.
One of the views that I get the most email about is my assertion that Inuit ate and still do eat plants. I have gotten dozens of emails saying I am wrong because of
1. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, an explorer, said so, in Fat of the Land
2. My professor/cousin/best friend's daughter lived with the Inuit and said they didn't eat any plants
Perhaps Anore Jones is part of a conspiracy, but if she is, it seems to be fairly usophisticated, because almost none of her book's content has been disseminated online and it contains recipes that use such crowd-pleasing ingredients like seal oil and fish heads. Her book is called Plants That We Eat and it's 240 pages, which is curious for a culture that supposedly eats no plants. If it's fiction, she's done a rather miserable job and I suggest you read Borges' The Book of Imaginary Beings instead.
But I doubt it's fiction. She lived in Kotzebue with Inupiat for 19 years and has numerous photos of them preparing plants. I think people with plant-free anecdotes may have either not spent enough time with the Eskimos or might have not had enough contact with women. According to Anore
Generations of Inupiat have lived healthy lives eating predominately meat and fat. They got all the necessary nutrients because their diet included much raw or lightly cooked meats, including heart, liver, kidney, brain, eggs, the edible parts of stomach, stomach contents, intestines, bones, and/or skin. Essential or not, plant foods remain a treat. Inupiat have always eagerly sought and stored in quantity all that were available.
The main plant foods are:
Several ZC/VLC people have told me that they heard that Inuit spurned berries and considered explorers who ate them foolish. Having eaten many far-northern berries, this doesn't make any sense to me unless they had some religious taboo, which they don't. In fact, it seems Inuit women (and sometimes men) go to a great deal of trouble collecting seemingly trivial tiny plant foods even when ample fat is available. I suspect that many of the plants they eat are very powerful nutritionally.
Some interesting ones include Sura (Salix pulchra), which is preserved in seal oil after picking, and contains 7-10 times the vitamin C of oranges! I often gathered wild chives (Allium schoenoprasum L.) in Sweden and the Inuit also use them raw in seal oil or cooked with fish.
Anore found that Inuit used lacto-fermentation to store some greens in the winter. Sourdock (Rumex arcticus), for example, is fermented in an underground sod house stored in sealskin pokes. A recipe is provided in case you have those ingredients on hand :) The Inuit warn you to turn it every few days to keep the bottom from rotting and occasionally untie it to let gases out.
Some plants, like roseroot (Sedum rosea) are fermented in water.
My grandmother would always dig the roots of roseroot when she could. She buried them in sand and grass on top of a high knoll. If hard times came when we were short of food, we'd know they were waiting. As long as we had seal oil, we could eat them. - Bessie Cross, an Inuit who Anore interviewed
Berries were often made into a dessert called Akutuq. It was made with rendered whipped fat mixed with berries, sometimes with roots and greens. Tragically, now the dessert often is made with hydrogenated vegetable shortening and sugar. Traditional fats included hard back fat from the caribou or moose, or blubber from walruses or seals. So much for wild game not having much fat...the Inuit have enough fat to have excess to use in desserts and other food preserving.
Another popular treat is Ittukpalak, which is made with roe and berries. I have made this and it is beautiful and delicious! Most of the berries they gather are rather tart and include blueberries, salmonberries, bearberries, cranberries, and rosehips. I often gathered rosehips in Sweden even in the middle of winter when they were withered on the vine. They could then be boiled into a vitamin-C rich tea.
In a good berry year the otherwise green tundra actually has a blueish cast from so many berries. Even after people and all the creatures have taken their fill, the berries will still be thick. They freeze on the bushes and on the ground for the mice and ptarmigan to eat all winter and are there, dried and sweet, for bears, birds, and people to eat next spring. It’s such an enormous wealth of food, but one never to be counted on, for in a poor berry year you will walk all day and not find enough to taste. Then the animals that ate berries must find other foods and some must eat each other.
As for roots, they have a rather ingenious method of gathering known as Masrunniaq. They look for mouse diggings and dig up their nests. Sometimes they hit the jackpot and find a cache of tiny sweet roots known as masru. They take the roots and add a piece of fish into the nest to thank the mice. Then they cover the nest back up with dirt. Some of the best roots come from Eskimo potato (Hedysarum alpinum)
Some roots are poisonous and it can be hard to distinguish these from the sweet roots. Don't try this at home. Inupiat say "eat masru with oil, or else you may become constipated."
Another method of stealing from animals includes the consumption of nigukkaun, which is caribou stomach, put in a warm place for 1-2 days or longer to ferment. Humans can't eat lichens, but the enzymes in the caribou stomach break them down and once fermented they can be eaten by us. Anore recommends NOT making this without the assistance of an elder. She says it is an acquired taste, but that she has learned to love the sweet-sour fermented taste.
Another dish is Inaluaq, which is a particular part of the ptarigan intestines. She suggests "warm the green, pasty material inside but don't actually cook it." mmm.
While the Inuit culture is rather uniform from an anthropological perspective, there are differences in food culture
The root of the yellow flowered oxytrope (Oxytropis maydelliana) has been eaten from Sealing Point in the historical past. It is also known as aiqaq and eaten in Anaktuvuk Pass and Canada. It occurs nearly all over Alaska and Northern Canda but is eaten only in certain places. Even 20 miles east, at Sisualik and Kotzebue, aiqaq is not normally eaten.
Like in Sweden, medicinal teas are made from spruce and juniper. Unlike in Sweden, Inuit never eat fungi except as part of caribou stomach.
So is this a conspiracy? Some of my VLC friends wil probably insist that this is a result of colonial contamination of their culture, which makes absolutely no sense, considering these foods are very hard to process, some are poisonous if processed badly, and colonialism brought foods that are easy to cook and which are now widely adopted to the exclusion of many of these plant foods. Occam's razor! Obviously, their diet is still low carb, but there is evidence that the plants that they eat, even if they don't contribute a lot of calories, matter on a micronutritional level.
We aren't as strong as when we were kids. Few young people even know how to enjoy [berry picking]. We eat different foods now, a lot of store foods. Some foods we carry for our lunch are half packaging, and all the junk gets left on the berry ground. It's not good for the birds and animals, and it's not a thank-you to the land to cover it with trash. Now places on those good berry grounds look like a dump—Styrofoam cups, pop cans, paper plates, plastic wrapping, and aluminum foil. We want to treat the ground that grows our food better than that. It's good to remember the old custom of leaving a thank-you for the berries. The best thank-you we can leave today is to leave the berry ground clean.- from interview with elder
I wish this book had color photos, but while some of the recipes are impossible to make in Brooklyn, it's a beautiful testament to human ingenuity and opportunism. I trust Anores' information will stand the test of time and I'm some people who insist Stefansson showed Inuit ate an all-meat diet might not have read his complete work. I also think that Inuit food is probably more diverse than anthropologists traditionally thought— for example, in the works I just linked to he mentions several plants that are absent from Anores' book! I hope more of Anore's work and actual Native voices on food reach the greater world.
Alaskan woman gathering roots, from a book on Native Writers, which includes an essay by a Native woman corroborating Anores' work
I spent this weekend in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania at the Weston A. Price Foundation's Wise Traditions conference with John Durant and Allison Bojarski. I live-Tweeted it, but here is also a list of things I learned:
And a bonus:
11. The government isn't going to fix the food system and in its blundering will destroy many small farmers and food businesses. Wow, it was scary seeing a doc called Farmageddon, which was accounts of military-style raids on FARMS. It was weird being in the same room as many of the people I did my senior food law thesis on like Linda Faillace and Mark McAfee. I was very glad to pay $4 at breakfast for bone broth because it supported the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund. But I still don't feel sad about not going to law school because the whole thing is just too depressing for me.
Raw flesh might sound scary, but every traditional healthy culture studied by Weston A. Price ate at least some raw animal products. I was reminded of that when I dug up this article from the Washington Post about raw meat eating in Siberia. Raw meat also has a following in NYC too and I know several people who subsist on over 50% raw. I started doing raw foods as a vegan, but I gradually moved over to raw meat when I found that raw veganism made me feel malnourished and fatigued. That was a time in my life when I had been a little wild and I had probably done some damage to my stomach. I found raw meat, eggs, and fish was about the only thing that I could eat that didn't make me feel like crap. I never fell ill during this time.
Why don't I eat raw anymore? Well, I certainly eat plenty of raw foods still, primarily oysters, fish, and some grass fed meat. But raw is expensive because you really have to be careful about sourcing and you absorb fewer calories per gram of meat according to Richard Wrangham's book Catching Fire. I'm also a foodie at heart and once my stomach was healed, it was hard for me to find a reason not to eat delicious cooked food. But the raw paleos have some good arguments for their way of eating and it is definitely beneficial to eat some raw food even if it's just an oyster or two.
There has also been lots of buzz about carnivore-only diets in the paleo community lately. Such diets are traditional and there are numerous instances of healthy peoples like the Inuit who ate that way. Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson was perhaps one of the first urban NYC cavemen when he frequented Greenwich Village Salons back in the 1930s. Studying the Inuit, he was amazed to find that there were healthy despite eating a diet of almost 100% flesh. Back in the States, he did a study where he and another explorer agreed to eat only meat for a year to prove anyone could be healthy on such a diet. The diet was a success and he remains an idol to the carnivore community. I suggest everyone check out his excellent books.
I think though that while such diets can be successful, they are not paleo (there is no evidence of completely carnivorous pre-neolithic cultures) and not necessarily appropriate for everyone. In the long term, Inuit suffer from osteoporosis, probably because of excessive amounts of protein. There are some genetic differences that appear to allow them to eat their diet more successfully. Carnivore is just one option to investigate if other diets don't work, but it can be a difficult road and perhaps it's not so optimal for the long term.
Either way, there is much we can learn from cultures like the Inuit. Here are several rules I have gleaned
The Fast Runner trilogy is available free online. The films are made by Inuits and for Inuits and are a great window into a way of life that few of us are truly aware of beyond "Eskimo" stereotypes.
"All animal carcasses shown in the film were used properly, for food or for their hides." The Inuit have been devastated by Western foods, but remain relatively healthy compared to other First Nations tribes like the Pima in the US, probably because hunting traditions still persist. But they have to fight to keep their lifestyle and foodways legal in the face of Western opposition to hunting.