Plants That We Eat

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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:

  1. Greens in seal oil
  2. Cooked and pickled leaves
  3. Raw and fermented leaves
  4. Berries
  5. Tiny roots
  6. Tea and medicinal plants

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