Eskimo Life/Chapter 6

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Eskimo Life  (1893) 
Fridtjof Nansen, illustrations by Otto Sinding, translated by William Archer
COOKERY AND DAINTIES
London: Longmans, Green, and Co. pages 89-99

CHAPTER VI
COOKERY AND DAINTIES

One feature of the Greenlanders' daily life, which to us seems strange enough, is that they have no fixed meal-times; they simply eat when they are hungry, if there is anything to be had. As already mentioned, the hunters often go the whole day without anything to eat. They have a remarkable power of doing without food, but to make up for this they can consume at a sitting astonishing quantities of meat, blubber, fish, &c.

Their cookery is simple and easy to learn.

Meat and fish are eaten sometimes raw or frozen, sometimes boiled, sometimes dried; and sometimes meat is allowed to undergo a sort of decomposition or fermentation, when it is called mikiak, and is eaten without further preparation. A dish of this sort, which is very highly esteemed, is rotten seals'-heads.

The blubber of seals and whales is generally eaten raw. My dainty readers will of course shudder at the very thought of eating raw blubber; but I can assure them that, especially when quite fresh, it is very good. It has a sweetish, perhaps rather mawkish, taste, reminding one of cream, with nothing of what we should call an oily or fishy flavour; this does not make itself felt until the blubber has been boiled or roasted, or when it has grown rancid. There are still people, no doubt, who believe that the Eskimos are in the habit of drinking train-oil, although even Hans Egede has pointed out that this is a mistake. That they do not always refuse it, however, when it comes in their way, I was able to assure myself at Godthaab; for I always saw our old maid-servant Rosina take a sip or two out of our lamp when she was cleaning it in the morning, and, as she usually did, had filled the vessel a little too full. It did not seem at all to disagree with her.

They also preserve the stalks of angelica in train-oil, preparing them, according to Saabye's account, in the following peculiar fashion: 'A woman takes a mouthful of blubber, chews it, and spits it out, and so continues until she thinks she has enough. When the angelica-stalks have steeped for a certain time in this liquid, they are taken out and eaten as dessert with much appetite.'

Of vegetable food, the primitive Greenlanders used several sorts; in addition to angelica, I may mention dandelions, sorrel, crowberries, bilberries, and different kinds of seaweed. One of their greatest delicacies is the contents of a reindeer's stomach. If a Greenlander kills a reindeer, and is unable to convey much of it home with him, he will, I believe, secure the stomach first of all; and the last thing an Eskimo lady enjoins upon her lover, when he sets off reindeer-hunting, is that he must reserve for her the stomach of his prey. It is no doubt because they stand in need of vegetable food that they prize this so highly, and also because it is in reality a very choice collection of the finest moss and grasses which that gourmet, the reindeer, picks out for himself. It has undergone a sort of stewing in the process of semi-digestion, while the gastric juice provides a somewhat sharp and aromatic sauce. Many will no doubt make a wry face at the thought of this dish, but they really need not do so. I have tasted it, and found it not uneatable, though somewhat sour, like fermented milk. As a dish for very special occasions, it is served up with pieces of blubber and crowberries.

Another dish, which will doubtless shock many Europeans, is the entrails of ptarmigans. In this case they do not confine themselves to the stomachs, but devour in a twinkling the viscera with their contents. The remainder of the ptarmigan they seil to the traders for a penny or less (5 to 8 öre). This is the reason why, in Greenland, one never sees ptarmigan whole, except those one has shot oneself.

One time when we went on a hunting expedition up the Ameralik fiord, and had the Greenlander Joel with us, he devoted a day to tearing the entrails out of all our ptarmigan; but as they numbered a good many more than a hundred, he could not devour the whole on the spot, and gathered up the remains in a large sack. Upon its delicious contents, which must have become a sort of gruel before he reached home, he no doubt intended to feast in company with his well-beloved Anna Cornelia. I hope the reader will pardon my inability to inform him how this dish tastes; it was the one Greenland delicacy which I could not make up my mind to essay.

Among other dainties I must mention the skin (matak) of different sorts of whales, especially of white whale and porpoise, which is regarded as the acme of deliciousness. The skin is taken off with the layer of blubber next to it, and is eaten raw without further ceremony. I must offer the Eskimos my sincerest congratulations on the invention of this dish. I can assure the reader that now, as I write of it, my mouth waters at the very thought of matak with its indescribably delicate taste of nuts and oysters mingled. And then it has this advantage over oysters, that the skin is as tough as india-rubber to masticate, so that the enjoyment can be protracted to any extent. Even the Danes in Greenland are greatly addicted to this delicacy when it is to be had; they cook it, however, as a rule, thus making it of a jellyish consistency and easy of mastication. The taste of nuts and oysters disappears entirely.

A delicate dish, which does not, however, rival matak, is raw halibut-skin. It has the sameadvantage that, by reason of its toughness, it goes such a long way. I can confidently recommend it as exceedingly palatable, especially in winter.

The Greenlander is also very fond of raw seal-skin with the blubber. Its taste was very tolerable, but I could not quite reconcile myself to the hairs, and therefore took the liberty of spitting them out again, after having made several vain attempts to swallow them.

They eat the flesh of seals, whales, reindeer, birds, hares, bears, even of dogs and foxes. The only things, so far as I know, that they despise, are ravens; as these birds feed to some extent upon the dungheaps, they are regarded, like the plants that grow there, as unclean.

Lean meat they do not care about at all; therefore they prefer, for example, sea-birds to ptarmigan. It happened once that in one of the colonies in South Greenland, a clergyman, who had just arrived in the country, invited some of his flock to a party, and his wife treated them to the greatest delicacy she knew, namely, roast ptarmigan. The Greenlanders ate very sparingly of it, though their hostess pressed it hospitably upon them. At last she asked whether they did not like ptarmigan. Oh yes, they answered, they ate it sometimes—when there was a famine.

What I have said above will doubtless be enough to prove that the Eskimos are by no means so easily contented in their diet as is generally supposed. In famine times, however, they will eat almost anything. Dalager assures us that they will, for example, 'cut their tent skins to pieces and make soup with them,' and it is not uncommon to hear of some one who has made soup of his old skin trousers.

The method of serving the food differs considerably from that which obtains in Europe. There are no tables in the Greenland house; therefore the dish is placed in the middle of the floor, and the people sit on the benches around, and dip into it with the forks provided by Nature. It seldom occurs to them to place the dish upon a box or any other raised place; it seems almost a necessity for them to stoop. An example of this may be found in an anecdote of a young Danish lady who, soon after her arrival in Greenland, got some Eskimo women into her house to do washing. Coming into the wash-house, she found them bending over the wash-tubs, which stood upon the floor, and, thinking this an awkward position, she brought them some stools to place the tubs upon. Shortly afterwards she went in again to see how they were getting on, and found them, to her astonishment, standing upon the stools and, of course, stooping still more awkwardly over the tubs, which remained upon the floor. Se non è vero è ben trovato.

Of all the many delicacies to which we have introduced them, the Christian Greenlanders are most addicted to coffee, and the indulgence in it has on the west coast become almost a vice. They brew it strong, and seldom drink less than two large bowls at a time; and it is not at all unusual for them to take coffee four or five times a day—it tastes so nice and puts them in such excellent spirits. They are not insensible to its deleterious effects, however, and therefore young men are allowed little or none of it, lest it should spoil them for hunting. A dizziness from which the older men sometimes suffer, and which makes them unsteady in the kaiak, they attribute in large part to coffee. This harmonises curiously with the results of recent physiological experiments, which have shown that the most dangerous poisons contained in coffee—cafeonet, &c.—attack precisely that part of the nervous system on which equilibrium depends.

Next to coffee they are devoted to tobacco and bread. On the west coast, tobacco is for the most part smoked or chewed; while snuff is the East Greenlanders' weakness. The women on the west coast, too, are given to snuffing, and it is often an unpleasant surprise to observe an attractive young woman blackening her nostrils and upper lip with a copious pinch. They grind their own snuff with flat stones, out of undamped roll-tobacco, which they cut up small and dry over the lamp. To make it go further it is sometimes mixed with powdered stone; and it is kept in horns of different sizes. On the east coast, snuff performs a definite social function. The Eskimos have no words for 'good-day' or 'welcome,' and fill up the gap by offering their snuff-horns to any stranger who is acceptable in their sight, whereupon the newcomer responds by offering his horn in exchange. When they part, the same ceremony is repeated.

The West Greenlanders prepare their chewing tobacco in a way which to us seems somewhat surprising. A deep Danish porcelain pipe is half-filled with smoking-tobacco, which is then thoroughly drenched with water, after which the pipe is filled to the brim with dry tobacco; then it is smoked till the fire reaches the wet tobacco and is extinguished. The ashes are then knocked out, and as much oil as possible is scraped together from the oil-cell, the pipe-stem, the old accretions in the pipe-bowl, &c., and is added to the already well impregnated mass in the bottom of the bowl, which is then considered ready for chewing. This particularly strong preparation is specially prized for use on board the kaiak.

The Government has, fortunately, prohibited the sale of brandy to the Greenlanders. Europeans, however, are allowed to order it from home, and may treat the Greenlanders with it. It is very common to let them have a dram when they are serving as rowers on board the boats of Europeans travelling in the summer-time, and after any bargain has been concluded with them. It has furthermore been wisely ordained that the kifaks, or those who are in the employ of the Danish Company, get each his dram every morning; while the hunters, who ought to be more capable and better men than the kifaks, cannot obtain any without either entering into the service of the Europeans or selling something to them.

They are passionately fond of brandy—women as well as men—not, as they often confided to me, because they like the taste of it, but because it is so delightful to be drunk; and they get drunk when- ever an opportunity offers, which is, happily, not very often. That the intoxication is really the main object in view appears also from the fact that the kifaks do not greatly value their morning dram, because it is not enough to make them drunk. Several of them, therefore, agreed to bring their portions into a common stock, one of them drinking the whole to-day, the next to-morrow, and so on by turns. Thus they could get comfortably drunk at certain fixed intervals. When the authorities discovered this practice, however, they took means to stop it.

Unlike their sisters here in Europe, the Eskimo wives, as a rule, find their husbands charming in their cups, and take great pleasure in the sight of them. I must confess, indeed, that the Eskimos, both men and women, seemed to me, with few exceptions, considerably less repulsive, and, of course, considerably more peaceable, in a state of intoxication than Europeans are apt to be under similar conditions.

When the Europeans first came to the country, the natives could not at all understand the effects of brandy. When Christmas approached, they came and asked Niels Egede when his people were going to be 'mad'; for they thought that 'madness' was an inseparable accompaniment of the feast, and the recurring paroxysm had become to them a landmark in the almanack. They afterwards ascertained that it was due to this liquor, which they therefore called silaerúnartok—that is to say, the thing which makes men lose their wits; but now they usually call it snapsemik.