Berry picking is a major subsistence activity for the Yupik Eskimos. The tundra is covered in berry-producing shrubs that yield lots of fruit in the summer. Berries are the only native source of Vitamin C in this region, and as such, are an important part of the diet.
There are a half dozen different types of berries that grow here. Salmonberries are a multilobed berry that look like an orange version of the blackberry common to the Lower 48. They are very juicy and have rather large seeds. I love the flavor, but don’t like the seeds. The other berries are single-lobed fruit like the traditional blueberry, only much smaller. Blueberries, blackberries (which look like Montana’s huckleberry) and redberries are the most common. There are both low-bush and high-bush cranberries which grow on dry ground, not in bogs like the cranberries of the Lower 48. All of them are much smaller than their downstates cousins.
My favorite is the blueberry. Tundra blueberries are tiny, intensely flavorful, and very tart. They are wonderful in pies, pancakes, and coffeecake. Cooking with them requires more sugar not to shock your mouth, and any dish that includes them will turn your tongue and your gums purple!
Most people either make jam from the berries or freeze them for later use. The favorite dessert of many Alaska Natives is agutak, or Eskimo ice cream. It consists of Crisco, berries, sugar, and a “texturizer”, either boiled white fish or mashed potatoes. I know, it sounds pretty bizarre, but it is actually quite tasty.
Crisco is placed in a large bowl and whipped with a bare hand, folding in lots of air, until is light and fluffy. Sugar and berries are added with lots more whipping. Then cold boiled white fish is added (or mashed potatoes), and more whipping, until it has a smooth, homogenous texture. The end product is something like cake frosting. It can be eaten at room temperature, or chilled, or frozen. The fish or potatoes do not add a flavor to the dish, but simply change the texture so it does not feel slippery on the tongue. The key is in the whipping; lots of air must be whipped in for it to be light, not heavy. Poorly made agutak is about as appetizing as sticking your spoon into the Crisco can and eating it. Well made agutak is yummy, light and flavorful and tasting of berries. It is a power-packed food, essentially fat, sugar, and Vitamin C. When eaten along with dried salmon for protein, it is pure energy that will keep you warm in the coldest weather.
Blueberries are also an excellent source of anti-oxidants. There has been some thought that they may be helpful in speeding recovery from extended exercise. A number of top mushers, including Susan Butcher, have experimented with feeding blueberries to sled dogs after long runs, and felt that the dogs recovered more quickly as a result. And the dogs love them!
The tundra in front of our house is covered in blue and black berries right now. Dutch and I went out and picked berries for about an hour this afternoon, and came back with a half gallon. That will be enough for a pie and a blueberry pancake breakfast for Dad and Uncle Bob when they get here in a few days. Maybe some blueberry scones, too. We only picked about half of the area in front of the house; if time and energy allow, I’ll go out and pick some more after work tomorrow. I’d sure love to have a few quarts in the freezer for winter. If I get a pie made before the upcoming camping trip, I’ll share my favorite recipe (with photo) for tundra berry pie.
Now if this darned rain will just stop…
Photo of Fadusia Shorty, Yupik elder from the Yukon village of Marshall, making agutak; from a postcard.
Labels: Life in Bethel