As I write this, out my kitchen window a couple of girls are pushing a wheelbarrow with a giant moose leg in it, the hoof stiffly sticking out like a third handle. They’re probably taking it home to butcher and share with their family and neighbors.
For Native hunters, it’s tradition and somewhat of a superstition to give away your first moose catch of the season. This act of generosity is supposedly good luck for the rest of the hunter’s hunting season, and of course there is only so much room in one family’s freezer for their own meat, so sometimes sharing is a necessity.
When we heard for the second time that a Native family had moose meat to give away, we grabbed a trash bag and ran down the boardwalk in our clunky rain boots to ask for a slab of whatever they could spare. Since our freezer went out in the summer and all the meat that Kim had in it was ruined, we were really hungry for some filling red meat. We climbed the stairs to the house, and they gladly invited us inside; on our walk in, I noticed dried fish* in the entryway and akutaq* in the arctic room.
This was in my first couple of weeks here, and I took in every detail of the living room piled full of Eskimos—grandparents, parents, kids, grandkids, adopted kids—sitting at the table, playing on the floor, laying on the couch, standing in the kitchen. They had many mouths to feed, yet they offered us some of the moose soup they had boiling on the stove. We took a small bowl and ate the Yupik staple, which was garnished with the proof of its freshness: a few brown moose hairs. We sat and talked for a few minutes as we ate, then we thanked them and left. We toted the moose meat home like a real treasure, feeling giddy as if we’d just won the lottery.
Maybe it’s just me, but the whole experience of cutting, cleaning and separating the huge hunks of meat (with a traditional Alaskan ulu knife, nonetheless!) makes the moose taste better in the end. The toil makes the meal a reward. My very first taste of moose meat was of a piece cut straight off a hairy hunk of moose that was shot that very morning and thrown onto a hot cast-iron skillet that afternoon. Once I got over the idea that I was eating Bullwinkle, I discovered that fresh moose is one of the most savory and delicious meats I’ve ever tasted. It is so fresh here that, no matter how you cook it, it stays juicy and tender. Its vague yet pleasant taste of liver mixed with the flavor and heartiness of red meat is just unbeatable. Our favorite ways to cook the moose are to make moose steak, moose casserole, moose sandwiches, moose roast, or moose fajitas. Some people grind the meat and make moose meatloaf, moose burgers, and even moose meatballs for spaghetti, but the most common way that the Natives prepare moose is moose soup (basically meat and water) because it’s cheap, it goes a long way, and it feeds a lot of people. The generosity of the Yupiks astounds me, and, like a piece of pilot bread* in moose soup, I’m soaking up more Eskimo culture every day.
Other foods that the Eskimos here eat are seal and seal oil, all kinds of fish (I tried halibut for the first time and fell in love), walrus, whale, bear, birds, muscox, caribou, and any berries that grow naturally in the tundra. Oh, and Crisco sandwiches (bread or pilot bread caked an inch high with Crisco).