Have you recently shot a moose, beaver or deer, and maybe it’s too much for your own use? You can donate the animal to the Alaska Native Medical Center, (ANMC). That carries it Traditional Native Food Initiative from. The largest medical center in the state of Alaska is located in the capital Anchorage and is the refuge for sick residents of the northernmost part of the United States.
Among the patients are many with roots in the traditional population, such as the Aleuten, the Yupik, the Tlinglit and the Iñupiat. In the north live the Inuit peoples. Fifteen percent of today’s Alaskans identify as Native Americans. Despite the modernization of life and work, many maintain the old customs. Out of sheer necessity. There is a lot of poverty among the rural population and being self-sufficient is vital.
Traditional dishes are an important part of the culture of indigenous peoples. For many, it’s just everyday life. If you’re in the hospital in Anchorage, thousands of miles from home, recovering from Covid, you may be craving a piece of dried reindeer, a smoked salmon belly, some fermented cod roe or a serving of akutaq, a mixture of fish, lard, oil, sugar and wild berries.
For many patients, being able to eat their traditional foods isn’t all just delicious. It provides them with “many layers of cultural connection” and aids in recovery
The northernmost state of the United States has been hit hard by the corona pandemic. Healthcare is ‘fragmented’, writes The New York Times. Hospitals are overloaded, patients are treated in the hallway, and oxygen is rationed.
Due to the isolated location, the adequate measures and the thin population density, Alaska was initially spared from much corona misery, reported the NYT earlier. But when the vaccine came, ‘pockets’ of unvaccinated people arose and infections increased. The hospitals quickly filled up, including patients who came from thousands of miles away and had never been sick or in a hospital bed.
For many patients, being able to eat their traditional foods isn’t all just delicious. It offers them “many layers of cultural connection,” said Meda DeWitt, a Tlingit traditional healer in the newspaper. It helps them recover, says Jennifer Andrulli, herself a Yupik and professor of ethnic medicine and traditional diets: “The anxiety and stress response in our body from the hospital stay are alleviated by nutrient-rich forest and tundra foods.”
The standard cost in a hospital will suffice for other patients (although it could always be better), but in Anchorage they lovingly take special wishes into account. “We have a huge population that may not even eat traditional foods, but we also have people who have never eaten anything but traditional foods,” said Amy Foote, the executive chef at the ANMC, in the New York Times.
Chef Foote combines old ingredients with new preparations in the hospital kitchen. She learned traditional cooking and slaughter from ancient Alaskans
Foote is praised for her cooking and ingenuity. It depends on the supply of game – deer, elk, reindeer – often from recreational hunting. And also supplies of wild-picked vegetables, including samphire (‘beach asparagus’) or young ostrich fronds (‘fiddleheads’).
Foote combines old ingredients with new preparations in the hospital kitchen. She learned traditional cooking and slaughter from ancient Alaskans. When a seal becomes available, often donated selflessly by seal hunters, old-fashioned seal soup is on the menu. The ostrich fronds go on a pizza and the samphire in trendy salads.
“When we’ve made seal soup and we’ve been able to serve it to patients, and watch them take the first few bites, it transforms people,” Foote says. “You see them relaxed. They share stories and talk about what it will be like when they get out of the hospital. Wonderful to see.”
In the report of the FAO Traditional food supply channels in a pandemic: suggestions for their modernisation points to a paradox. In times of global turmoil during the pandemic, also in the markets for food – production, transport, processing, trade – you would think that small, local markets would be fine: everything is close and organized. Such as the often age-old, traditional food systems. The FAO defines it this way: “The route through which the products of family farming and artisanal fishing reach consumers, through free markets and folk markets”.
But no. The local markets appear to be very sensitive to disruption. And that’s why they need to modernize. Trading online, organizing distribution and delivery services, working more hygienically. “Thousands of outlets in different countries have closed for various reasons. (..) The flow of people on the street has stopped. (…) Accelerated growth of supermarket online sales channels has resulted in small retailers seeing their sales decline.”
The FAO report describes the situation in Latin America, but it won’t be much different further north in the Americas. What is visible everywhere, according to the FAO, is that disrupted local, small-scale markets are a factor in increasing food insecurity, precisely because producers are often also traders and consumers.
Which concluded Alaskan researchers already before the pandemic: “[H]High and rising rates of food insecurity, for example in Northern Alaska and Northern Canada, are widely regarded as threats to both physical health and cultural survival.”
Getting the right food where it’s needed is more than satisfying hunger. That’s the thinking behind it Traditional Native Food Initiative. Maybe not everyone starts to salivate when reading the conditions of the food donation. The rules are strict. For example, fermented tails from beavers, walruses and seals are not accepted, nor are many other traditional delicacies.
You will only be hungry for a little mikigaq, a delicacy of fermented whale blubber. Then you still have to ask whether the visitor will take that with them.
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Eating your own food makes you feel better – Traditional seal soup helps Alaskans survive and their culture – Foodlog