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What whale tastes like.

thJust spent a couple of days in Fairbanks with my friend Linda B. Today I came home to freshly waxed floors, freshly baked bread and freshly boiled whale. I am not making that up. Yes, DF really did wax the floors.

And yes, he really did boil a piece of Balaena mysticetus.

It was a weekend of firsts for me: my first trip to the 8 x 10 Alaska Playwrights Festival in Fairbanks, and my first chance to try whale meat and blubber. You’d blubber, too, if you had to eat whale meat. (Rimshot!)

But seriously: When DF told me over the phone that he’d been given a small chunk of bowhead, I asked him to save me a bite. The animal came from the Bering Sea and was harvested by Alaska Natives.

He’d eaten whale before and was able to tell me that this was “pretty good” – recently harvested and thus more fresh-tasting than some other whale meat that he’s eaten during his lifetime. Boiled briefly and garnished with Frank’s Red Hot Sauce, the muktuk (skin and fat) went down pretty nicely, he said.

Rich and chewy

Deciding against hot sauce, I sprinkled on a little kosher salt and took a cautious nibble. It tasted very, very rich but at the same time tasted almost like nothing at all.

As I chewed I’d get the barest hint of the ocean – not quite fishy, more of a briny essence – and the sense of the fat rendering in my mouth. The whale skin took more chewing but it wasn’t the “mouthful of rubber bands” that a friend once described, probably because it was so fresh.

It did not taste like chicken.

The swoony richness made me cautious, given that I no longer have a gall bladder – sometimes a too-oily food doesn’t stick around long enough for me to get to know it better. That’s why I gave up after one bite and let DF finish the rest.

Some of you may be horrified at the idea of cetacean cuisine. But for the 10 bowhead whale subsistence hunting villages of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, the whale “feeds our communities and is the keystone of our Inupiat identity.”

One whale feeds a lot of folks – so many, in fact, that they can afford to share with visitors and friends. “If you live in Alaska long enough,” DF said, “someone will offer you a piece of muktuk.”

(And if you ever find yourself in possession of a lot of muktuk? Use this Alaska Whale Meat Stew recipe. Read it all the way to the end. It’s funny.)

A long, long heritage

If you ever get a chance to taste whale in Alaska, keep in mind that it is more than just food. You’re being offered a piece of someone’s heritage. Say “yes.”

And if you can’t say “yes,” at least don’t say “oh hell no!” Instead, try something like “None for me, thanks, but how kind of you to offer.”

I felt privileged to have the chance to taste this traditional food. The experience made me wish I’d been a little bolder on our way back from Fairbanks. When we stopped at Rose’s Café in Healy, we were told that sauerkraut cream pie was available. I thought this was a joke, so Linda and I split a piece of peanut butter chocolate pie instead.

Turns out it wasn’t a prank played on tourists. “My husband heard about it on Andrew Zimmern,” said Leslie, the waitress. So her Dave, the head cook and baker, recreated the recipe for the café.

I could have gotten a piece to go. Just as well. It probably would have clashed with the muktuk.


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15 Comments

  1. Waxed the floors and made bread? Does he have a brother? I could live in Alaska for that. I cannot bear fat or skin in my mouth, but I would try one bite of whale. How could a person pass up a chance like that? I did not realize that communities depended on whale so much and that it was an important part of the heritage. Do these people have any vegetables? I have heard that the fat and meat consumption with no vegetables did not hurt their health. But, you know how it is–you can read anything on the internet.

    • Donna Freedman

      The only vegetables before Contact were tundra plants that some people ate and some people didn’t, apparently.

  2. So interesting! I don’t like winter, but I have always been fascinated with Alaska. DF — and his Native friends — deserve a big hug for being so generous.

    • Donna Freedman

      Agreed. It’s kind of whoever gave that whale meat to have shared it. He or she was sharing more than just food.
      Sometimes at potlucks you’ll get a shot at Native dishes. I do draw the line at stinky heads, though. Even Andrew Zimmern turned green when he tried them.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stinkheads#Stinkheads
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  3. Melissa F

    Thankfully, I now know what whale tastes like and don’t have to try it personally. Not that trying it would be an easy task since I live in Pennsylvania and don’t often get to see whales. I loved the Whale Meat Stew Recipe though and might have to stash it away as a keeper in case I do run into any whale meat. You brightened my morning and I hope yours is just as bright too. Take care Donna.

    • Headymusk

      Marine mammal parts are illegal in the U.S. I acquired some in Inuvik Yukon and came across the border in Montana with it and almost wound up in jail, if I wouldn’t have had a receipt for it!

  4. ImJuniperNow

    At first glance, I was appalled and wanted to call Greenpeace (I gave up beef a year ago and have become quite self-righteous).

    And then I thought “Oh, no, if this catches on it’ll be another thing to give up.”

    I’m going to have my chicken sandwich now. It was harvested by some native Marylanders in the Perdue factory.

  5. Catseye

    After that description, I have to admit that I’m intrigued. One more reason to visit Alaska.

  6. Being fro the Caribbean I’ll try anything once. If I’m ever in Alaska,sure thing,why not?

  7. My sister-in-law also doesn’t have a gall bladder. Whenever we’re in a new place or someone’s home for the first time, the first thing she asks, “where’s the nearest restroom?” Just in case!

    • Donna Freedman

      Mostly I’ve been OK, but I still try to limit the amount of fatty foods I eat at any given time. It doesn’t have to be much: Once I found myself doing the Aztec Two-Step after a simple bowl of oatmeal.

  8. Interesting that it’s kind of bland…I imagined it would be stronger flavored. On the other hand, most whales graze on plankton rather than eating fish, so there’s no reason the meat would taste fishy.

    Love your stories from Alaska! 🙂

    • Donna Freedman

      Thanks, ma’am.
      DF saved the fat that congealed on top of the water. He says he’s going to add it to a batch of cookies. I wouldn’t doubt it.

  9. A little hint for Donna and others without gall bladders: I have IBS and never know when the Porcelain Waltz will strike, or how forcefully. (I know to avoid olive oil, but nothing else is definite.) When I’m going to a new restaurant or eating at someone’s home where I don’t know how food will be prepared, I just pop an Imodium tablet before leaving the house. It doesn’t stop the reaction entirely, but it does give me time to reach the restroom and deal comfortably – ’nuff said about that. 🙂

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