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What We Can Learn From Traditional Arctic Diets

On the benefits of fermented blubber and the joys of drinking reindeer blood

"Two Waiting for Seal," Inuit art in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada. Image by Mike Beauregard via Flickr

Up in the arctic, life struggles to thrive. A rocky and frigid landscape supporting little more than meager shrubs, grasses, and some berries in the summer, it’s proven too hostile for more than a few animal species that have specially evolved to polar environs. Yet despite the harsh conditions, thousands of years ago human beings managed to etch out a life for themselves in the snows. These peoples’ ability to live in these regions is mostly due to a diet that to most of us seems narrow and anemic, but in truth has proven itself one of the most robust and healthy in the world.

Arctic diets vary vastly from region to region, according to the local environment’s flora and fauna. But at their most extreme, they consist of almost nothing but meat and fish, often from animals rich in fat (think polar bears, seabirds, and whales). For those of us who grew up learning the American Food Pyramid, or even the unholy devilcraft that is the new “My Plate” system, such a meat-heavy diet sounds borderline suicidal. But when eaten raw, these animals’ organs provide ample nutrients, including the vitamins we temperate-zoners draw mostly from plants. Blubber is also surprisingly rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated omega-3 fats and natural fermentation provides arctic diets with the benefits of probiotic foods. The result is a food regimen that provides everything a human needs, as well as one of the greatest natural defenses against diabetes, heart disease, certain types of cancer, and perhaps even seasonal effective disorder, illustrating that in any diet, there are no essential food groups, just essential nutrients.

A bowhead whale killed in an Inuit subsistence hunt. Image by Ansgar Walk via Wikimedia Commons

But in recent generations, it’s been harder and harder for peoples in the arctic to eat their traditional foods. During the 20th century, nation-state expansion into the arctic, often for military purposes, led to displacement, forced settlement, and new economic incentives, drawing people away from their old lifestyles and hunting practices. Global warming has also started to take a toll, damaging the food chain from the bottom up faster than in other parts of the world and contaminating the environment of surviving species. The end result is fewer hunters and gatherers moving further afield, often at greater personal risk, with less communal support for a diminishing return of often toxin-ridden game.

These days, very few arctic families eat a fully traditional diet, supplementing traditional foods with costly, imported, and processed Western fare. In Canada’s Inuit lands (some of the best studied in regards to food security), at least 65 percent of homes use traditional foods in less than half their meals, often replacing the remainder with fatty and sugary items. The reliance on Western foods and the increasing cost of rarer traditional foods has led to massive spikes in diseases arctic peoples used to be particularly resistant to, the decline of communal cultures built around hunting and food preparation, and increasing food insecurity. According to one study released in 2008, amongst Canada’s Inuit about 70 percent of all households were labeled as food insecure.

Inupiat fishing in Alaska

Fortunately, some people are dedicated to reviving and preserving the lessons of arctic diets. Though the ecosystems and lifestyles that supported these diets may be irreparably damaged, recent initiatives have aimed to re-popularize traditional foods with young people, offer access to ingredients, and preserve threatened environments. These projects are helping to make sure the modern world doesn’t totally bury arctic culinary traditions, the insights they may hold for us in terms of nutrition, and of the rough-and-ready, environmentally-sensitive adaptability that brought them into being.

Anna Sigrithur, age 25, is one of the folks studying, preserving, and spreading knowledge of arctic diets. A cook from Winnipeg obsessed with ingredients from Canada’s rural, snowy bits, Sigrithur recently became a research intern at the Nordic Food Lab, an outfit that explores the diversity and potential of Scandinavian foods using chemistry and far-out experimental cookery. (Last year, the Nordic Food Lab taught GOOD everything we could ever want to know about cooking with blood.)

Sigrithur recently spent a summer living with a group of Sami people—one of Europe’s last indigenous groups living in the far northern Lapland—who were hard at work preserving their own culinary traditions. (Unlike most arctic people, the Sami also herd reindeer.) I recently caught up with Sigrithur to talk about Sami foods, the goals and fruits of her research, and what the rest of us can learn when we directly or indirectly encounter these astounding foodways.

Sami reindeer herding. Image by Mats Andersson via Flickr

How did you get interested in arctic cuisines, and in researching Sami foods?

I’m a self-trained cook. I do a lot of culinary experimentation at home. I have a catering business. Manitoba, where I usually live, is a sub-boreal ecosystem, so not too far off from the arctic, really. I also study indigenous food systems as well as economics, so I have an interest in how indigenous peoples around the world, and traditional societies, survive in their environments, which are facing a lot of modernization pressure. And then [I’m also interested] in the culinary aspects, like ‘what are people eating? Is it delicious? How do they cook it?’

What are the most interesting, engaging, or attractive elements of Sami food?

It’s this deliciousness that comes out of harshness. It’s a tough environment to live and have food in. But they eat this entire diversity of food that’s around them [in what] seems on the surface like a restrictive environment to be eating from.

What are your personal favorite Sami foods and traditions?

I really enjoyed the reindeer blood. That was delicious, getting to eat some of this raw blood.

The metallic flavor wasn’t a problem for you? I know it is for a lot of people.

No, it wasn’t so metallic tasting. It was salty. It was kind of unctuous. But it didn’t even taste like it came from an animal. It just tasted so clean.

I really enjoyed [taking] the inner bark, the outer bark of various trees and learning to grind them and make various flatbreads. Scandinavian people are all about their thin, flat breads so they made all sorts of different crackers with pine bark flour, birch bark flour. That was both so delicious and so inspiring because trees are everywhere, and the bark is very abundant. So that was fun to learn.

Are you a proponent of the health aspects of arctic food?

I’m not a nutritionist, so I don’t think about that as much. But I tend to think that any traditional diet is a healthy one, because you can’t survive for thousands of years and gain a food tradition if it’s not healthy and balanced in some way.

Sami people in Norway, cica 1900. Image by Nasjonalbiblioteket via Wikimedia Commons

A lot of arctic peoples are losing their traditional foodways to modernization. Are the Sami in the same boat? And if so, are they pushing back against that loss?

Of course. People are going to eat whatever’s available to them and convenient, just like anybody does. And yes, I think a lot of Sami families eat more of a Westernized diet than not.

The woman I was staying with, she has become this cultural and food instructor because of a lack of other people who are teaching these food skills. She has talked about the fact that she feels there needs to be more people like her who are preserving this food knowledge and championing it and teaching the next generations, because as the generations go forward people will lose more and more of this knowledge.

What are the big challenges for this woman in trying to preserve her foodways?

She’s not very old, but she’s growing more elderly. A lot of these foods require a communal effort. You can’t live on a traditional diet by yourself because it’s really too much work. Communities do come together for the reindeer herding and the calf marking. They share the work for that, and that’s really evident in the northern communities.

But … she really relies on people coming and helping her in order to get everything done in terms of harvesting, drying, and processing these foods. It isn’t a part-time pursuit. To do this, you really have to revolve your life around your food. That’s probably one of the biggest reasons that it’s dying out. People are becoming more divided [with] the dissolving of community structures in favor of a more nuclear family unit and things like that.

I know she has a daughter who has been very keen on participating and learning all of her wisdom, so her daughter is definitely carrying that forward into another generation.

What can people like me, in the wider world, adopt or learn from Sami foodways?

I don’t think that people should adopt the Sami foodways if they’re not living in an arctic environment. They don’t have access to these foods. It would be nice if people could try reindeer, though. That’s a market that supports the Sami people and their husbandry.

Maybe just a curiosity about how to be more resourceful with the resources around you. This is something in most indigenous cultures, not just the Sami, but they use every part of the animal and have various preservation methods to store the meat. For folk getting more interested in hunting or trying to eat meat in a sustainable way, you can glean some insight from that. But in general I just hope that people become aware of the Sami, because in my experience people just don’t know that they exist and they’re not aware of the pressures facing them.

Is there anything else you want us to know about your work?

The Sami culture, like a lot of arctic cultures around the world, is being threatened. Change is affecting the way that the water melts and how the reindeer migrate and how many calves drown when they’re passing these big streams. Hydroelectric development is a big thing affecting their lands. Property ownership structures make it difficult for them to assert land rights.

Something that my teacher impressed upon me is that they need help and they need the world to be more aware of them. They need the Swedish and Norwegian governments to allow them to continue practicing their sovereignty.

Do you think they’ll be able to survive all of those pressures culturally?

Yeah, I think the Sami culture is a really strong one. It’s rooted in this activity of reindeer herding which, as far as I’ve experienced, people practice really strongly. Perhaps [even] more strongly than, say, 30-40 years go. I think there’s been a bit of an ethno-political renaissance.

So I think the Sami culture’s going to continue to be strong. And that is nice for people like my teacher, who is a big champion of their foods and language.

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