Historical Events

The detailed description of giviak is provided, where a seal is skinned and then filled with small birds called auks which is left to ferment in the summer sun, providing an Eskimo carnivore delicacy in the winter.

Book of the Eskimos

We sat a little while talking about the weather and the dogs. When the conversation died down a little, he expressed the thought that possibly his guests would want a bite to eat to pass the time, since he himself was so incapable of telling interesting hunting experiences or worthwhile stories.

We answered that we hadn't planned at all to eat at this particular time, but since we had been told that this was the house where the really good things were served, we wouldn't say no to anything he might offer.

Angutidluarssuk laughed and said that now he would try to forget his shame if it was possible, for he had never as yet had any luck when he tried to bring forth good-tasting food. On top of that, he protested, his miserable wife was completely lacking in all talents. But since his poor conditions surely were known to all, and he presumed that he was the topic of conversation wherever people wished to have a good laugh, he might as well go out and see if any of some poor birds he had collected were left. He would, he said, serve birds because he was incapable of catching seal or walrus or other such animals as manly hunters brought home.

He disappeared out through the entrance while the rest of us expressed our wonder at his modesty and excellent manners. Then we heard his voice calling from the outside. From the entrance tunnel he handed in one end of a long strap. At once several men jumped to their feet and began to pull on it. Outside, Angutidluarssuk was heard chasing puppy dogs away from the entrance tunnel and directing something heavy in through the narrow passage. Inside, the men hauled with exaggerated efforts.

"We can hardly manage this. It is terrible how this great hunter always owns big and heavy things. Do you suppose we ought to give it up?" etc. At last, a huge frozen seal came in through the opening. It was a giviak, the most festive food a Polar Eskimo can treat you to. Giviak means something immersed, in this case little auks that have been immersed in seal blubber and ripened through the summer into a delicacy to dream about.

Auks are birds that live by the millions in the bird cliffs along the coasts of Smith Sound. In an indirect way, they were the reason for our being there. For they are the favorite food of the foxes that the Eskimos traded to us in return for the goods we had to offer. They are small birds, no larger than starlings, but tasty to eat, either cooked or dried, and particularly so when preserved in blubber. The birds are caught in nets on long poles as they pass in flocks by the cliffs. What a wonderful time when they arrive in spring! Here it could really be said that "the sun is darkened" by birds.

When you want to make a giviak, you must first catch a seal, which then has to be flensed in a special and very difficult way. You start by cutting around the seal's mouth and let the hands feel their way down along its body inside the skin. The knife must not be too long, and it takes some practice before the hands have the right feel to avoid making holes in the skin. Around the forelimbs it can be particularly hard to find certain joints that have to be cut through. As you continue, both your arms are little by little buried in the seal. Often, big slices of blubber must be cut away and taken out through the opening at the mouth, so as to make room to operate in. When at last the knife has been all over, and the skin is entirely freed from the seal's body, there comes the most difficult part: the entire body has to be pulled out through the mouth opening. As a rule, two men have to pull with all their strength to get it done.

You now have a bag formed of the sealskin and lined with blubber. And you are ready to proceed with the next task: the bird catch. A wall of stones is put up to hide behind. The little auks do not nest on the steep cliffs, they make themselves comfortable under the big stones in the scree, and often they crawl into deep holes under these stones. When they then fly out, they amuse themselves by swarming in clouds along the cliff quite low over the ground. Then is the time to let the net dart up and catch it full of birds. The pole has to be turned quickly so as to close the net and prevent the birds from flying out again. The birds are taken out of the net and killed by guiding a thumb up under the breastbone to the heart, which is "displaced," and the bird dies at once. After the wings have been braided together on the back of the bird, it is then put down in the blubber bag. A diligent birdcatcher—the women as a rule—can fill a sealskin in two days. But Angutidluarssuk had filled two sealskins between two sleeps. It must be said, though, that he was famous for sleeping infrequently in good hunting weather.

When the bag is full, it must immediately be put in a secure place and covered with stones. The sun must never shine on it, since the blubber would then turn rancid. The comparative warmth of the summer air makes the blubber seep into the birds and cure their meat. Nothing is quite so delicious, especially the lump of blood collected around the damaged heart, which is almost heavenly to eat.

Now it was winter, and Angutidluarssuk's giviak was frozen. He took his axe and started chopping up the icy stuff Pink feathers and bird meat flew to all sides, while we watched in pious silence. At last the floor was completely covered with pieces of meat and blubber. Angutidluarssuk picked up a bite, tasted it, and threw it contemptuously away.

"Alas, as I told you: this is inedible! Possibly I have, through an oversight, filled the skin with dogs' dung. Possibly it is only my absolute ignorance about how to make a giviak that has caused this mistake! If you would show me a kindness, you would leave me now so that I could be alone with my shame!"

Upon this invitation, we started in. It tasted good the moment I got it in my mouth. But I had to be taught how to eat this remarkable dish. As long as it is frozen, you just chew away. You get feathers and bones in your mouth, of course, but you just spit them out. Frozen meat always has an enticing taste, and as it dissolves in the mouth, you get the full aroma of the raw fermented bird. It is incredible how much you can down, unbelievable how hard it is to stop. If you happen to come across a fully developed egg inside a bird, it tastes like a dream. Or the liver, which is like green cheese. Breast and drumsticks are cooling and refreshing. It was late before we were full, and there was then about half of the giviak left. This was put up on one of the bunks to thaw for later use.

When we had had some sleep, we started the second part of the feast. The giviak was now so much thawed that the little auks tasted entirely different, and it was possible to eat them in a new way. Whole birds could now be pried loose from the compressed mass, and when that is the case, great elegance can be demonstrated while enjoying them. A man with savoir-vivre holds the bird by the legs with his teeth. Then he strokes it with both hands, thus brushing off the feathers that have already been loosened by the fermentation. He brushes his hands together to remove all feathers, whereupon he turns the bird and bites the skin loose around the beak. This can then be turned inside out and pulled free of the bird without letting go of its legs. The eater then sucks the whole skin into his mouth and pulls it out again, pressing his teeth slightly together. In this manner, he gets all the delicious fat sitting inside the skin. Taste is, as we know, an individual matter, but this one—I dare guarantee—can become a passion.

When the skin is free of fat, you bite it free around the bird's legs and swallow it in one piece. The breast is eaten by biting down on each side of the bone, and the bone can then be thrown away. This bares the innards, and you can enjoy the various parts one by one. The blood clot around the heart has coagulated and glues the teeth together, the liver and the gall bladder have a spicy taste, while the bitter aroma of the intestines reminds one of lager beer. When these parts are consumed, the rest—wing, backbone, and pelvis—is taken into the mouth and thoroughly chewed.

Such delicacies were always served in Angutidluarssuk's house. His meat caches were always filled, and whenever I needed a good feed for my dogs, I went to visit him. He was always my friend. In the spring, he came home with as many seals as he could load on his sled. But he didn't sleep as long as the weather was nice and the seals were basking in the sun on the ice. He just unloaded and went out again to get more. Neighbors and friends had only to take what they wanted. Angutidluarssuk himself was silent and modest and smiled shyly when somebody spoke to him.

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