I have seen how the natives degenerate when they take to European food. They lose their natural coating of fat to a great extent, and need more clothing to withstand the cold ; they become less robust, less able to endure fatigue, and their children are puny. When a sick man came to hospital I told his friends "You may bring Eskimo foods for him"
January 1, 1912
Among the Labrador Eskimos
Samuel King Hutton
One of the greatest problems that presented itself in those early days of Okak Hospital was the problem of food. So often the people had said "We are Eskimos — we are different from Europeans" that I felt certain, that there was a great truth in it. The missionaries have done the people a good service in persuading them to remain Eskimos in their food and clothing: there has been no attempt to force European ways upon them; and I am convinced of the wisdom of this attitude because I have seen how the natives degenerate when they take to European food. They lose their natural coating of fat to a great extent, and need more clothing to withstand the cold; they become less robust, less able to endure fatigue, and their children are puny.
Perhaps it is their great tendency to imitate that explains why, at the more southern of the stations, where English-speaking settlers live among the people at their vUlages, the Eskimos are not so fine physically as those living in the north. Whatever the reason, the fact remains: and so I tackled the feeding problem. When a sick man came to hospital I told his friends "You may bring Eskimo foods for him," and they hailed the suggestion with delight. I found them a little shy, at first, of letting me know what Eskimo foods really were. I knew from hearsay that seal meat and codfish are the staple things; and for a while the sick folks were supplied with those: but presently friends began quietly to bring other things —Eskimo dainties, I might call them. I went into a ward one day, and found a woman sitting up in bed sucking and chewing at a pile of raw fish-heads — which she hastily set aside when she saw me. Presently she took them up again and fell to with the remark, uttered with a shy smile, "Mammadlarput ukkoa (these taste very good)." Another had a lot of what looked like dried dates, threaded on a string. This curious collection looked very like a necklace, and she kept it by her bedside, and picked one of the objects off to chew whenever the fancy seized her. They puzzled me for a time, until Juliana (who had made my skin clothes, and had now become our first Eskimo nurse) enlightened me. "These are trout-stomachs, dried in the open air"— a real Eskimo tit-bit.
I might make a long list of the foods the people brought — seal meat raw, dried, boiled, fried, and even made into a stew with flour and giving forth a most appetising smell; the flesh of reindeer, foxes, bears, hues, sea-birds of all sorts; eggs of gulls, sea-pigeons and ptarmigan, the gull's eggs especially being sometimes in a half-hatched state, with great, awful looking eyes inside them; trout and cod and salmon; the boiled skin of the white whale and the walrus; raw reindeer lips and ears — these are only some of the peculiarly Eskimo dishes that passed before our eyes; to say nothing of attempts at European cookery, such as home-baked bread, sometimes grey and sodden, sometimes light and wholesome, so that we wondered how Eskimo hands and Eskimo stoves could bake so well; roasted dough, as hard as bricks, a concoction of flour and water baked on the top of a tiny iron stove; and even, on festal occasions, dough with currants.
The list might be longer: as a matter of fact, about the only food the people did not bring to hospital was their great delicacy — rotten seal-flippers. I made the acquaintance of this remarkable item on the Eskimo menu when I was visiting in one of the houses on the hill. The people were grouped round a wooden tub which contained a pile of grey and slimy somethings; the smell that arose from the tub was subtle and evil.
"What have you got?'' I asked them; and the head man of the household answered with the Eskimo word for "rotten." He held a flipper up for me to see, and shook his head with a smile as he said "You could not eat that; it would make you ill."
"Ahaila," said another man in the circle, "only strong people can eat rotten flippers. No good for sick people. Illdle, but we like them, and they do us good, but the people in the south have forgotten how to eat rotten flippers, and their stomachs have grown too weak. Mammadlarpulle (but they taste good)."
How long those flippers had been soaking in that tub I did not find out, but they were assuredly gamey.
And the man spoke a truth; the northern Eskimos are far more primitive in their food than are the southerners; and yet, all along the coast, they still keep to the staple diet of raw meat that earned for them in olden times the epithet "Eskimo —eater of raw flesh" which, as the story goes, the Indians hurled at them in derision. And without a doubt the raw foods suit their peculiar constitution the best.
I found that the people refuse food so long as they feel acutely ill: their one cry is "Immilanga, immilanga (water, water)." As a consequence they waste away at an extraordinary rate; and after a few days of serious illness the qumdam plump and ruddy Eskimo is gaunt and haggard, with bony face and wrinkled skin; he seems to have grown old all of a sudden. But with the beginning of convalescence the feeding begins. So soon as the invalid loses his pains and his feeling of misery his appetite returns, and he devours immense quantities of meat and fish, washing them down with copious draughts of water. This fattening process is even more wonderful to watch than the wasting: the hollow cheeks fill out, wrinkles disappear, limbs grow round and plump again, and the face locks younger day by day. All sorts of food are welcome, but without a doubt the native foods are the foods that work the miracle. I have seen the people sitting up in bed, munching strip after strip of tough dried codfish and leathery nipko (dried reindeer meat), and dipping the strips between the bites into a cup of cod-liver oil kept handy for the purpose. I suppose the oil moistened the meat ; at any rate it gave it a proper Eskimo flavour — but it must be proper Eskimo oil. I thought to save trouble by getting a gallon of the real thing from the oil yard ; but no, the sick folks wanted it fresh and home made, and I besought their friends to bring them some. It came, the crude article, brown and nauseous, the result of frying Uvers over the stove in the family frying-pan ; and it was like honey to their palate. They dipped and chewed, and sucked and chewed and dipped again, and said "Piovok'' (it is good), "Ananak" (splendid). And I wondered, as I watched them eat, whether it was that same all-useful frying-pan that gave the subtle and indescribable flavour to all home-made Eskimo foods, a flavour that the people seemed to miss in the native cookery done in our hospital kitchen.
But, after all, the raw foods suit them best, and they know it. I went into one of the huts during my first week in Okak, to see a young woman who was just recovering from a serious illness. The spectacle that greeted me when I opened the door was enough to alarm the bravest: there sat the woman on her bed, a gaunt and white-faced spectre, with her breast bare, and blood dripping from her mouth. I thought some dire catastrophe had happened. "Whatever is the matter?" I said.
For a moment she was silent: she was shy: then she said "My husband has brought me home akkigivik (a partridge)," and she lifted her hands to her mouth again, and tore with gusto at the raw, warm flesh of the bird. When once their shyness was overcome there was no difficulty about feeding; some native food or other was always in season, and people were always willing to bring a share of what they had. There was genuine sacrifice— sacrifice, I mean, with the right motive behind it — in those gifts of meat. Men used to come with dishes and pots, containing lumps of raw flesh or samples of native cookery, and hand them over with a shy smile and a laconic ''for the sick folks." And, incidentally, it was over a matter of food that my friend Paulus showed me that the people had really grasped the meaning of those bedsteads that had puzzled Veronica. He came one day dangling a leg of reindeer meat, and handed it to me with a little speech. "I know,'' he said, ''that nipko is very good for the sick folks. They like it, and it gives them nukke (sinews). Take this meat, and have it made into nipko. No, I will not take it home, because if I do the meat will be eaten up. Keep it here, and have it dried; then you will have some good nipko for next winter, to give to the sick people if there are any."