During the whirlwind week (weeks?) of Iditarod, I bought myself a nice ulu, the traditional style of knife used by different groups of Alaska Natives, and women in particular. It was made in Shishmaref, the handle from walrus ivory, the blade from an old saw.
In the time since, I’ve felt the same euphoric excitement towards food preparation that I got last February in New York when I finally let myself buy a decent chef’s knife at a Bed, Bath & Beyond in Chelsea. As a tool, my 8” chef’s knife let me slice through dense, bulbous vegetables with gleeful ease, and so unlocked the world of roasted roots and tubers. There was nothing glamorous or lavish to the withered turnips and beats I’d shovel out from my $10 Ikea Roasting pan. But it was a good, easy dish connected to that stage in my life—my humble kitchen paraphernalia, my very humble apartment, my corner of a New York neighborhood.
My hope for the ulu is that I’ll get to fillet salmon in a river or help carve a caribou in someone’s garage with it. So far I’ve mostly chopped onions.
Between the kitchen acquisition and some pretty recent additions to my culinary repertoire, this update on the subsistence mooching life-style is going to be a list of some dishes we’ve made at Château Volunteer over the winter. Some dishes were experiments, others ambitions. For the sake of brevity, and to keep from being any more of a self-indulgent bore, the side dishes are omitted. In all likelihood, they were probably just quinoa and carrots.
- Red King Crab Cakes with home-made spicy mayo*
- Musk ox empanadas and crispy fried tofu (because we had all that oil ready, so why not just do both?)
- Grilled caribou burgers
- Moose goulash
- Ground lamb and musk ox Bolognese
- Steamed Red King Crab legs
- Antelope vindaloo
- Caribou meatloaf
- Moose tacos
- Antelope steaks, moose steaks, caribou steaks
- And salmon spread, which I wouldn’t mention, except that I filleted the frozen fish myself on Super Bowl Sunday and I think in retrospect that it was totally the right use of my time. It was not, however, a very good fillet. Or a very good salmon.
None of these dishes would I consider a house staple (although the fried tofu has become a favorite auspice for making spicy mayo), largely because the meat we get is so contingent. Except for the tofu, ground lamb, and two of the five crabs cooked next door in Vol Manor, everything else has been generously (!!!) given to us. For me, prone to the safety of routine and fears of failure that I am, this has been its own culinary lesson: adapt. Rather than finding a cut of meat in the grocery store that accommodates my existing appetite, instead my gastronomical ramblings the last few months have been guided by what’s in our freezer. And I don’t get too much control over that. If I did, we would only eat caribou backstrap and roasted turnips.
Much of my personal work last year was assembling a sense of order amid what felt like chaos, but was really transition. Going from a confident collegiate conclusion to the perils of fresh adulthood/withering adolescence in New York involved much gnashing of teeth and toiling at basic, boring tasks like bills. My comfort in root vegetables was somewhat about the shiny chef’s knife, but more, I think, about regaining a sense of control over my own life, albeit culinary (and confined to a side-dish, not even a proper entrée).
The Alaska Lesson so far (or, the convenient pseudo-psychoanalytic blog ender, at least), is delight amid improvisation. I’m learning to be a little less rigid. You can only try modifying a beloved family recipe for so long before you just concede that your ground musk ox is never going to absorb as much whole milk as ground pork, and then wing it. And for that matter, is there any ingredient that could make a moose taco anything other than delicious? No, there is not. Rather than coping with the colorful culinary idiosyncrasies of the subsistence mooching lifestyle, I feel like so far I’ve been frolicking in it.
*My definition of “homemade” is very, very generous. I count combining two store-bought condiments in the same bowl in the category. Because, like, I assembled it in a home. And also because if you put mayonnaise, Siracha, and spicy Thai chili in a bowl it impresses just about anyone.