April 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
Laben Kunuk has a belly full of fried seal rib when the call comes for second breakfast.
Fermented walrus meat. Here on Nunavut’s Melville Peninsula it’s a delicacy, buried underground raw in late summer and dug up months or years later, older and greener. It’s so dizzyingly stinky that Northern airlines sometimes won’t ship it; it’s said the only way to get the smell off your hands is to slather them with ketchup. Kunuk grins, wiping his switchblade: “Igunaq.”
It’s Canada Day at Avamuktulik, a fishing camp on the Canadian mainland not far from the village of Igloolik. The ice has begun to break up; within the week, the campsite will become unreachable. For now, the beach is a scene straight out of a Breughel painting: a tableau of carnivorous activity. Day and night, hunters have been up with the sun spearing char, skinning ducks and slicing seal skin into ropes. The white gravel beach would feel stark if not for the bright carcasses strewn between the tents: a burgundy swan breast, green and lemon yellow eider coats, the wine purple feet of a Canada goose. A crowd of children shape the entrails of a ringed seal into hearts, stars and moons.
Elder Peter Awa stands beside the fermented flipper, which he just exhumed from a nearby permafrost cache. For two years it ripened there, covered in loose stones, protected from hungry bears by a fence of electrical wires. Now it’s ready. The palm end looks like a collapsed elephant’s paw; the severed end is woven shut with a strip of pelt sealing the meat inside. The crowd hunches around it and pocket knives start sawing. The fat quivers. It smells like what it is: a dirty armpit, a smelly foot, a corpse. “No one can do it on the first try,” says Kunuk. “It might kill you.”
The Kunuks and Awas have generations of practice eating igunaq. The Igloolik area is reputed to produce the best igunaq in the North, thanks to abundant walruses and the right kind of gravel to bury them in. Ancient Inuit prepared igunaq mostly as dog food, but in the past century, its complex preparation and overpowering flavour have leant it an almost mystical status. The same is true elsewhere in the Arctic, where Greenlanders eat kiviak (putrefied sea birds in seal skin) and Alaskan Yupiit consume Cheez Whiz-like stinkhead (rotten salmon). Fermented meat is high in protein, iron, and vitamins; eating it is said to make men more muscular, and it’s an excellent digestive cleanser for those who can keep it down. Kunuk says, “it can cure sickness.” But if conditions aren’t right, it can kill: when the meat is too aerated, botulism sometimes sets in.
Kunuk’s not worried. “For me, it tastes good,” he says. Over his shoulder, Awa’s wife holds a fistful of igunaq like a limp banana, chewing quietly. Kunuk squats down to the flipper and carves off another another khaki-coloured strip and flips it into his mouth. “Mmm…. igunaq.”