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We Eat What? A Cultural Encyclopedia of Unusual Foods in the United States
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A AKUTAQ Akutaq, or agutak (pronounced a-goo-duk), is a traditional Alaska Native food. Literally meaning “mixture,” from the Yup’ik verb akute meaning “to mix or stir,” akutaq refers to a combination of animal fats and oils with berries or greens, and may also include cooked fish, sugar, mashed potatoes, or snow. For many Alaska Natives, akutaq serves as a tangible marker of cultural iden- tity and, as a comfort food, commonly evokes nostalgia for people and events of the past. It appears at celebratory gatherings, special occasions, and funerals and serves as an occasional homemade treat. Akutaq-making demonstrations and taste contests have also become regular features at cultural centers and heritage festivals, increasing recognition of the traditional food outside Native communi- ties. Throughout the state of Alaska, it is also known by the anglicized misnomer “Eskimo ice cream” or “traditional ice cream,” despite the lack of dairy products, but owing to its smooth, frozen texture. Recipes are seldom written down and instead are passed down through family lines, with younger generations watching and learning from parents or elders. The quantity of ingredients is determined through experience, rather than measure- ment. As a result, numerous variations exist across the state, but each family tends to have its own special version. The base of akutaq is a fat that has been hand-whipped until fluffy, but the spe- cific fat used will vary widely by region, as traditional akutaq preparations incor- porate the tallow of local fauna muskox, bear, or caribou might be used in the north, while moose, caribou, or reindeer dominate inland. Along Alaska’s northern coasts, walrus blubber is traditionally used as a base. Today, however, it is not uncommon to find a vegetable-based shortening like Crisco or commercially avail- able beef tallow used as a substitute, particularly in urban areas. Seal oil is drizzled into the rendered base fat as the ingredients are mixed by hand until creamy. Nearly all versions of contemporary akutaq contain one or more variety of berries, depending on region and family, gently incorporated into the frothy fat. Salmonberries (Rubus spectabilis), crowberries (Empetrum nigrum, locally called blackberries), cloudberries (Rhubrus chamaemorus L., sometimes referred to a low- bush salmonberry), lingonberries (locally called cranberries), and blueberries grow wild throughout the Alaskan tundra and are gathered by the bucketful when in season. Commercially grown berries or canned fruits or raisins are a recent addi- tion to akutaq, particularly in cities. Seasonal and regional variations also exist. Some households add local greens, such as sourdock, or incorporate liver or fish eggs depending on availability.