by Elena Aluskak
The dry fish that were first introduced to my taste buds were of course my mother’s. And as a young child, I did not have any other thoughts as I savored them. She would slice each fish with her uluaq and place them in her huge kitchen bowl she kept cool in the arctic entry, preparing them for our meal.
I remember the sight of the bowl tantalized my taste buds, especially after a long afternoon of playing outdoors with my friends. And many times, I would bring my friends home to enjoy the fish with me.
That cycle of enjoyment went on for many years … into my late-teens; I ate and savored without any other thoughts but thanking her after every meal. And that was enough for her.
It never did occur to me what it took for that fish to actually get to my mouth … stomach. And yet, I was amidst the whole process.
Years later, as I sharpen my uluaq to cut my first salmon of the season, with my husband and children and grandchildren … it dawns on me. And then I was very grateful that I made sure to thank my mother after each meal.
I saw my dad preparing the salmon net and then again preparing it for the next season. I saw him making sure it is in good shape to provide the food for his family and others throughout the whole year. I saw him gathering the smoke wood. I saw him making sure the wood the fish are hung on are sturdy and good for the season, both in the smoke-house and the fish rack. I saw him making sure the water that will be used for the fish is always plenty, among many other things.
I saw my mom cleaning up her smoke-house (and keeping it tidy), her fish rack, her tubs and tables including the bowls that are used simply to rinse her uluaq during her labor. I saw her placing fresh grass in the confined space for each load of fish brought in by my dad and brothers. I saw her keeping her fish clothes fresh; washing them a few times each summer, she did not wear this and that for her labor – she respectfully wore the same clothing.
And then I saw her cutting the fish. I saw her washing each fish before she began to slit and dissect and filet and gut and slice. Each part of the fish, she said, is to be consumed in one way or another; salmon heads are filling the plastic five gallon buckets with salt – yummy sulunaq (salted fish), and then there are other heads that fill up the dug-out holes for fermented head meals – tepeq – a summer delight. These heads are fermented in the earth and the salmon blood and innards are used in this process.
The backbones are hung with care; for delicious boiled dishes and then dried up for winter use as well. The salmon tails are also meticulously cut and stringed and hung for savory hot dishes or otherwise dried, smoked and eaten in the winter. The intestines are also hung and dried and smoked – a yummy snack any time of the day.
In this whole process the most laborious task are the salted whole filets that are hung with precision on the rack; singly at first and then paired. The filets are sliced just to the skin and in a certain way that each slice will ‘hang’ and not touch the next row. She seemed to live at her fish rack throughout the summer (and yet there were 2 hot meals each day).
She picked and pecked at the fish she hung, she moved with them – sideways, a little over, again to the side. She skimmed around the rack, checking each corner and each row and getting the outside smoke going every so often. And then at a certain phase when she deems the fish are at that right smoking stage, she places a small canvas tarp on her wheelbarrow and places each whole filleted salmon pair with care into it.
Here she asks one of her sons to push the wheelbarrow to the smokehouse, where she has placed a larger canvas tarp onto the floor and as her son hands them to her, she places each piece with care on the tarp. She then stands on her step stool and hangs each piece…making sure the two pieces that are tied together are in balance. She fills one whole side of her smokehouse – about 16/18 feet square. This process is repeated until the smoke house is filled with hanging king salmon … the tiny space above the door is the only space left unfilled.
And then I see her smoking the salmon. This is a process that takes up her summer, day in and day out. The fires she lights up has to be giving out consistent smoke, I see her peeking into her smokehouse throughout the whole day, sometimes sitting at the entrance with squinting, watery eyes. There is a small bucket of water near the entrance where she will scoop and sprinkle at the fire that has flames, she dare not see any flames under the fish.
At least a month has gone by, since the smoking has begun and then the first taste of her scrumptious dried, smoked salmon is savored. Thus begins our year-round meal of fresh dried fish – another year of fresh dried, smoked fish.
And I am ever grateful I thanked her after every meal … it has dawned on me exactly what it takes to place a slice of dried, smoked salmon before me.
I also have another greater realization that derived during my meal of fresh smoked, dried fish, I (like you) have moments of deep reflections and this is what came to light…and it bears a fathomless gratitude on my part.
There was a man – much like you and I in human form – who made a statement that defines His great love to all mankind … during a meal. (Read about Him – the Book is in your home).