Arctic in Context Culture Featured Story Human Well Being 

Thinking About Food

This article is the first in a series with a focus on the arts, culture, and society in the Arctic. Culture is often overlooked, but it is a powerful conduit for communicating essential knowledge. It both differentiates a people and highlights the similarities between seemingly divergent societies. Every other month, Kevin McGwin will contribute insights on this culturally rich and diverse region of the world.

 

By Kevin McGwin


 

If you’re like a lot of people, most of the cookbooks you own rarely get opened. So, let’s be honest, how likely is it that a book with recipes calling for ingredients like reindeer eyeballs, cheeks, and hooves is going to find its way down from the shelf?

“If you think of it that way, probably never,” says Issát Turi, a Sámi reindeer herder from Norway who was one of 50 or so contributors to EALLU, an Arctic Council publication that last month was named food book of the year at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.

If you want to understand EALLU, then you need to think of it as an introduction to reindeer-herding cultures around the world, Turi says, not a lesson in how to make their food.

“It’s a book that tries to get people to think about food our way, and by extension, to get them thinking about their own food.”

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When thinking traditionally, multiple decisions need to be made when choosing a reindeer to slaughter. You need to look at the animals’ gender, age, and even fur color. These varied and complex decisions are underpinned by the need to maintain a diverse and strong herd, in case of harsh winter conditions. – Issát Turi, EALLU: Food, Knowledge and How We Have Thrived on the Margins

The most obvious way EALLU gets people to think about where their food comes from is with its name, which means ”herd” in Northern Sámi and bears a close relation to the words for “pasture” and “life.” This is one book that can be judged, if not by its cover, then at least by its title.

But, as those who get past the cover will discover, EALLU goes about its task in a less blatant, if equally effective manner. Like Turi, the authors all come from the cultures they write about—all 14 Arctic and sub-Arctic populations from around the Arctic Circle are represented, including the Sámi in northern Europe, the Inuit in Greenland and North America, and Russia’s diverse indigenous populations.

Most of them have hands-on experience raising or preparing reindeer, but, as Turi discovered, knowing your food culture is not the same as knowing the words to explain it.

“Of course I spoke with family and my people first, but this is something we do, it’s just something I know, so explaining it ought to have been simple, right? But how do you put the things you know and do and put into your mouth into words? That proved to be quite difficult.”

While none of the things Turi does—raise, slaughter, butcher, prepare, eat—are unique to the Sámi, his involvement in the EALLU project introduced him to other traditions. Suddenly, he found that what was normal for him was different for someone from Yamal, in northwest Siberia, or from Alaska.

“That was an eye-opener. Before I got involved in this, if you asked me why I ate reindeer, I would have answered ‘because I like it.’ We never had a big discussion about why we raised reindeer, or why we slaughter them the way we do, or why we eat them the way we do. We know which animal to kill, and how to butcher it, but why we did it wasn’t something we had to think much about.”

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Issát Turi slaughtering a reindeer in the traditional way (Photo: Andreas Ausland/EALLU)

Sámi cuisine does not take shape in the “kitchen,” but really starts at the moment when and where the reindeer is slaughtered, the condition of the reindeer in the days and weeks before it was slaughtered, and finally how it was killed. – Issát Turi, EALLU: Food, Knowledge and How We Have Thrived on the Margins

“Have you ever thought that the way you raise and kill your animal is directly linked to the way you eat your dinner afterward? Not just the cut of the meat after it’s been slaughtered, but the way it’s actually killed,” Turi says.

When it comes to slaughtering, he explains, the Sámi, like other reindeer herders, pay close attention to how much blood remains in the meat. “If you live in France, for example, you drain the blood from the meat when you slaughter it because you don’t need it. You have vegetables for most of the year to provide you with minerals. Where do we get our minerals in the winter? From the blood.”

Sámi slaughtering techniques ensure that the blood remains in the meat after the slaughter. Turi compares the thinking behind it to Islam’s halal tradition, which bans the consumption of blood.

“That makes complete sense from a food-safety perspective. If you are living close to the equator where it’s hot, then blood is your enemy. When you are in a warm climate, you need to get it out of the meat, otherwise it goes bad quickly. We want to keep blood in the meat. In the Arctic, blood is your friend.”

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Issát Turi with the complete spine of a reindeer, ready for cooking (Photo: Anders Oskal/EALLU)

Then the quality of the meat is very important, as the reindeer must be fat. Because reindeer meat is not marbled, this means that the more fat it has on the outside, the higher the quality of the meat is. Meat quality is also determined by how you kill the animal. – Issát Turi, EALLU: Food, Knowledge and How We Have Thrived on the Margins

Despite Turi’s warning not to think of EALLU as a cookbook, talking about food invariably leads to giving advice about how to make it. He explains, for example, that because reindeer is lean, it should be simmered, never fried. “A lot of people who’ve made reindeer weren’t aware of that. But, if you make it that way, it won’t taste good.”

It’s not intentional, but the cooking tip underscores what Turi feels the book is trying to say about the way we should be thinking about our food.

“A reindeer isn’t a cow. That’s obvious, but industrialized reindeer-meat production has failed because the process is set up for cattle. If you prepare a piece of meat that isn’t beef—whether it is during slaughtering, butchering, or cooking—as if it were beef, you aren’t going to get beef out of it and people aren’t going to want to eat it.”

At a time when more people are adding meat to their diets, he’s also concerned that the public is losing touch with where the meat comes from—geographically and anatomically.

“When people see this book, one of the things they notice is that there more parts of the animal we eat than people in the West do. We try to use the whole animal, from the intestines to the eyeballs. Partly because it is the food we have available to us, but, mostly, because they taste good.”

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Kevin McGwin is a journalist writing for Arctic Today and an occasional contributor to the Greenlandic weekly Sermitsiaq. He is the former editor of The Arctic Journal and has been writing about Greenland and the Arctic since 2006.

[Opening image: Reindeer round up in Lovozero, Kola Peninsula, Russia (Chris Schmetz/EALLU)]

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