Monday, November 21, 2011

The Joys of Eating Whale

A few guys from the New York times appeared in town shortly before the first whale of the season was taken: 2 photographers and a journalist. They showed up with piles of camera gear at the hotel our whale survey team was staying in. When the first whale was taken, they were very busy shooting the event and talking to people. You could tell that they did this for a living. Needless to say I was excited to see what they would come up with when their article was published (partly because I was sure I'd be in the background of some of their pictures! (I totally was :))). One of the photographers told me that he would be able to publish very little from the event because it was so bloody. Their article, which was published a few days after the hunt, got a real stir out of the community:

The article's immediately sarcastic tone rubbed some people the wrong way. The journalist jested about how a "traditional loader" and a "traditional forklift" were used to move the whale. He went on to discuss how the whale was killed, which truly is far from traditional. Motorboats are used to bring the whalers within harpoon striking distance. Rather than being thrown, harpoons are now explosive and are fired from bronze harpoon guns. The explosion is intended to kill the whale quickly and humanely. Though I didn't like the tone of the New York Times article, they were right about the fact that it isn't particularly traditional anymore.

The mood on the water is somber. The belief among the whalers is that there can be no celebration while the whale remains in the water. If the whalers remain respectful of the whale they have just taken, then the spirit of that whale will relay on to the other whales that it was treated well and respected. In turn, the other whales will give themselves to the whalers in the future. This is an important belief: that the whales give themselves to the Inupiat. They sacrifice themselves to sustain their hunters. It is in this belief that Inupiat whaling becomes less a brutal or commercial thing. For the whalers of northern Alaska, taking a whale is spiritual. The whale allows these people to live where they do. The whale is their giver of life.

As the first layers of blubber are removed from the whale, some of the women nearby fire up a portable camp stove in the back of a truck. They begin boiling water and the first fresh muktuk of the season is prepared.

From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure

Muktuk is nothing more than boiled whale blubber. Although I don't believe it's considered a delicacy among the Inupiat, it certainly is a staple of their diet. Once the muktuk has been boiled it's handed out to the whalers, then the native community, then lastly the tourists and out-of-towners like myself. I gratefully accepted a piece towards the end of the butchering. It was about the size of a tic-tac container. The top 1/3 was the black skin of the whale and the bottom 2/3 was the light colored blubber. I started eating just the fat, basically running under the safe-food assumption to not eat anything that is black in color (especially black licorice). The lady who gave me the piece said "just pop the whole thing in your mouth!" Bottoms up! This has totally backfired on me a number of times in my life: I'm a bit of a queasy eater. I basically braced for the worst. wasn't horrible. It was surprisingly mild flavored, not at all fishy. It reminded my of a nearly flavorless Spam. I continued to chew the small piece she had given me. The texture wasn't particularly pleasant. Your imagination doesn't need to work too hard to imagine the texture of a piece of fat. The longer I chewed the less appealing chewing fat became. I eventually just swallowed the rest of it down.

From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure

Distribution is the next phase of the process. Tradition says that the successful whaling Captain brings home a majority of the edible whale parts. Many of the prized parts are eaten by the Captain and his family. They also take their fair share of the meat and the blubber. The rest is given to the community. A flag bearing the captain's family name is flown above his house. People from town then visit the Captain personally and the various parts of the whale are distributed until it's all gone. I assume this is where my next whale treat came from...

A few days after the first whale was taken, I walked over to the Inupiat Heritage Center. I was buying a gift for my mom there, a scrimshawed (native carving) piece of polished whale baleen. While I was there, one of the artists offered me a taste of something I'd never tried before: whale meat. The meat of the whale is much different than the blubber. The meat is darker in color and firmer in texture. In another modern twist, the artist dipped his piece of whale meat in Heinz 57. I followed suit and was pleasantly surprised. It had both the flavor and texture of beef liver. I'm not huge on beef liver, but this beat the heck out of the muktuk from a few days prior! Just as I confidently swallowed, he busts out an even stranger snack: whale kidney! Eeeeeh, alright I"m all for trying new and interesting things, but this stuff looked horrible. It was pink and stringy and there were clearly large balls of something hard nestled within it. I was finally coaxed into trying it, hoping it wasn't as gross as it looked. I popped it into my mount and realized very quickly it was exactly as gross a it looked. Yep, those are hard mysterious spheres in there! I pretty much gagged and spit it out simultaneously. Never again....


  1. My stomach was doing somersaults throught out this post! The Muktuk... whoa... looked interesting! I don't know if I would have had the stomach to try that! Same goes for the whale kidney... Props to you! And, thanks again for another awesome post!

  2. Their angle was definitely more negative. This doesn't compare to the dolphin slaughter or the Japanese whaling. They don't sell any of it, and they have a limit.