Vilhjalmur Stefansson on the adaptability of diet – ‘The Friendly Arctic’
I must pay a tribute to the adaptability of my companions. On the Karluk (last voyage) all of them had disliked the seal meat prepared for us by the ship’s cook, who insisted on putting it through various elaborate processes which were suppose to deodorize it and take away its peculiar taste. I had imagined my own dislike for seal meat cooked this way to be a peculiarity due to long acquaintances with the undisguised article. The men all ate it on shipboard with so good a grace that I really thought they liked it. But when we killed the first seal after leaving the ship, cut its meat into pieces and dropped it into cold water, brought it to a boil and served it underdone on a platter in the true Eskimo style, every one of my three companions commented on its great superiority over seal meat cooked on the ship. Wilkins, who was brought up in Australia and was used to the eating of fresh mutton, said it tasted very much like mutton and almost as good. That seal’s fat does taste like fresh mutton fat is the opinion of all white men I know who are familiar with the taste of both. The lean, however, while good in its way, has a flavor quite distinct from that of mutton.
There may be a more fundamental reason why a man used to an elaborate menu, as were all my present companions, is easier to please than one who has never eaten any but a few simple things. Since many of the modern theories in human dietetics are based on experiments with rats or guinea pigs, analogizing from dogs to men in the field should be no less interesting or instructive. I should like to cite some of our experiences in feeding dogs with foods that were strange to them.
In 1908 on my way down the Mackenzie River I bought a dog team, which had been brought up on a diet of fresh-water fish supplemented with moose, caribou, rabbits, and possibly ptarmigan. When we got to the seacoast we had trouble to get these dogs to eat seal meat. I remember some sailors who told me at the time that they did not blame the dogs. These were men who had been in the country twenty years without ever tasting seal and who naturally knew it was bad. But it was not that seal was fundamentally less agreeable to dogs; they were merely not used to it. It occurred to me that the dogs were refusing to eat because of the odor of the meat rather than because of the taste. For one thing, they did not put it in their mouths; for another, a dog probable does not have a keen sense of taste, as we may infer from his habit of gulping his food, but his keenness of smell is well known. I now provided seal meat that was more or less decayed, thinking that while fresh caribou and fresh seal smelled different, the putrefaction odor in either case would be about the same and would overpower the native smell. This worked at once. And I have never found a dog used to putrid meat of one kind that would not eat greedily putrid meat of any other kind. By gradually giving the dogs fresher and fresher seal they were easily broken to it.
But we had more serious trouble with the same team the following spring when we tried to feed them ducks. These ducks were fresh-killed, hence had their native odor. All the team refused at first, and some went more than a week without tasting. I determined experimentally, however, that through hanging in the sun for three or four days or until it began to smell putrid, a duck became acceptable to any of the dogs.
Some years later I bought a dog in Coronation Gulf, which had been brought up mainly on seal. On the north coast of Alaska the following spring we were for a few days in a position where we could get only geese for food. This dog refused for more than a week to taste goose, and I was never able to force him to it. We had to give the experiment because of lack of time. As noted below in the case of the wolf meat, it is even possible the dog might have preferred to die of starvation though goose meat was before him.
At another time we had a dog brought up on the Booth Islands, near Cape Parry. Inland on Horton River this dog, which had been used to seal meat only, refused at first to eat caribou and had to be broken to it through hunger, for this was winter time when it was not practicable to get the meat to decay.
In Banks Island the summer of 1914 we undertook to teach the dogs to eat wolf. This experiment was conducted “under laboratory conditions.” The dogs kept tied to one place and supplied each day with a dish of fresh water. A piece of wolf meat was placed every day beside the dish and allowed to remain all that day. This meat was then destroyed, for we were afraid it might begin to putrefy and we wanted to see how long the team would go hungry before eating meat that was quite fresh and still retained the full wolf odor. During the second week five of the six dogs gave in one by one, but at the end of the fourteenth day the last dog had not yet touched it. He was the oldest of the team, which was doubtless why he was the most conservative. He had been the fattest of the lot at the beginning of the experiment and at the end of the second week he was practically a skeleton.
At this point I had to stop the test, for we had to begin traveling and needed the strength of this dog along with that of the others. It is quite possible that he might have chosen to starve. I have found by experience as well as inquiry that a man fasting does not get any hungrier after the second, some say the third, day and long before the fourteenth day the craving for food loses its sharpest edge.
This is a synopsis of only some of my experiments and experiences with the food tastes of dogs, from which I have drawn the following generalized conclusions:
Dogs brought up around ships and used to foraging in the refuse piles and eating highly seasoned food will eat any food offered to them. It seems therefore that a dog used to many sorts does not mind eating one sort or more.
Dogs more than a year old brought up on a diet restricted to two or three articles always refuse at first when an entirely new food is offered. They base this refusal on the sense of smell and if the meat is putrid enough so that the putrefaction smell completely hides the native smell then the dog had no objection. In other words, all rotten meats smell substantially alike and are therefore recognized as a familiar diet, while any new kind of fresh meat offends through its strange smell.
Hunters and natives who have noticed that dogs will not eat wolf or fox meat commonly remark that dogs object to cannibalism. I find that the objection of a dog to wolf meat is no stronger than his objection to duck meat or caribou meat provided the duck or caribou is an absolutely new meat in the experience of the dog. Once induced to eat wolf, a dog soon becomes as fond of it as any other meat.
We have found that the food prejudice is stronger the older the dog and we believe that with dogs of the same age the prejudice of the female against new food is stronger than that of the male. This seems to extend the commonly believed-in principle of the greater conservatism of human females down to the lower animals.
It would be exceedingly interesting, it seems to me, to make further experiments in the food tastes of dogs along the following lines:
Pups of the same litter should be selected, one to be fed for two years on mutton and water, another on fish and water, a third on beef and a fourth perhaps on a vegetarian diet. It would make the experiment more interesting if a male and female could be used for each sort of diet. Judging from our experiments, it seems probable that at the end of two years the mutton-fed dog would refuse both beef and fish and the fish-fed dog would refuse both mutton and beef. I believe it would also be found that the abhorrence for the new diet would be stronger with the female in each pair than with the male.
It is well known that some Eskimo groups eat either no vegetable food at all or practically none. But in all parts where we have been, except in Coronation Gulf, they are fond of the berry known in Alaska as the “salmon berry” and elsewhere as the cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus Linn.) We were astonished, especially my Alaska Eskimo companions, when we found that some of the Coronation Gulf Eskimos lived among an abundance of these berries and had never thought of tasting them. Since no taboo existed, my Eskimo companions tried to introduce the fashion of eating them. They found no difficulty in getting children to try them, except that in some cases the mothers were offended by the attempt. The men also were commonly willing to eat them and I do not recall that even one man refused but I should say that fully half of the women positively refused even to taste the salmon berry during the summer we spent with them. This is really a rather good fruit and I have no doubt that by now most or all of the people are eating it, but our observation that first year seemed to indicate clearly enough the conservatism of women, We observed it in many other things – for instance, smoking. Although nearly all western Eskimo women use tobacco and although there have been tobacco-using women on our ship when we have come in contact with the eastern Eskimo, we have found the men readier than the women to learn to smoke.
I have had much experience with the food prejudice of white men in connection with introducing them to a diet of meat only. The laws of that prejudice as deduced from dogs have applied to the men exactly. The older the man the more probable it is that he will object to trying a new kind of food and to abandoning the foods he is used to. A dog brought up on a ship and used to a variety in diet would take readily to a new diet. Similarly, “well brought-up” men, used in their homes to a variety of foods both domestic and imported, take readily to any new thing— such, for instance, as seal meat. But men “poorly brought-up” and used only to half a dozen or so articles in their regular diet, are generally reluctant to try a new food unless it has been represented to them in advance as a luxury or as especially delicious. Of course the situation here is not so simple as it is with dogs. For one thing, the man of “laborer” type has a feeling of being degraded when he is compelled to eat the food of “savages,” while a man of intellectual type is appealed to by a mild flavor of adventure in experimenting with the food of a strange people.
It was so with my companions now that we were among real Eskimos. They took readily to Eskimo cooking and seemed consider it great sport. Doughnuts fried in seal oil were samples as an adventure and their deliciousness surprised them. So with every new thing they had a chance to taste. This is one of the reasons why “well brought-up” young men are the best material for polar explorers, or indeed for any type of “roughing it,” except the sort to which the “poorly brought-up” man is native. Generalizing still more: an educated man of diversified experience has the mental equipment to meet “hardship;” the ignorant are fitted to meet easily only those “hardships” that are native to them. It goes without saying that, like all rules, this has its exceptions.
The tastes of the northern hunter – “The Friendly Arctic”
The tastes of the northern hunters who live on meat alone are nearly uniform whether they be Indians, Eskimos, or white men resident with either people, though they differ strikingly from the tastes in meat acquired in connection with modern European cooking. These northerners eat their meat by taste, as our ancestors must have done with originated the saying, “The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat.” Nowadays we do not judge meat with our palates according to its flavor but with our teeth according to its “tenderness” To aid our teeth in the judgment of meat we call on our eyes to differentiate between dark and light meats. One of the main difficulties in trying to introduce a new meat into the dietary of a ‘civilized’ people is the problem of matching it in color with some meat already in favor.
I have known white hunters who carried salt with them to stick for a surprisingly long time to European ideas of cooking. But if one has no salt the organs of taste recover rapidly from even scores of years of abuse with seasonings and sauces. When the sense of taste has regained a moderately delicacy, white men fall naturally into agreement with the Eskimo and northern Indians in classifying the parts of caribou in the following descending order of excellence:
The head is best, and except the marrow the most delicious fat is back of the eyes. These flavors are the strongest and most pleasing of the whole caribou. Then comes the tongue. Next are brisket, ribs and vertebrae, but in all of these we usually remove for dog feed some of the outer meat, reserving for ourselves the “sweet meat near the bone.” Next come hearts, kidneys, and the meat near the bone on the neck. Shoulders are next. These are more often eaten by the Indians than the Eskimos, as are also the hearts, apparently because the Indians use roasting now and then as a method of cooking, and these parts seem better roasted.
Here it may be remarked that frying is a method of cooking unknown to the natives of northern North America and they take very badly to it, except the frying of bacon, ham and imported meats generally. I have known both Indians and Eskimos proficient enough in white men’s cooking to have jobs as cooks in trading posts or on ships, but even they go back to exclusive boiling and roasting of native meats and fish if they start housekeeping for themselves.
It is seldom among the Alaska and Mackenzie River Eskimos that caribou hams are eaten when there is enough of other meat. The hams, some entrails, the lungs and liver, the outside meat from the neck and brisket, and the tenderloin are the food of dogs. There are partial exceptions to this rule, for several reasons. When fuel is scarce, as it occasionally is in Coronation Gulf, boned hams are cooked, as they require less fuel per pound, being cut in small pieces for boiling. The summer of 1916, for instance, we were compelled to eat ham meat for lack of fuel. Also when you are drying meat it is convenient to dry hams, which are more easily sliced thin; as dry meat, they will be eaten later. Still, the Slaverys and other Indians usually prefer drying boned rib meat, and these are the favorite food of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s men and other northern fur traders, who buy them from the Indians.
Such are, roughly, the tastes and preferences in lean or moderately fat meat that are common among the native northern meat-eaters and that are acquired by whites soon after they quit using salt and other seasoning.
The tastes of meat-eaters as to the various fats of caribou and similar animals are perhaps more interesting than other sections of the same subject, for the reason that people of European culture have during the last three centuries allowed sugar to usurp almost wholly the field of gustatory delights where fats were once supreme, while yet the phrase “to live on the fat of the land” had a keen appeal to the senses.
I judge from the experience of myself and others that no one while living on the typical modern diet, largely made up of protein, sugar and starch, is capable of delighting in the fine shades of flavor between different kinds of fat. But this power comes very soon irrespective of the climate to whoever lives on unseasoned animal foods exclusively. Then, whatever the race or bringing-up, there seems little variety in tastes as to fats. I imagine this would be so were the animals eaten cattle or sheep or fowl I know with caribou that Negroes South Sea Islanders, Indians, Eskimos and Europeans of varied nationality generally agree that in point of palatability the fats of the caribou should be ranged as follows:
The least agreeable is the back fat. When tried out and made into tallow, it is harder than that from any other part of the animal. Next are the intestinal fat and the fat found in the interstices of the meat, as on the ribs, etc. The fat near the bone on the brisket is considered somewhat better than the last two varieties. Next would come the kidney fat. Best of all are the fat behind the eyes and the little lump of fat on the hind leg near the patella.
If these fats are tried out the ones considered preferable in the tastes generally make the softest tallow. Kidney fat, for instance, is softer than intestinal fat, and the intestinal fat is softer than back fat. However, the fat from behind the eyes and from the leg are no softer than the kidney fat, although considered of a better flavor. This discussion refers to fats eaten after being brought to almost or quite the boiling temperature of water; in other words, underdone boiled fat.
Marrows are usually eaten raw by the northern Indians and almost always by the Eskimos and by experienced white hunters, although the femur and humerus are sometimes either roasted or boiled. In palatability the marrows are simple to classify, for the preferred ones are nearest the hoof, the ones farther away the least agreeable. While delicious, the marrow of the small bones near the hoof is seldom eaten because it is bothersome to get at and there is so little of it. In the long bones the marrow is not only preferable nearer the hoof when you take it bone by bone, but there is a distinct difference between the upper and lower end of each bone, the marrow of the lower end being better.
More exactly than in the case of the fats, the various marrows agree in hardness and palatability; that is, the softer the marrow the more palatable. This means also that the softest marrows are nearest the hoof and get harder and drier as you go up. We are speaking of their consistency at ordinary house or summer temperatures, say 70°F. At this temperature the marrow of the small bones near the caribou hoof is a clear liquid, of about the appearance of melted lard that is almost cold enough to congeal. We use it sometimes for gun oil if we run out of the commercial kinds. Not only are the marrows harder away from the hoof but the same applies to the fat after it is tried out. Tried-out fat of the humerus or femur is a tallow about as hard as if made from kidney fat.
Apart from those already discussed, there remains but one important kind of caribou fat and that is the tallow secured by first crushing and later boiling the bones. A difference in flavor and hardness may exist between tallows made from different bones are pounded to be boiled for fat they are taken indiscriminately, vertebrae and briskets, head bones, long bones, back bones, etc.
This discussion relates to the season when the caribou are fat. At certain seasons no fat is discernible, even behind the eyes or close to the bone of the brisket. The marrow in all the bones alike is then liquid and has the appearance of blood, and I do not know that there is a difference in consistency or flavor. Such marrow when boiled congeals into a slightly tough substance, resembling the white of hard-boiled egg both in texture and flavor, or rather lack of flavor.
Experiment has shown us that fats and marrows of mountain sheep, musk ox and moose are to be classified both in flavor and consistency about as those of caribou, with two principal exceptions: In the moose it is considered that “moose nose” is about the most agreeable. In the musk ox the fat of the neck is rated higher than that of the back, while on the caribou there is not much fat on the neck and what there is, is considered to have no specially fine flavor.
Observations on eating fats – ‘The Friendly Arctic’
On July 3rd we saw a thing unique in the experience of all of us – a seal that had been killed by a wolf. We saw the wolf eating something on the ice about half a mile from our course and I went over to see what it was. With usual intelligence, this wolf made off while I was more than a quarter of a mile away. From the position of the seals body and the marks on the ice the wolf had caught him sleeping near his hole and had dragged him about fifteen years. He had then killed him by biting him repeatedly in the throat, whereupon he had commenced eating. I have heard trappers on the mainland say that seals blubber is poor bait for wolves and that they will not eat it. Possibly this is another of the common superstitions, for all this wolf had eaten was blubber. He had commenced on the back of the seal a little forward from the tail and had eaten about a square foot, perhaps six or eight pounds of the fat but none of the lean except for the skin that was attached to the blubber.
This recalls the food habits of the polar bears. Apparently they do not keep in close touch with the trend of modern dietetics, for they do not seem aware of the necessity for variety in their food. Or is it possible that they are over impressed with the view certain dietitians and are afraid of an excess of protein. However that may be, they seem to confine themselves to fat when they can. I have seen evidence of a polar bear eating a whole seal – meat, bones, blubber and all – but these have been small seals and the bear must have been hungry. The ordinary thing, so far as my experience goes, is that if a bear kills a good-sized seal he goes about it just like our wolf, only a good deal more rapidly, and he strips the entire carcass, or nearly the whole of it, of fat and then goes off, leaving the meat and blood for the foxes.
This practice of bears has led to the belief among Eskimos that a bear has the ability to strip the blubber off a seal along with the skin in the manner in which an Eskimo skins a fox. It is an operation for which English has no good descriptive term unless we borrow it from the furriers, who call it :to case” a skin. It is as if you were to remove a stocking by turning the upper part back on itself without first pushing it down towards the ankle, and then pulling off in such a way that the stocking is turned entirely inside out.
Those who are familiar with the well-known “fact” (and who of us is not?) that more fat is needed in the diet where the weather is cold, will doubtless explain in that way this peculiar food habit of the polar bear. Here naturally arises a subject on which I want to have my say – the great need for fat in an arctic diet.
I am not sure if I learned this from my parents or from the school geographies. At any rate, I knew it up to the time I was twenty-seven when I first went north to the Eskimos. I had read much about their fondness for blubber and I expected to marvel at seeing them eating with a spoon some palatable food such as butter, or to be horrified at seeing them drinking train oil. I did see them eat butter with a spoon. They seemed to look upon a piece of it as a sort of dessert as we do upon suet pudding. We never eat butter with a spoon unless after mixing it with sugar and changing the name to “hard sauce.” But in my whole polar experience I have only on two occasions seen an Eskimo drink seal oil. One was the time we were starving on Horton River in 1909 and had nothing but seal oil for food. There were seven or eight of us and the rest used to soak the oil up in something to make a kind of salad, but one old man used to take his oil “straight.” He used to drink half a teacupful in the morning and half a teacupful at night, and the rest of the Eskimos marveled how he could do it.
The only other place known to me where seal oil is drunk is on the “Sandspit” at Nome, Alaska, when the tourists come to town. It is an ordinary tourists stunt to walk out to the Sandspit and say to the first Eskimo, “here, Johnny, I’ll give you a dollar if you’ll let me see you drink some oil. The victim I saw took a small sip and tried hard not to make a face and my tourist friends thought they had seen one of the wonders of the North.
My experience with diet in the North is that you get hungry sooner if you are cold but it makes little difference just what food you eat to satisfy the hunger. On ships and at whaling stations or at the barracks of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police at Herschel Island there is no greater percentage of fat in the diet than where similar groups are gathered in another climate. If men are badly dressed or if their houses are cold they may eat with rather better appetites than would be the case farther south but what they eat is a matter of choice or individual preference. The Police eat a great deal of bacon and so do the Hudson’s Bay men, but that is largely because it is considered a standard ration and is regularly furnished from outside.
There was a time when fat was a much more important element than it is now in the diet of Europeans. This was before the time of sugar. Four hundred years ago ordinary sugar was unknown in Europe and the amount eaten in the form of honey or sweet fruits was negligible when compared with the present-day huge consumption. Three hundred years ago sugar was the luxury of kings and two hundred years it was a rarity in the diet of the ordinary man. Even within our own time the per capita consumption of sugar has increased enormously. And this article of food which some people imagine to be a prime necessity and which others even think to be essential to health, is really a newcomer in the diet even with us. But as sugar has increased in favor, fat has lost caste. The relation between the two has always been reciprocal- the more sugar the less fat.
If it were true that there is special need for fat in the diet of the northern people, it ought to follow that there is less need for it in the tropics, and this is the common view. But it is well known in Australia that in the early days before commerce attained great proportions and before sugar and hams and the like became an important item in the diet, the “boundary riders” or sheep herders in sub-tropical Australia used to select for killing the fattest sheep. They would eat the fattest meat and if too much fat tried out they would eat the melted grease or the tallow. But as commerce increased and sugar began to come in the ate less and less of the fat mutton until now you will see a sheep herder in the same climate trim off the fat from his meat and leave it on the plate.
My friend Carl Akeley hunts in tropical Africa. There is very little sugar in the regular diet of the Negroes he employs as carriers and attendants. He has seen at the killing of a hippopotamus (although I have never seen it at the killing of a seal or whale) the whole assembled crowd of natives go wild with joy in an orgy of fat-eating. When the hippopotamus is killed they cut off the fat in quivering strips and eat it until they are ill. So it may be necessary to seek another explanation that the standard one of the need for fat in cold climate to explain the polar bear’s particular habit of stripping the fat off seal, somewhat as a small boy licks the jam and butter of a slice of bread.
After being given up for dead for more than a year by most who knew him Vilhjalmur was spotted by a passing ship (the Polar Bear), who stopped to investigate who he was and when they realized it was Vilhjalmur and being in a remote part of the Arctic they of course assumed he would be hungry for “civilized” food or just food in general. Here is his take on that encounter with his assumed to be rescuers but he was neither lost nor hungry.
“Assuredly the idea most definitely connected with the Arctic seem to be one of starvation, and Captain Lane’s first thought was what he could give me to eat. He said he had the best cook that ever came to the Arctic and that the ship was full of good things. Now what would I like? I had only to say what I wanted and the cook would prepare for me the finest dinner I ever saw. I tried to make clear that while I was hungry for news, my appetite for food was very slight. In fact, the excitement had taken away what little I might have had. As for that, I had been in the North so long that I could think of nothing so good as exactly what we had been eating on shore – caribou meat. I had the delicacy to refrain from stating to Captain Lane that none of his food was as good, but I tried to put him off by explaining how eager I was for all sorts of news that I knew he could tell me. But these diplomatic protests evidently rather worried him, so I finally asked for some canned corn. Corn has always been my favorite vegetable, yet I don’t think I had eaten half a dozen spoonfuls before I forgot to continue.” “The Friendly Arctic”
Vilhjalmur on a diet nearly devoid of fat – ‘My Life With The Eskimo’ (p. 140)
Of our entire seven I was now the only one not actually sick, and I felt by no means well. Doing hard work in cold weather on a diet nearly devoid of fat is a most interesting and uncommon experience in dietetics, and may therefore be worth describing in some detail. The symptoms that result from a diet of lean meat are practically those of starvation. The caribou on which we had to live had marrow in their bones that was as blood, and in most of them no fat was discernible even behind the eyes or in the tongue. When we had been on a diet of oil (seal) straight, a few weeks before, we had found that with a teacupful of oil a day there were no symptoms of hunger; we grew each day sleepier and more slovenly, and no doubt lost strength gradually, but at the end of our meals of long-haired caribou skin and oil we felt satisfied and at ease. Now with a diet of lean meat everything was different. We had an abundance of it as yet and we would boil up huge quantities and stuff ourselves with it. We ate so much that our stomachs were actually distended much beyond their usual size — so much that it was distinctly noticeable even outside of one’s clothes. But with all this gorging we felt continually hungry. Simultaneously we felt like unto bursting and also as if we had not had enough to eat. One by one the six Eskimo of the party were taken with diarrhea.
By the 10th of January things were getting to look serious indeed. It was apparent not only that we could not go on indefinitely without fat, but it was also clear that even our lean meat would last only a few days longer. We had on December 11th estimated that we had two months supplies of meat, and now in a month they were gone. Our estimate had not only been really wrong, for if we had had a little fat to go with the meat, it would no doubt have lasted at least sixty days, but without fat we ate such incredible quantities that it threw all our reckoning out of gear. It was not only that we ate so much, but also the dogs. They had been fed more meat than dogs usually get and still they were nothing but skin and bones, for they could not, any more than we, get along on lean meat only.
More to come soon…..
The Friendly Arctic: The Story Of Five Years In Polar Regions… by Vilhjalmur Stefansson read online for free click here
My Life With The Eskimo by Vilhjalmur Stefansson read online for free click here
Hunters Of The Great North by Vilhjalmur Stefansson read online for free click here
Food Tastes and Food Prejudices of Men and Dogs by Vilhjalmur Stefansson read online for free click here
Some Erroneous Ideas Of Arctic Geography by Vilhjalmur Stefansson read online for free click here