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This article was originally published in High Country News, a magazine about the environment and communities of the American West. Read more stories like this at hcn.org.
We chopped. And chopped. And chopped.
We were chopping up the skinny stalks of beach greens with my grandmother’s ulus at her table in Uŋalaqłiq (Unalakleet), Alaska. Summer sunlight streamed through the window above the clean kitchen sink of his small U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development home, The price is right play on TV. The greens were a foot long and had fingernail-sized leaves, which felt rubbery, like they squeaked if I stroked them with just the right amount of pressure. The rods gave a good crunch when the ulu blade sliced through. We haven’t said much.
Gram had chosen the greens that morning on the beach a short walk from her home, greens with such a literal English name – beach greens – I like to think they must have been named by a local. My kids were with their dad so I had all day to chop if I needed to. And I felt like I would: no matter how fast I worked, the mountain of uncut greens didn’t seem to shrink. It was like making kale salad for a large vegan wedding reception where only one dish would be served – kale salad. Aaaa, it’s gonna take forever, I remember thinking.
I wish I could go back and tell myself to relax my belly. Enjoy. It’s precious. No rush. Ask Gram questions. Or not. Savor it. Soon you will miss days like this.
Occasionally, Gram would pick up the bowl of chopped greens and grab a bundle with his hand to place it in a pot of boiling water. As soon as the greens thinned out, shocked by the heat, she transferred them to a glass jar with metal tongs. When we finally cut the last of the greens, the container was full. Gram added hot water until the greens were submerged, then covered the pot with a red and yellow cotton towel tied with white cotton string.
The jar entered the dark entrance of his back door, where he sat for a month, undisturbed and fermenting. Once the greens gave off a hint of sour smell, maybe a month later, they were done. She packed them in ziplock bags to freeze them. Later she would defrost a bag when she was ready to do achaaqhluka blend of fermented greens, blueberries and sugar: the perfect dessert to serve after a hearty meal of dried, dried fish ugruk (bearded seal), potatoes, carrots, herring roe and seal oil.
She had to do achaaqhluk with her mother, who died when she was only 13 years old. His parents died less than six months apart. After that, she overheard her aunts talking about sending her and her three siblings to a children’s home in Holy Cross, Alaska. The eldest and suddenly orphaned daughter, Gram wept to her aunts, begging them to let her stay in Uŋalaqłiq to raise the others.
The testimonies I have read about the Holy Cross Mission orphanage are typical of Jesuit boarding schools and orphanages in Canada and the United States: sexual assaults by clergy, beatings by nuns, intense hunger. Gram had a cousin who went to Holy Cross. “She never came back,” Gram said, with wonder and sadness in her voice that I felt in my throat.
As an adult, she laughed when she talked about crying to her aunts. Like she got off with something. Even if that day, herself a child, she became a mother of three children.
Achaaqhluk tastes like fresh, tangy yogurt without the heaviness of dairy. I don’t want to tell you what it looks like, because it looks like canned spinach mixed with frozen blueberries, a shocking comparison. In my mind, canned spinach and achaaqhluk are poles apart on the flavor spectrum, and I follow the achaaqhluk team all the way. But if I were to equate this delicacy with any inferior Western food, that’s what it tastes like.
When I was four, after one of the many dinners we regularly ate at Gram’s, we heard her smash frozen greens with a steak knife into a large Pyrex bowl in the kitchen. Shortly after the achaaqhluk was on the table and my parents gave me a small melamine bowl filled with it, I finished the bowl and asked for more. They gave me more. I finished that bowl and asked for more. They gave me more. I finished that bowl and asked for more. They filled it halfway and said I had enough.
Fermentation of greens for achaaqhluk creates small amounts of alcohol. Maybe I was just tired and needed a nap, or maybe I passed out from the booze in the achaaqhluk I ate too much, but either way , after abusing, I went out for the night. From then on, my family called achaaqhluk “knockout”.
My mom never did a knockout, probably because she had the luxury of going to her mom’s house to eat it. But as an adult, with my two children, living in another city, and my own deceased mother, I wanted to know how to prepare one of my favorite foods. The process was mysterious to me, as if Gram had some kind of magical ability to turn a green plant into a tasty dessert. So, during a spring visit to the house, I asked her to show me how to do it. And like all Iñupiaq instructions, there was little discussion. The teaching was done by doing.
When cutting the succulent stems, I thought about how a food processor would really speed things up. Gram would be so grateful. Once back home in Nome, I found a food processor from Hamilton Beach and had it shipped to their post office box in Uŋalaqłiq.
When she died nine years later, we found the food processor in her back door entrance, still wrapped in the original plastic. I laughed. Grandma preferred to chop with her ulu as she had done all her life, as her mother had done all her life and as her grandmother had done all her life too.
Now I live in Uŋalaqłiq again, and this month my husband, Timm, our son, and I will ride our quad bike up the coast towards Blueberry Hill, where 1,000-foot (300-meter) cliffs meet a rocky rock. dotted beach, north of the city. We pack a charcuterie of jerky salmon, jerky seal meat, dried apricots, sliced apples and a little dark chocolate. At some point I’ll spot small clusters of beach greens growing just above the tide line – green among smooth black rocks – and bleached poplar and spruce driftwood, and I’ll tap Timm’s arm to stop the four-wheeler. We’ll pull up clumps of greenery – with the plants rooted in the sand, it’s not difficult – and shake the sand off their roots. Henning, our son, will grab a stick or two, pretending to fight dragons or hunt a black bear.
Later, we’ll drive home, our bags full, and start chopping with our ulus. I’ll probably never pick up a food processor either. I will notice how my belly, usually tense from the demands of the day, is soft, my breathing easy. I will remember my grandmother and her grandmother and hers, and how they chopped and boiled and blanched vegetables just like that.
Then I’ll think about the fact that when Gram cried alongside her aunts, her tears were one of our family’s greatest blessings. How her tears came not from weakness, but from strength. I smile and think of his kitchen table, my smile widening when I hear Bob Barker’s voice in my head. And I’ll feel warm, my own grateful tears will start to flow, happy to be home.