Despite the late-April falling snow, the Glacier View room at the University of Alaska Southeast was full of warmth and color for the final installation of the Edible Art of Place series Friday morning. The featured speakers were Helen Watkins and Gerry Williams, both of whom had contributed to other presentations in the series. This presentation was the most interactive of the bunch, with each woman offering activities and morsels for the audience to try. At least three tables were covered in dishes of foods, some traditional Alaska Native dishes and other options for the less adventurous eaters not accustomed to traditional Tlingit food.
Gerry Williams started off with making tea, showing off a collection of neatly labeled bottles filled with dried and ground leaves and berries.
In an earlier presentation, Williams’ daughter Libby Watanabe spoke of some of the medicinal values of teas and concoctions, but Williams admitted she drinks the tea just for pleasure.
Williams sourced tea ingredients from around the state, collecting ingredients like red clover, fireweed, high bush cranberries, devil’s club, Hudson Bay tea leaves and mint. She suggested ingredients could be steeped alone or combined.
Williams invited the audience to prepare their own tea mixes using the ingredients she brought and some tea bags that iron shut, adding the tea bags are “really, really easy, or I wouldn’t have done it.” She had bought some in the past that needed to be sewn shut.
Southeast Alaska has an abundance of fruits and plants that can be made into tea, and there are plenty of resources for figuring out which plans to eat, though the best, Williams said, are pocket-sized books from the Alaska Native Sisterhood — she didn’t have one handy, perhaps because their small size makes them both portable and easy to lose.
Also set out on the front table was a set of canned foods from deer meat to beach asparagus and blueberry jam. Both the blueberries and beach asparagus were harvested in Juneau. There was also smoked salmon from Klukwan and orange marmalade — with oranges from Fred Meyer. An ongoing joke through the presentations was laughing about the ingredients obtained at Fred Meyer, rather than harvested locally. Oranges don’t grow well in Southeast Alaska, though. All these jars were given away as door prizers — there were some lucky winners at the end of the presentation.
Also lucky was that Williams demonstrated making a soap berry dessert, blending soap berries with water, sugar and another fruit — bananas were one recommendation. The berry concoction froths to almost a mousse-like consistency and a few lucky audience members received a sample right then. The rest had to wait until later because a full half-hour of whipping soap berries would be a little distracting.
Liana Wallace conducted the introduction again for this presentation, including a traditional Tlingit story, ultimately about luck. The story is best heard rather than read if you ever find yourself in her company.
Also presenting was Helen Watkins, whose contributions have been plentiful during the entire series. She said she’d be covering the three Ss: Salmon, seal and seaweed.
“When we go hunting or fishing, we never announce exactly what we’re going to do, because everything has a spirit, and we believe that if you announce what you’re going for, they will hear and they will disappear,” Watkins said, “I always say we’re going to go for a boat ride — but then bring everything you need for fishing.”
“Does anyone know how to call a salmon?” Watkins asked. She said you have to put the bait on the hook and as you throw it in the water you say the magic words.
She called out in Tlingit several lines, which she translated to English as, “Ready or not, here it comes,” and after the laughter subsided, she continued, “Bite my line, I am poor, I need the fish.”
“Can anyone remember that?” she asked the audience.
On the subject of salmon, discussed in the first presentation, Watkins reminded everyone that you can use all the salmon, even the heads and the bones, and that it can be prepared in many ways, from smoking to baking to boiling to fermenting.
Watkins talked about smoking and drying salmon, suggesting that the fish shouldn’t be too thick when drying. She also talked about the eggs and a number of ways to prepare them, including with black seaweed and hooligan oil.
Watkins then held up a solid brownish block, sealed in plastic, and asked if anyone knew what it was.
“It’s Indian Cheese,” she said. “To make the Indian Cheese, I dry the sockeye eggs, smoke it completely, and when it’s all the way dry, when you break it, it’s chopped up real small, then I use coho eggs and I mix the dry with the coho eggs. It takes time to do it — everything we do, very time consuming — but after it’s done, we have Tlingit fast food.”
She said the process takes about a month and having just the right mixture is important so it doesn’t turn out too hard or fall apart.
Watkins had brought many salmon dishes for people to sample, including a salmon macaroni salad, a salmon, seaweed and rice dish and a mix of coho eggs and high bush cranberries.
Next she talked about seal.
“When I was a young lady, the kids’ dad bought me a .22 and I was going to be a great hunter, I said, “I’m gonna get me a seal,” so I had a .22, and this is all in Haines, right by the mouth of the Chilkoot River, and I had a nice flat rock... I was sitting there, the water was calm, it was high tide, the sky was blue as can be... looking all out in the water for a seal and all of a sudden, there comes a big seal, about from here to where my son is, he looked at me and I looked at him, all I could see were his eyes and his big head, I froze and he went away. And that was the end of my hunting.”
Watkins showed examples of seal products and talked about how the whole seal was used, from the hide to the oil rendered from fat — pro tip: make sure all the meat and blood is removed from the fat before rendering or else the oil will be black. Even the stomach is used, stuffed with smoked meat and smoked seal fat, then tied off and boiled, sort of a seal stomach sausage.
Though one hears about tanning animal skins being a long, arduous process, Watkins shared a kids perspective — while the hide was stretched out, the kids could jump on it, she said. Clothes and moccasins are made from the seal skin.
In a slow cooker she had a dish made with curry, seal meat and some onions and tomato. “And fat,” Watkins added. “The fat is the good part.”
She informed the audience that your brain needs fats to function, possibly as a public service announcement and possibly so people wouldn’t feel guilty indulging.
And the third S is for seaweed, which was one of the ingredients in the dish being prepared during the presentation. Watkins also passed around red seaweed that was toasted in the oven to be the consistency of really thin potato chips. Watkins said she’s known to make the best.
When she was young, she said she and her sister would wrap the seaweed around the stove pipe to dry when they were craving some crispy seaweed.
At the end of the Art of Place lecture, there are some lessons to be gleaned.
One seems to be to use everything your harvest and to take only what you need so the land still has more to give.
Another lesson was the power of natural foods and remedies.
And yet another, that was very apparent in this last talk, was that all of this revolves around family.
Though not everyone is guaranteed to like everything, there was a lot of talk about growing up with traditional Tlingit food. Most of the stories involve harvesting with family, cooking with family, sharing with family and eating with family — so even if some foods don’t agree with some taste buds (maybe fermented fish heads or Indian Cheese), there seem to be plenty of fond memories attached.
As an audience member, the sharing of food and stories made everyone in the room feel like family for that time.
Art of Place is a series put on by the University of Alaska Southeast, next year will be Audible Art of Place. Keep an eye out.