My first impression of the tundra in western Alaska was what I could see from the window of the tiny bush plane to Quinhagak. It looked vast, wet, and green. The view from up close didn’t immediately change this, though after the second time a step onto what looked like solid ground landed me in thigh-high water, I amended it slightly. The tundra was vast, wet, green — and, quite possibly, trying to kill me.
I was used to an Alaska full of impossibly beautiful mountains and forests and fields. This wasn’t like that. The permafrost here is at most, in summer, one or two feet under the surface. This means there are shrubs, but no trees, and water is trapped in a thousand shallow ponds and bogs.
The thing about beauty on the tundra is that it’s subtle. I’m not always good with subtle.
It took a while before I started to see details, to notice the flowers and berries adding spots of color to the landscape. This became easier towards the end of summer – that’s when the cloudberries were ripe.
The first time I picked one, I thought it was rotten. (Nobody had warned me they were supposed to be that gooey, or that tart.) But a while later I picked another one, and then a few more. Soon I was gathering them automatically as I walked, saving a handful every day to eat with lunch or dinner. Being in a place where most fresh foods have to be flown in makes you appreciate any food you can simply pick for yourself.
It wasn’t just me, of course. All day long – and with 18+ hours of daylight, I do mean long – I’d see people heading out in ATVs, taking advantage of the short peak season. Extras could be frozen, given to older relatives, or traded at regional meetings to those whose villages had a less impressive supply.
Lynn had promised that if we picked the berries, she would show us how to make Eskimo ice cream. Now, I’ll admit I didn’t have any idea what ‘Eskimo ice cream’ was, but it had ‘ice cream’ in the name, so I was wholeheartedly in favor of this plan. I found out later, from the girls who helped out my berry picking, that in Yupik it’s called ‘akutaq’. (On a side note, there is nothing more ego-deflating then hanging out with seven-year-olds who are very patiently trying to remember that you, unlike every other person they know, only speak English, and therefore have barely half of what they consider a normal vocabulary. )
We started off with a few handfuls of crisco. There are apparently a lot of variations to this recipe, but the base is always a big old helping of fat. Now, I’m not going to say I wouldn’t go out and hunt a sea mammal in the name of a good dessert, but I’ll admit I’m grateful to have crisco as an alternative.
Actually, this part apparently is only supposed to take about 5-10 minutes, but that kind of feels like forever when you’re stirring crisco with your hands. But the mixture eventually reached an appropriate level of fluffiness, so we added the berries. We added a LOT of berries. Mostly the fresh cloudberries, but we also threw in some frozen mixed berries and some raisins.
And then we ate. I have to admit, I was kind of afraid it would taste like berry-flavored crisco. It doesn’t! It is smooth and creamy and sweet, just like something with ‘ice cream’ in the name should be.
Now, this was kind of like trying to get my Italian great-grandmother’s recipe for pasta sauce: there was a lot of ‘You add this till you have enough’ and “Mix it all until it looks right.’ But here’s what I wrote down.
About 1 cup of crisco, 1 cup sugar, and 1/2 cup hot water.
Mix with hands until fluffy. (5 minutes or so.)
Add berries. At least a quart.
Add frozen berries, rasins, or anything else you want in it.
(For more ice cream goodness, check out the Celebrate Travel Blog Carnival!)