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Pass the seal hearts

The Northern Food Tradition and Health Resource Kit contains a deck of 48 labelled photographs of traditional Inuit foods. Most are meat, but none are steaks. “Seal Heart”, one is labelled. “Caribou Brain”, says another. The images, life-size where possible, are printed on stiff paper and die-cut, like paper dolls that you badly want to throw some clothes on. The kit I looked through belonged to Gabriel Nirlungayuk, a community health representative from Pelly Bay, a hamlet in Canada’s Nunavut territory. Like me, he was visiting Igloolik – a town on a small island near Baffin Island – to attend an Arctic athletic competition. With him was Pelly Bay’s mayor at the time, Makabe Nartok. The three of us met by chance in the kitchen of Igloolik’s sole lodgings, the Tujormivik Hotel.

Nirlungayuk’s job entailed visiting schools to encourage young Inuit “crisp-aholics” and “pop-aholics” to eat like their elders. As the number of Inuit who hunt has dwindled, so has the consumption of organs (and other anatomy not available for purchase at the Igloolik Co-op: tendons, blubber, blood, head).

I picked up the card labelled “Caribou Kidney, Raw”. “Who actually eats this?”

“I do,” said Nirlungayuk. He is taller than most Inuit, with a prominent, thrusting chin that he used to indicate Nartok. “He does.”

Anyone who hunts, the pair told me, eats organs. Though the Inuit (in Canada, the term is preferred over “Eskimo”) gave up their nomadic existence in the 1950s, most adult men still supplemented the family diet with hunted game, partly to save money. In 1993, when I visited, a small can of Spork, the local Spam, cost $2.69. Produce arrives by plane. A watermelon might set you back $25. Cucumbers were so expensive that the local sex educator did his condom demonstrations on a broomstick.

“If we could strip away the influences of modern Western culture and media and the high-fructose, high-salt temptations of the junk-food sellers, would we all be eating like Inuit elders?”

I asked Nartok to go through the cut-outs and show me what he ate. He reached across the table to take them from me. His arms were pale to the wrist, then abruptly brown. The Arctic suntan could be mistaken, at a glance, for gloves. He peered at the cut-outs through wire-rim glasses. “Caribou liver, yes. Brain. Yes, I eat brain. I eat caribou eyes, raw and cooked.” Nirlungayuk looked on, nodding.

“I like this part very much.” Nartok was holding a cut-out labelled “Caribou Bridal Veil”. This is a prettier way of saying “stomach membrane”. It was dawning on me that eating the whole beast was a matter not just of economics but of preference. At a community feast earlier in the week, I was offered “the best part” of an Arctic char. It was an eye, with fat and connective tissue dangling off the back like wiring on a headlamp. A cluster of old women stood by a chain-link fence digging marrow from caribou bones with the tilt-headed focus nowadays reserved for texting.

For Arctic nomads, eating organs has, historically, been a matter of survival. Even in summer, vegetation is sparse. Little beyond moss and lichen grows abundantly on the tundra. Organs are so vitamin-rich, and edible plants so scarce, that the former are classified, for purposes of Arctic health education, both as “meat” and as “fruits and vegetables”. One serving from the Fruits and Vegetables Group in Nirlungayuk’s materials is “1/2 cup berries or greens, or 60 to 90 grams of organ meats”.

Nartok shows me an example of Arctic “greens”: cut-out number 13, Caribou Stomach Contents. Moss and lichen are tough to digest, unless, like caribou, you have a multichambered stomach in which to ferment them. So the Inuit let the caribou have a go at it first.

If we could strip away the influences of modern Western culture and media and the high-fructose, high-salt temptations of the junk-food sellers, would we all be eating like Inuit elders, instinctively gravitating to the most healthy, nutrient-diverse foods?

Perhaps. It’s hard to say. There is a famous study from the 1930s involving a group of orphanage babies who, at mealtimes, were presented with a smorgasbord of 34 whole, healthy foods. Nothing was processed or prepared beyond mincing or mashing. Among the more standard offerings – fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, milk, chicken, beef – the researcher, Clara Davis, included liver, kidney, brains, sweetbreads, and bone marrow. The babies shunned liver and kidney (as well as all ten vegetables, haddock, and pineapple), but brains and sweetbreads didn’t turn up among the low-preference foods she listed. And the most popular item of all? Bone marrow.

At half past ten, the sky was princess pink. There was still enough light to make out the walrus appliqués on the coat of a young girl riding her bicycle on the gravel road through town. We were joined in the kitchen by a man named Marcel, just back from a hunting camp where a pod of narwhal had been spotted earlier in the day. The narwhal is a medium-sized whale with a single tusk protruding from its head like a birthday candle.

Marcel dropped a white plastic bag on to the table. It bounced slightly on landing. “Muktuk,” Nirlungayuk said approvingly. It was a piece of narwhal skin, uncooked. Nartok waved it off. “I ate muktuk earlier. Whole lot.” In the air he outlined a square the size of a hardback book.

Nirlungayuk speared a chunk on the tip of a pocketknife blade and held it out for me. My instinct was to refuse it. I’m a product of my upbringing. I grew up in New Hampshire in the 1960s, when meat meant muscle. Breast and thigh, burgers and chops. Organs were something you donated. Kidney was a shape for coffee tables. It did not occur to my people to fix innards for supper, especially raw ones. Raw outards seemed even
more unthinkable.

I pulled the rubbery chunk from Nirlungayuk’s knife. It was cold from the air outside and disconcertingly narwhal-coloured. The taste of muktuk is hard to pin down. Mushrooms? Walnut? There was plenty of time to think about it, as it takes approximately as long to chew narwhal as it does to hunt them. I know you won’t believe me, because I didn’t believe Nartok, but muktuk is exquisite (and, again, healthy: as much vitamin A as in a carrot, plus a respectable amount of vitamin C).

I like chicken skin and pork rinds. Why the hesitation over muktuk? Because to a far greater extent than most of us realise, culture writes the menu. And culture doesn’t take kindly to substitutions.

Variety meats

What Gabriel Nirlungayuk was trying to do with organs for health, the American government tried to do for war. During World War II, the US military was shipping so much meat overseas (to feed its own troops as well as the Allies) that a domestic shortage loomed. According to a 1943 Breeder’s Gazette article, the American soldier consumed close to a pound of meat a day. Beginning that year, meat on the home front was rationed – but only the mainstream cuts. You could have all the organ meats you wanted. The army didn’t use them because they spoiled more quickly and because, as Life put it, “the men don’t like them”.

Civilians didn’t like them any better. Hoping to change this, the National Research Council (NRC) hired a team of anthropologists, led by the venerable Margaret Mead, to study families’ food habits. How do people decide what’s good to eat, and how do you go about changing their minds? Studies were undertaken, recommendations drafted, reports published – including Mead’s 1943 opus “The Problem of Changing Food Habits: Report of the Committee on Food Habits”, and if ever a case were to be made for word-rationing, there it was.

“The human infant enters the world without information about what is edible and what is not. Until children are around two, you can get them to try pretty much anything”

The first order of business was to come up with a euphemism. People were unlikely to warm to a dinner of “offal” or “glandular meats”, as organs were called in the industry. “Tidbits” turned up here and there – as in Life’s poetic “Plentiful are these meats called ‘tidbits’” – but “variety meats” was the standout winner. It had a satisfactorily vague and cheery air, calling to mind both protein and TV programmes with dance numbers and spangly getups. Similarly, meal planners and chefs were encouraged “to give special attention to the naming” of new organ-meat mains. A little French was thought to help things go down easier. A 1944 Hotel Management article included recipes for “Brains à la King” and “Beef Tongue Piquant”.

Another strategy was to target children. “The human infant enters the world without information about what is edible and what is not,” wrote psychologist Paul Rozin, who studied disgust for many years at the University of Pennsylvania.

Until children are around two, you can get them to try pretty much anything, and Rozin did. In one memorable study, he tallied the percentage of children ages 16 to 29 months who ate or tasted the following items presented to them on a plate: fish eggs (60 percent), dish soap (79 percent), biscuits topped with ketchup (94 percent), a dead (sterilised) grasshopper (30 percent), and artfully coiled peanut butter scented with Limburger cheese and presented as ‘dog-doo’ (55 percent). The lowest-ranked item, at 15 percent acceptance, was a human hair.

By the time children are ten years old, generally speaking, they’ve learned to eat like the people around them. Once food prejudices are set, it is no simple task to dissolve them. In a separate study, Rozin presented 68 American university students with a grasshopper snack, this time a commercially prepared honey-covered variety sold in Japan. Only 12 percent were willing to try one.

So the NRC tried to get primary schools involved. Home economists were urged to approach teachers and lunch planners. “Let’s do more than say ‘How do you do’ to variety meats; let’s make friends with them!” chirps Jessie Alice Cline in the February 1943 Practical Home Economics. The US War Food Administration pulled together a Food Conservation Education brochure with suggested variety-meat essay themes (“My Adventures in Eating New Foods”). Perhaps sensing the futility of trying to get ten-year-olds to embrace brains and hearts, the administration focused mainly on not wasting food. One suggested activity took the form of “a public display of wasted edible food actually found in the garbage dump”, which does more than say “How do you do” to a long night of parental phone calls.

The other problem with school-based efforts to change eating habits was that children don’t decide what’s for dinner. Mead and her team soon realised they had to get to the person they called the “gatekeeper” – mother. Nirlungayuk reached a similar conclusion. I tracked him down, 17 years later, and asked him what the outcome of his country-foods campaign had been. “It didn’t really work,” he said, from his office in the Nunavut department of wildlife and environment. “Kids eat what parents make for them. That’s one thing I didn’t do – go to the parents.”

“Chefs were encouraged ‘to give special attention to the naming’ of new organ-meat mains. A 1944 Hotel Management article included recipes for ‘Brains à la King’ and ‘Beef Tongue Piquant’”

Even that can flop. Mead’s colleague Kurt Lewin, as part of the NRC research, gave a series of lectures to “homemakers” on the nutritional benefits of organ meats, ending with a plea for patriotic cooperation. Based on follow-up interviews, just 10 percent of the women who’d attended had gone home and prepared a new organ meat for the family. Discussion groups were more effective than lectures, but guilt worked best of all. “They said to the women, ‘A lot of people are making a lot of sacrifices in this war,’” says Brian Wansink, author of ‘Changing Eating Habits on the Home Front’. ‘“You can do your part by trying organ meats.’ All of a sudden, it was like, ‘Well, I don’t want to be the only person not doing my part.’”

Also effective: pledges. Though it now seems difficult to picture it, Wansink says government anthropologists had PTA members stand up and recite, “I will prepare organ meats at least ____ times in the coming two weeks.” “The act of making a public commitment,” said Wansink, “was powerful, powerful, powerful.” A little context here: the 1940s was the heyday of pledges and oaths. In Boy Scout halls, school rooms and Elks association lodges [a US fraternity], people were accustomed to signing on the dotted line or standing and reciting, one hand raised to God. Even the Clean Plate Club – dreamed up by a navy commander in 1942 – had an oath: “I…, being a member in good standing… , hereby agree that I will finish all the food on my plate… and continue to do so until Uncle Sam has licked the Japs and Hitler” – like, presumably, a plate.

To open people’s minds to a new food, you just have to get them to open their mouths. Research has shown that if people try something enough times, they’ll probably grow to like it. In a wartime survey conducted by a team of food-habits researchers, only 14 percent of the students at a women’s college said they liked evaporated milk. After serving it to the students 16 times over the course of a month, the researchers asked again. Now 51 percent liked it. As Kurt Lewin put it, “People like what they eat, rather than eat what they like.”

Mary Roach is the author of ‘Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal’ published by Oneworld at £11.99

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