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This article was originally published in High Country News, a magazine about the American West’s environment and communities. Read more stories like this at hcn.org.
We chopped. And chopped. And chopped.
We were chopping the skinny stalks of beach greens with my Gram’s ulus at her table in Uŋalaqłiq (Unalakleet), Alaska. Summer sunlight streamed through the window above the clean kitchen sink of her small US Department of Housing and Urban Development home, The Price Is Right playing on TV. The greens were a foot long and had leaves the size of a fingernail, which felt rubbery, like they’d squeak if I stroked them with just the right pressure. The stalks gave a good crunch when the ulu blade sliced through. We didn’t say much.
Gram had picked the greens that morning from the beach just a short walk from her house, greens with an English name so literal—beach greens—I like to think they must have been named by a Native. My kids were with their dad, so I had all day to chop if I needed it. And it felt like I would: no matter how quickly I worked, the mountain of unchopped greens didn’t seem to shrink. It felt like making a kale salad for a huge vegan wedding reception where only one dish would be served—kale salad. Araa, this is going to take forever, I remember thinking.
I wish I could go back and tell myself to relax my belly. Enjoy. This is precious. There is no rush. Ask Gram questions. Or don’t. Savor it. Soon, you’ll miss days like this.
Now and then, Gram would take the bowl of chopped greens and grab a bundle with her hand to place in a pot of boiling water. As soon as the greens brightened, 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 some hot water until the greens were submerged, then topped the jar with a red-and-yellow cotton towel tied in place with white cotton string.
The jar went into her dark back door entryway, where it sat for a month, undisturbed and fermenting. Once the greens gave off a hint of a sour smell, maybe a month later, they were done. She packed them into ziplock bags to freeze. Later, she would thaw a bag when she was ready to make achaaqhluk, a mixture of the fermented greens, blueberries, and sugar: the perfect dessert to serve after a heavy meal of dryfish, dried ugruk (bearded seal) meat, potatoes, carrots, herring eggs, and seal oil.
She must have made achaaqhluk with her mom, who died when she was only 13 years old. Her parents died within six months of one another. After that, she heard her aunties talk about sending her and her three siblings to a children’s home in Holy Cross, Alaska. The eldest daughter and suddenly an orphan, Gram cried to her aunties, begging them to let her stay in Uŋalaqłiq to raise the others.
Accounts I’ve read about the Holy Cross Mission Orphanage are typical of Jesuit boarding schools and orphanages throughout Canada and the United States: sexual assault by the clergy, beatings from the nuns, severe 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 aunties. Like she got away with something. Even though on that day, a kid herself, she became the parent to three children.
Achaaqhluk kind of tastes like a fresh and tangy yogurt, without the heaviness of dairy. I don’t want to tell you what it looks like, because what it looks like is canned spinach mixed with frozen blueberries, an offensive comparison. In my mind, canned spinach and achaaqhluk are on polar opposites of the tastiness spectrum, and I am team achaaqhluk all the way. But if I had to equate this delight to any inferior Western food, that’s what it resembles.
When I was four years old, after one of the many suppers we regularly ate at Gram’s, we heard her breaking up frozen greens with a steak knife in a big 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.
Fermenting greens for achaaqhluk creates small amounts of alcohol. Maybe I was just tired and needed a nap, or maybe I passed out from the alcohol in the achaaqhluk I overate, but either way, after I overindulged, I was out for the night. From then on, my family called achaaqhluk “knockout.”
My mom never made knockout, probably because she had the luxury of just going to her mom’s to eat it. But as an adult, with my own two kids, living in another town and my own mother dead, I wanted to know how to make one of my favorite foods. The process was mysterious to me, as if Gram had some sort of magic ability to turn a green plant into a tasty dessert. So, during one spring visit home, I asked her to show me how to make it. And like all Iñupiaq instruction, there was little talking. The teaching was by doing.
While chopping the succulent stalks, I thought about how a food processor would really speed things up. Gram would be so grateful. Once back at my house in Nome, I found a Hamilton Beach food processor and had it shipped to her post office box in Uŋalaqłiq.
When she died nine years later, we found the food processor in her back door entryway, still wrapped in the original plastic. I laughed. Gram preferred chopping with her ulu as she had done her entire life, as her mother had done her entire life, and as her grandmother had done her entire life, too.
Now I live in Uŋalaqłiq again, and this month, my husband, Timm, our son, and I will drive our four-wheeler up the coast toward Blueberry Hill, where 1,000-foot (300-meter) cliffs meet a rocky, boulder-strewn beach, north from town. We’ll pack a charcuterie of dried salmon, dried seal meat, dried apricots, cut-up apples, and a bit of dark chocolate. At some point, I’ll spot small clusters of beach greens growing just above the tidewater line—green among the black, smooth rocks—and bleached cottonwood and spruce driftwood, and I’ll tap Timm’s arm so he stops the four-wheeler. We’ll pull clumps of greens—with the plants rooted in sand, it isn’t difficult—and shake the grit from 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 begin chopping with our ulus. I’ll probably never take to a food processor, either. I’ll notice how my belly, usually tense from the day’s demands, is soft, my breathing easy. I’ll remember my Gram and her gram and hers, and how they chopped and boiled and blanched greens just like this.
Then I’ll think of how when Gram cried to her aunties, her tears were one of our family’s greatest blessings. How her tears did not come from weakness, but from strength. I’ll smile and think of her kitchen table, my smile stretching wider as I hear Bob Barker’s voice in my head. And I’ll feel hot, grateful tears of my own begin to fall, happy to be home.