A survival tool for Inuit

It was a way to survive the harsh long winters. Inuit knew the tuktu would be needed in the dead of winter. They discovered that by storing it away just when it was starting to get colder, they could bury their food and retrieve it in the winter. This process is known as cache meat. This ancient method of storing food is still practiced by Inuit. It’s not only for tuktu; they may do it with whales, walrus and other meat that can be preserved this way. This food allows Inuit to have plenty of food to hunt more with less effort. I’ve been fortunate to be able to practice this several times with my family. It is not just about burying the meat. The location, the type of rock to use first and what time of rock it will sit on, north or south of the hill, are all important considerations. You can do everything right, only to have a wolverine dig it out, or a polar bear. In the past, especially, this could have a devastating effect on the family.

In early fall, we’d be out hunting tuktu. We were after the bull tuktu. It can be quite eerie when you’re camping by the lake and it’s just frozen, so it sings all night or moans through deep cracks. It sounds like something very hungry, or at least as a kid, I thought it sounded like that. Or ice thunder, that initial crack that makes you pop open your eyes. Then the long crack well; it’s just nerve-wracking. It was nice when you’d look out the tent and see the Northern Lights; they seemed to dance with the ice cracking. As I grew older and less jumpy, I’d miss those moments more.

We’d cache our catch, so we can pick it up in February. We’d make sure it was in an area where not much snow would be covering it in the dead of winter; there was no GPS back then. The area had to be lemming proof or siksik proof. No big rocks could touch the meat; it makes it too hard to remove in the winter. We’d use golf ball-sized rocks as a blanket so if you kick the meat in the winter, it was easier to move. Big, heavy rocks were set on top. If they didn’t freeze together it would take a bit to move but wasn’t impossible. We’d try to keep the pure meat away from each other. We’d have the ribs touching each other so when frozen, we’d still be able to take them apart. Once pure meat freezes together, it’s almost impossible to take apart, unless you thaw them. It was important because as a whole piece, it was just too heavy to carry around, not impossible but just more work. Sometimes we’d leave an antler behind as a marker, but we never really relied on those, a wolverine, wolf, or fox would love to chew on that and move it away.

Walrus cow on ice floe. © Vladimir Melnik / fotolia.com

Cache is important because sometimes the tuktu go far or further away, and when it’s -40 for long periods of time, it’s harder to get out and catch your tuktu in long winters. We must be careful too when we do cache. If you go too early, the black flies will get to it and ruin the meat.

If we go too close to the shore, the polar bear will take it. We didn’t cache meat every year, but we certainly did it. We cached if we caught maybe one too many tuktu to carry back to the boat or have too much to put on the ATV. We didn’t want any of it to go to waste. Once we started using GPS, it was a lot easier to find in the winter.

I prefer to eat aged beluga, and sometimes aged walrus, from cache meat. Translated in my dialect, it is pirujaviniq, “it used to be buried”. The cache allowed us to have readily available meat if food was scarce in the winter. The long winters sometimes make it almost impossible to catch your meat, because even fishing becomes a task; most times the ice can be 12 feet thick. Cache was a survival for Inuit back in the day. Many people still practice this today for the taste is delicious. I’ve seen some now use unheated sheds to practice this. I’ve heard it’s called, “never been frozen in the freezer”.

The natural process gives the meat that unique taste. This was usually done just before the snowfall. Once there is too much, it’s almost impossible to do. Walrus could also be wrapped, looking like cigars, and buried for the winter.

We call it igunaq. Sometimes we’d use that meat and fat as pickles for other frozen food: tuktu, fish, seal. The aged walrus has a lot of oil and is great to dip into like soya sauce. If you’re driving along in the fall and come across a nice antler over what seems like a grave, you may have come across some delicate food for the dead of winter. It’s not uncommon to come across a grave-like cache that was once lost.

Maybe it snowed too much that year and it became forever buried. One couldn’t always tell but my ol’ man would say, “that looks like a pirujaq, cache meat. They vary in size; sometimes you may have more than one tuktu in the cache. Of course, if they were lost and if they weren’t picked up by early spring, then the meat would go to waste. Inuit would try to place them away from the north side of a hill; that area would usually be covered with snow drifts from the north winds.

We’d come back in the winter, when the ice stopped singing and there was blowing snow and a little sunlight. We’d bring a crow bar and some shovels, but mostly we’d just use loose boulders or rock laying around and smash it against the boulders that had the cached meat.

Once we had the initial movement, it would be like cherry picking. You could tell by how much or how little, if any black flies had laid any eggs. If there wasn’t any, that meant no warm days came after the meat was stored. If it was stored too early and the black flies got in, the meat was spoiled.

If you have been asked to try caribou meat, ask if they have cached tuktu meat. They may have some in their freezer. If they do, don’t be shy to ask if you can try a bite. Think of it as frozen jerky; the texture is about the same only cache meat has no flavour added to it. It may be the most delicious meat you’ve ever tried.