Ice Bear – The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon

    By Michael Engelhard University of Washington Press November 2016

    Inupiaq hunter and polar bear, circa 1924. This photo actually shows the reenactment of a traditional hunt for a silent movie like Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North but was filmed in Nome, Alaska. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

    “I know that there are a lot of people who like polar bear meat and a lot of people who don’t like [it].” — Mary Takkiruq, Gjoa Haven (Nunavut, Canada)

    We are what we eat. This is not New Age mysticism or even a matter of culture. Archeologists use bones and tooth enamel to reconstruct the diets and migrations of Paleolithic humans through isotope analysis. While we are growing up, our bodies accumulate chemical elements — carbon, nitrogen, strontium, oxygen — from the foods that we eat and the water we drink, which in turn carry mineral traces of the specific soils from which they sprang. These fingerprints of place stay with us throughout life and even afterward, for a while at least, locked in our skeletons. The plants and animals that sustain us are part of us, just like our stories and memories.

    ab_nd16_feature_10Paraphrasing the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, one could claim that the North’s Native peoples are taken with polar bears not only because they are spiritually potent — “good to think” — but also because they are physically potent — “good to eat.” Throughout Arctic history the bear has served as food, though in most indigenous societies, whales, walrus, seals, caribou, or reindeer provided the bulk of the diet. Unfamiliar dishes or ingredients like bear meat strike Western palates as surreal or exotic and might also be seen as “politically incorrect” — but from our births onward, the culture that surrounds us shapes our food preferences and what we consider “normal” or acceptable.

    Food can be a marker of belonging, contributing to a group’s self-image and coherence. Food taken directly from one’s surroundings is symbolic of place, forming a link with a people’s history. This is why even in countries that ban polar bear hunting, such as the United States, Native groups with a tradition of hunting polar bears are permitted to keep hunting them (and other animals covered by the Marine Mammal Protection Act).

    Together with the bear’s humanlike appearance, the richness of bear meat and its rarity in modern diets seem to account for non-Native people’s rejection of it. But our culinary preferences have changed. In nineteenth-century North America, bear meat (though not that of polar bears) was standard fare. Settlers also used bear fat to fry other foods and preferred it to butter.

    As far as our relations with the bear family go, we are much more Homo gustandibus than Homo deliciosus. Despite the fact that in the Arctic, people have always eaten more polar bears than vice versa, the animal’s reputation as an ogre persists, a psychological bias not supported by statistics. Based purely on the percentage of meat in each species’ diet, the polar bear tops the Arctic food chain. Closer to herbivore than to carnivore, Homo sapiens rank somewhere between anchovies and pigs.

    Unlike medieval royalty — or later, zoos — which pampered rare collectibles, explorers and whalers, always near starvation, treated the White Bears as survival rations. “Bear-beef” was often the only course on the menu for months. The meat is much greasier, however, than beef.

    It has received mixed reviews, from “exceeding coarse” to “strongly scented,” to “passable, with a taste akin to lamp oil” (Arctic lamp oil, that is, rendered from whale or seal blubber), to “very good flesh and better than our venison… as good savory meate as any beefe could be.” Fridtjof Nansen’s captain, Otto Sverdrup, called it a “royal dish” and the explorer himself judged breast of polar bear cub to be delicious. Of course, hunger always has been the best sauce and could have swayed culinary opinions. “Heaven had sent us succor at a time of utter distress,” one castaway recalled, of a polar bear windfall, “and our gratitude for this miraculous gift was apparent in our overflowing happiness.”

    The marbled cuts’ flavour also varies with a bear’s diet and age. A teacher in 1930s Alaska suffered fumes of seal pervading the schoolhouse as she was broiling polar bear chops on a bed of coals, which she attributed to the bear’s diet. She liked the roasted heart much better. Despite his privileged background, Baron Nordenskiöld deemed the bear, “if he is not too old or has not recently eaten rotten seal-flesh… very eatable.” Captain Scoresby served bear ham to his ship’s surgeon who, for a month afterward, thought he had supped on beefsteak. Having run out of provisions on one of the numerous searches the British launched for Sir John Franklin, Dr. Elisha Kent Kane ate raw, frozen meat from a polar bear head that he had saved as a specimen and called it a godsend. He described the meat of lean bears as “the most palatable food” and “rather sweet and tender,” but warned against well-fed bears, which were made nearly inedible by “the impregnation of fatty oil throughout the cellular tissue.” Frozen polar bear fat has the texture (and caloric load) of ice cream. A modern-day East Coast urbanite transplanted to Point Hope, Alaska praised polar bear meat as an absolute delicacy: “jet black, grainy like old gnarled wood, but… sweet and tender, ten times better than the best prime rib I have ever tasted.” Given the benefits of eating fatty meat in subzero environments, gustatory considerations seem trite. While one modern Alaskan compared polar bear meat to “last Thursday’s pot roast basted with cod-liver oil,” she swallowed three bites and came to appreciate it.

    Would-be connoisseurs should keep in mind the possibility of negative side effects from the consumption of polar bear meat, such as hypervitaminosis A, an excess of the vitamin that can be contracted from eating the liver of polar bears, seals, walrus, or huskies. Affecting the central nervous system, it can cause hair loss, extreme peeling of the skin, birth defects, liver problems, vomiting, blurred vision, loss of muscle coordination, and even death. One officer swore never again to eat bear liver, no matter how much it might tempt him, after his crew showed symptoms akin to carbon monoxide poisoning. Native peoples have long been aware of this danger, as have explorers, though some felt no worse after eating the liver. Research has shown that a healthy adult person can tolerate ten thousand units of vitamin A. Trouble, if it comes, occurs between twenty-five thousand and thirty-three thousand units. One pound of polar bear liver — a fist-sized chunk and barely a meal — can contain nine million units of vitamin A. The occasional lack of liver toxicity that some explorers reported can be explained by differences in the age, hibernation, and feeding habits of the bear.

    Equally bad is trichinosis, a parasitic disease contracted by eating the raw or undercooked flesh of pigs or wild game. Its symptoms can include fever, muscle pain, and fatigue, as well as inflammation of the heart muscle, lungs, or brain, which have led to a few deaths. In 1897, the Swedish aeronaut and physicist Salomon August Andrée and his two companions perished after their balloon was forced down on the ice before they ever got close to the North Pole. They survived the crash, but the Trichinella parasite from a polar bear on which the trio later fed has been suspected in their deaths. Even dried bear meat can cause the disease, and three members of a Gambell, St. Lawrence Island family became sick after eating jerked polar bear intended for their dogs — so cook those steaks well.

    In Alaska and Siberian Native societies, taboos concerning polar bear meat reflected not only the spiritual risks associated with the hunt but also the separation of male and female spheres. Further, as a creature of both land and sea, the bear occupied a position between both environments and their respective animals. Only the use of whales was regulated by equally strict rules. In addition to the hunt and preparations for the hunt, taboos guided the butchering, cooking, sharing, and disposal of remains as well as the actual consumption of polar bears. The proper observance of such taboos insured that hunters were spared the wrath of the offended bear spirit and that bears would be reborn, released once again by the pleased master spirit of game. Some Inuit groups shunned bear meat altogether, because the animal too closely resembled a human. Individuals who had resorted to cannibalism during famines avoided it also — they believed that bear meat would make them crave human flesh.ab_nd16_feature_11

    Favourite bear recipes

    In the far American Northwest, on Little Diomede Island, a stormy Bering Strait outcrop near the International Date Line, Inupiat still largely depend on the sea’s bounty — blue crab and bowhead whale, seal, walrus, and polar bear, which they can legally hunt. Little Diomede resident and tribal coordinator Frances Ozenna has two favorite recipes:

    Diced: Dice polar bear meat, leaving fat on some chunks of meat. Season pieces with bouillon, onion, Mrs. Dash Seasoning Blend, and salt. Boil. (Chef’s note: Polar bear fat is drier than walrus or seal blubber. It is neither fatty nor runny and is subtle in taste and very tender.)

    Diced, variation: Cook polar bear meat with frozen, sliced fermented walrus flipper. (Chef’s note: When you eat the two together, it sweetens the bear meat, and the bear takes away the greasy taste of the fermented flipper.) Serve with mixed greens and [seal] oil.

    Stew: For choice cuts, choose meat from the back of the polar bear shoulder blade. Dice meat. Marinate in refrigerator for one to two days with beef bouillon, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, onion, and Mrs. Dash Seasoning Blend. After marinating, rinse well to remove some of the blood. (Chef’s note: A small amount of brown sugar can also be added to the seasoning.)

    Boil a pot of water and add onion, Mrs. Dash, bouillon, salt, and Worcestershire sauce. Add meat and simmer for 1.5 to 2 hours. Add rice, potatoes, and carrots, if available. Thicken with flour, cornstarch, or elbow macaroni about 10 minutes before the soup is done. Let stew rest before serving. Serve with homemade corn bread or biscuits. Lacking polar bear meat, you can substitute brown bear or black bear. (Or pork.)

    Native peoples avoided polar bear liver for its vitamin A concentration, and, like explorers and whalers, fed it only to their dogs. Modern Inuit and Inupiat value the flavour nuances of different bears or parts of a bear. Some prefer den polar bears instead of bears caught in the open, because they taste better. Like their neighbours, the Cree, some consider the front and back paws (tukiq) the best eating.

    In the 1960s, the anthropologist James W. Van Stone witnessed a polar bear feast at Point Hope — a scene still common 60 years later in northern Alaska and Canada: “When a polar bear skin and meat are brought back to the village it is the sign for a general gathering of friends and relatives at the home of the successful hunter… A big pot of boiled polar bear meat is usually supplied and everyone helps himself from time to time.”

    Until temperatures rose in the spring, people kept the bear carcass on the roof of their house, away from the dogs, and sawed off chunks as needed. Nowadays, they keep it in closet-sized electric freezers.

    Wild meat such as the polar bear’s is not only more nutritious but also much cheaper and fresher than store-bought food — a significant factor in places where cash and jobs are scarce and goods need to be imported from afar. A few years ago, the Nunavut town of Iqaluit organized an open-air market, for local Inuit “country foods,” including seal, caribou, and polar bear. While such meats are normally still shared informally, that initiative sought to raise cash that hunters could invest in ammunition, gas for snow machines, and other necessities.

    For many Inupiat, polar bear meat remains a favorite meal and a prestigious gift. When a polar bear has been killed, a call goes out on a village radio channel, asking people to get some. These days, the hunter normally keeps the skin, a trophy and commodity. The rest of a bear still is widely shared, a token of group identity and solidarity, a kind of Arctic communion. Unlike the whalers and explorers, who saw it as staple or last resort, indigenous peoples have always considered eating polar bear a reaffirmation of community and of their beliefs, as much as an act of physical nourishment.

    A recipe from Canada’s Arctic Roast Polar Bear

    Trim all fat from the roast. Wash well. Soak meat for at least two hours in water, salt and vinegar. Remove and pat dry. Place meat in a roaster, lay strips of bacon on top and place quarters of onion beside it. Roast at 350°F for about three hours. 15 minutes. Before serving, remove bacon strips, coat top of roast with butter and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast another 15 minutes and drizzle butter on top two or three times during this period. Serve hot. Serves 6 to 8. Eleanor A. Ellis (editor), Northern Cookbook. Ottawa, Ministry of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, 1973.

    Bering Strait Recipe

    Polar Bear Stew

    4 pounds (1.8 kg) polar bear meat (paw is particularly desirable)
    Water to cover
    3 tablespoons (45ml) salt
    1 1/2 cups (360 ml) dried potato
    1 cup (340 ml) celery flakes
    1 tablespoon (15ml) dry union
    2 cups (480 ml) dehydrated carrots
    1/2 cup (120ml) melted butter
    1 3/4 cups (420 ml) flour
    1 teaspoon (5ml) garlic powder or garlic salt
    3/4 teaspoon (3ml) pepper

    Cut meat into bite-sized pieces and boil in salted water for 1 1/2 hours or more. Then add dry vegetables; mix melted butter with flour, blend in seasonings and add to meat. Cook 15 minutes longer. Serves 8 to 10.

    Norma Silook, Gambell, Saint Lawrence Island