TRANSCRIPT Dining at the Top of the World

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Dining at the Top of the World: Arctic Adaptation, Abundance, and…Ice Cream, first released on February 6, 2024. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

BROADCASTER: You know, millions are waking up this morning facing potentially life-threatening cold. The Arctic chill, hitting the plains to the Midwest, even parts of the south, seeing windchills below zero.

CYNTHIA GRABER: So it’s winter in North America. And we’ve even been experiencing a bit of a polar vortex lately, that’s icy cold air blasting down at us from the Arctic.

NICOLA TWILLEY: When it’s chilly in these latitudes, we tend to think about stews and soups, maybe some hot chocolate. But what about the place where all that cold air is coming from—the icy tundra and freezing ice floes of the Arctic itself? What’s on the menu to stay warm there?

CYRUS HARRIS: Yeah, you know, in order to survive up here, to where we had no stores no, no place to buy the Western diet, which we’re really not accustomed to. Our food is really off the lands, the water, the sea, the sky.

GRABER: When you picture the Arctic, you might not think there’s all that much food there, but there are people who have been living in the region for thousands of years, like the ancestors of Cyrus Harris, who you just heard. And they did have to eat. And so we decided this was the season to explore the cuisines of the poles. First up, the northern polar region, the Arctic.

TWILLEY: We, of course, are Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.

GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber, and we’ve got a lot of questions for Cyrus and his friends up north. They don’t have fields of wheat and rows of kale, so: what’s on the menu? And how does it change with the seasons?

TWILLEY: Also, without those whole grains and leafy greens that are supposed to be the stuff we eat most of to stay healthy—how does everyone not get sick? I mean, it’s not just kale that’s missing. It’s basically all the veggies.

GRABER: We aren’t the only ones who’ve been wondering about this, a few of you listeners have asked us these questions, too.

DALE THOMPSON: Hi, this is Dale Thompson. Calling in from San Diego. Wanted to thank you for taking my question. It’s based on, many years ago when I was in the Coast Guard on polar icebreakers and got into the Arctic and Antarctic, and I was always intrigued by the natives living there their whole lives without any access to any of the things we normally considered required nutrition such as vegetables, grains, etc.

TWILLEY: Dale, you’re not alone in wondering about this.

HALLEY REED: Hi, my name is Halley. I’m from Tampa, Florida.

GRABER: Halley watched a show about an expedition in the Arctic where ships got stuck in the ice and everyone starved or died of scurvy.

REED: But one of the ironies that the show keeps going back to is that the whole time that everyone is freezing and starving and dying of scurvy, is that they are surrounded by an Arctic indigenous community that knows very well how to survive in this environment. That made me very curious. How exactly do Arctic indigenous people manage to survive those long, brutal winters in a place with no vegetation and not get scurvy?

GRABER: And that is just what we’re going to find out.

TWILLEY: This episode, we’re putting on our thermal underwear and pointing our compasses toward the north star. And we’re doing it with the help of our fabulous Gastropod supporters—thank you, we couldn’t make the show without you. This episode is also supported in part by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund for our coverage of biomedical research and by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the Public Understanding of Science, Technology and Economics. Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, in partnership with Eater.


HARRIS: My name is Cyrus Harris. I’m a lifelong Alaskan, live here on the northwest coast of Alaska, roughly 30 miles above the Arctic circle.

GRABER: Not many people live that far north. This region is the farthest north that any humans live, about four million people live there. But the region stretches from Alaska across Canada and it covers northern Finland and Siberia—it’s huge! It’s the same size as the entire continent of Africa. But it’s pretty empty, it’s like if you took just half of the population of New York City and spread them across all of Africa.

TWILLEY: If you haven’t been to the Arctic, you might have a picture in your mind of an icy wasteland. That’s kind of the way that it’s been pictured in the cultures of us temperate people—as freezing cold, windy, endless barren landscape with months of darkness and just general harshness. And that’s not wrong, it is harsh. Average temperatures in January are minus 40 degrees in some regions, and there aren’t a lot of structures or vegetation to stop the strong winds that sweep across the landscape, and—even saying this is making me feel cold.

GRABER: And it’s also true that for months you may only see a few hours of light each day, or sometimes not any light at all. But then in the summer it’s all light, and some of the snow melts, and whatever vegetation there is springs to life, and migratory animals show up to enjoy that brief flash of green.

HARRIS: So we do have fresh meat or fresh fish or fresh greens, berries, wild berries.

ZONA STARKS: So we have whales and walruses and seals and fish and, big sea animals and little sea animals. So, the food is very abundant.

HARRIS: We, you know, we may be preparing for an abundance of food in the month of June, but yet again, that food we’re preparing is to… is to have a good supply during the cold, long, cold winter months to where we’re not, don’t have that ability to be out harvesting due to the weather. And the, the challenges that we face, you know, during the midwinter.

TWILLEY: That other voice you heard, that’s Zona Starks, she’s a food scholar, and like Cyrus, she was born in the Arctic and still has relatives there. She doesn’t live there herself anymore, but she’s spent a lot of her life there. She and Cyrus are both Alaskan, but we should say that there are dozens of different ethnic groups living in the Arctic. Like the Sami in Lapland and the Inuit in Greenland and North America, and the Nenets in Siberia.

GRABER: And some of these communities have been living in the northernmost habitable regions of the world for tens of thousands of years. They migrated, some of the communities are more recently settled, like in Alaska, which scientists debate but it seems like it was settled only a few thousand years ago. But in general these communities have quite similar resources and they always have, which means what’s been on the menu has likely remained basically the same.

TWILLEY: The same, but not in super short supply, and also quite different all year round. Like Cyrus and Zona both said, food really is abundant in the Arctic, if you know where, when, and how to look for it.

GRABER: Sheila Flaherty is a chef who lives in the capital of Nunavut in Canada, and her mother’s family is from the Arctic coast of Canada. She says the bounty really starts with the sea.

SHEILA FLAHERTY: Where my family’s from, there’s herring, there’s white fish, there’s coney fish, there’s trout. And as Inuit, I mean, we, when we go clam digging, we also harvest seaweeds. And so that’s a typical food item to eat as for Inuit.

TWILLEY: Clams are nice, herring is great, but the big ticket items from the sea are the mammals.

STARKS: In October, probably September. The whales started running, and they would go until there was a freeze over. Seal, you could catch all during the year. And, then during the spring, that’s when the birds came.. And they would come by the millions. And they would nest in the cliffs, and men would climb the cliffs and get the eggs. Then of course they had polar bear to eat, they had grizzlies, brown bear.

GRABER: There are also musk ox and caribou, which are also called reindeer. In some parts of the Arctic, reindeer have even been sort of semi-domesticated into herds, so you get reindeer milk. But everywhere, they’re useful for meat.

HARRIS: So we do harvest—traditionally, we do harvest caribou during the fall, fall migration, which used to take place roughly mid September through freeze up time.

TWILLEY: So, lots of different meat, fish, and eggs. But the number one most important food of the Arctic is seal oil. Like Zona said, seals are available year round, and their bodies can be nearly half fat, to keep them warm in the icy Arctic sea.

STARKS: The Arctic has seal oil, and that is their salt and pepper. Everything, all food, usually, touches seal oil in one way or another. Whether it’s dried fish, or dried seal, or frozen seal, it’s usually dipped in seal oil before you eat it.

HARRIS: Yeah, I use the seal oil as a dip. Or sometimes I add it into my stews or I add it to my berries. Just anything to make that distinctive flavor.

STARKS: When I was little, One of my favorite foods was pancakes, white men’s pancakes, and seal oil, rather than maple syrup. And it was, it’s—seal oil is the flavor base of the Arctic. It’s important.

GRABER: Making seal oil from seal blubber isn’t difficult. Most animal fat is still hard at room temperature, you might have noticed that on a steak. But with seal, once you remove the blood and meat from the fat, at room temperature the blubber just basically melts into liquid oil.

FLAHERTY: If you just put a hunk of a blubber, on a plate, and just leave it there, it renders quite quickly.

HARRIS: Traditionally what we do back out in the country, near our meat racks is we—back in the day, we would cut the blubber pieces into much smaller pieces. And then put them all in one big container. There’s a system that we do is stir it every twice a day, at least. For at between 8 to 12 days.

FLAHERTY: And then we have oil at our fingertips. And oil is- what we like oil for is, dipping the dried meat. It adds a umami

TWILLEY: OK so there’s meat, fish, and seal oil up the wazoo. But what if you’re worried about your five a day? What’s on the menu in terms of fruit and veg?

STARKS: In the summertime, there were berries and lots and lots of plants, and they ate those plants. They used the leaves in salads. Even the willow leaves, which we call sura, would be picked, you would pick as many as you could during the spring.

TWILLEY: The spring and summer, when there was this temporary abundance—trying to get the berries and greens and birds and their eggs harvested was an all hands on deck situation. Men were out hunting and gathering eggs, but women were responsible for picking the berries.

STARKS: Well, going berry picking, for women was just the best time of the day. Being outside, the air was fresh. And when you’re berry picking, I don’t know what it is. There’s something about the sound that travels over the landscape. It’s a wonderful experience and when I go back and pick, it’s still the same sound. There’s just something about the air currents that go over the tundra and it’s wonderful to hear. It’s, it’s a symphony in itself, actually. And, of course, whatever you eat, whatever you pick, you can eat. But the idea is to fill up the bucket.

GRABER: Fish were also more abundant in the summer, and that was another area where women were in charge. This too was a huge group effort—they’d throw out nets and pull in fish and then dry the fish when the wind was blowing.

STARKS: And then they dump the fish in a pile, and the elder women are in the middle of the pile, and they’re fileting the fish as fast as they can. Then the young girls are taking the fish, and they put it up on the lines to dry. And the women are throwing the seines out again, and it—so they do that,all day long. So, by the end of the day, they have caught thousands of pounds of fish. But that is to last them all year long. All year long.

GRABER: All. Year. Long. This is super important—this abundant summer food had to be preserved, or else people couldn’t make it through the lean hard months of winter. Drying is one form of storage, dried fish can last quite a long time. But people in the Arctic had to be creative about how to put up berries and birds and eggs and the occasional green plants. These weren’t abundant throughout the year and they had to be stored.

TWILLEY: And for storage, it’s back to the Arctic’s MVP food: the seal. In the form of something called a poke.

HARRIS: Well, yeah, I grew up watching the elders make these pokes. So the seal is, you know, really carefully harvested, well placed bullet shot, to avoid any natural holes that you have to sew.

GRABER: Seal skin is used to make pokes, as Cyrus said. A poke is basically a sealskin bag.

HARRIS: And once you got your oils ready to go, then those are stored into the poke. And of course, with the dried meats and berries.

TWILLEY: And plants, and birds, and of course more seal oil all around everything. And then you sew the seal bag closed, and hey presto.

HARRIS: And that’s the best food storage item that ever existed. Because it tastes just as fresh as you just put it in when you open it eight months later. And it’s got its own way of preserving itself.

STARKS: I have a friend, who was a minister on, St. Lawrence Island. And they cracked open a twenty-year-old poke. And inside were lots of little birds. And he said they were wonderful. The flavors were preserved because no air had gotten to them.

GRABER: This seal kind of tupperware is critical. The oil keeps out the air and THAT helps the foods stay fresh, it’s a great form of preservation.

TWILLEY: But it’s not enough! I hate to be the one to say it, just kidding I actually love it, that’s why I’ve written a whole book about it: what about refrigeration? That’s what you really need to preserve this stuff all winter long.

GRABER: Fortunately, even though nobody in the Arctic had electricity for most of their history, they did have pretty good cold storage.

HARRIS: It’s just like just going underground. maybe about a foot of it of the roofing part of it is above surface, but that just makes it look like it’s just one bump on the ground. And once you get underneath there, we do have our pokes and our barrels, you know, which were used quite a bit for our food storage containers.

GRABER: You’ve probably heard of permafrost: the ground under most of the Arctic doesn’t ever really thaw, even in the summer. So these underground cellars are basically giant freezers.

TWILLEY: OK, so now you’ve got a freezer full of stuffed seal pokes and dried fish to dip in your seal oil. Awesome. But what about cooking? How do these carefully preserved ingredients all get turned into dinner?

GRABER: For a long time, outsiders assumed that indigenous peoples in the Arctic ate everything raw. And though that’s actually not true, they did eat a lot of relatively raw meat.

STARKS: Well, this partially goes back to energy. They didn’t have a lot of energy to cook food.

TWILLEY: Remember there aren’t a ton of trees in the Arctic to cut down for cooking fires. Before electricity, you had to burn seal oil or whale oil, but that was also a vital food source. So forget using tons of it to slow roast meat or to boil stuff for hours.

GRABER: And so one of the popular foods is frozen meat that’s slightly fermented but still is basically raw.

STARKS: Oh, yes, that’s quaq. That is a piece of meat or fish. And it’s still a popular dish today.

TWILLEY: To make quaq, you go into your ice cellar and grab some fish or caribou or seal that’s been down there for a while.

HARRIS: Well, more frozen the better. We eat it frozen. We get it out. We’re seeing to it that it’s still frozen by the time we got it skinned out and we got the meat cut up into bite sized pieces. Dipping it. Drowning it in seal oil, let’s put it that way, and, and consuming.

TWILLEY: So by the time you eat it, this chunk of meat or fish is still frozen on the inside, very slightly beginning to thaw on the outside, and coated in umami seal oil.

STARKS: So if you crunch down on that, you get all these crystals cracking in your mouth, it’s kind of like the 4th of July. And it’s a very sensuous dish, because of the noise in your head, the texture that all these ice crystals are popping between your teeth.

GRABER: And then, if you still need dessert after this sensuous crackling, both Cyrus and Zona recommended something Zona called Eskimo ice cream, or akutaq.

HARRIS: Oh, boy, you know, it’s the almighty treat. And it’s a dessert that we have, it’s a delicacy. It’s a treat. And it’s, it’s a great source of energy.

TWILLEY: Fair warning, this is not Ben & Jerry’s chocolate chip cookie dough. It does contain berries, which are found in many standard ice creams. But those are then whipped into seal oil and caribou fat.

GRABER: And traditionally you do it all by hand, literally with your hands. The heat from your hand is a key part of whipping it all together.

STARKS: And it, it whips up. It looks just like whipped cream, and it is that soft. And you keep adding seal oil, a tiny little bit of water, and just keep doing that until you have a pan full of fluff.

HARRIS: My mother did quite a bit of that as we were growing up. And she’s always seen to it that we do have that akutaq in every special occasion. And not just occasions, but any particular time of the year that we, you know, we’re, we’re together and when it’s needed. Some could be with berries, some could be with just plain fish, and there’s many other ways of making it. I don’t eat as much as I do when my mom was alive, but every opportunity I do have some, I treasure it to where I have to stretch it for a period of time. So I just don’t completely run out until the next batch come in.

TWILLEY: Making akutaq was traditionally a woman’s job, and a really hard one at that.

STARKS: It takes a good Forty five minutes to make a pan of Eskimo ice cream. Like a four quart bowl, that is whipping with your hands, constantly, for forty five minutes. It’s laborious, and that’s why it’s not made very often.

GRABER: But Zona says it’s worth the work.

STARKS: The texture is exactly like ice cream. You would think, oh, yuck. But it isn’t. It’s mild, and if you have sweet berries in it, it’s a berry ice cream.

TWILLEY: All of these dishes—the pokes, the quaq, the akutaq—these are just a handful of the creative ways that native peoples have turned the relatively limited resources of this extreme landscape into a rich and varied diet.

STARKS: What the women did was truly remarkable, and some of the foods are… remarkable.

GRABER: As Zona has mentioned a few times, women are key. Outsiders often romanticized men hunting as the basis of survival in the region, but women fishing and gathering and putting up food actually seems like it was a bigger contributor. In fact, studies have shown that women traditionally brought in more protein than men did.

TWILLEY: Speaking of not being appreciated—even though Zona recognizes the women’s work as remarkable, most outsiders throughout history didn’t think that the native cuisine they created was something to admire.

STARKS: And most of the explorers were English. They wanted to eat on china plates, and, their silverware. And the Eskimos, [LAUGH] they ate with their fingers. and a knife next to their mouth. So, it was totally different, and many of them just felt it was primitive and disgusting. Steffanson did not, bless them for that.

GRABER: Who was Steffanson, who Zona says was one of the few early Westerners to spend time in the region who respected the ingenuity of the indigenous Arctic people? We have his story, after the break.


ROBERT PEARY: A little less than 400 years ago, in 1527, England sent out the first recorded expedition in search of the North Pole. Eighty years later, in 1607, Henry Hudson made his historic voyage. From that time on, for 275 years, Great Britain held the record, slowly pushing the reading up to 83 degrees, 20 minutes’ north latitude.

TWILLEY: This is a recording of a 1910 speech given by Robert Peary, the American explorer who claimed to be the first to reach the geographic North Pole in 1909.

PEARY: The key of the problem was the negotiation of the 413 miles of icy chaos extending from Cape Columbia, the northernmost point of all North American lands to the pole.

GRABER: Trying to reach the poles was one of the obsessions of explorers at that time, in the late 1800s and early 1900s. We’re going to be talking about this more in our next episode. But as you can imagine, it was incredibly difficult. It was bleak, and icy, and dangerous, and Europeans and Americans had no idea how to survive in such an extreme environment.

TWILLEY: And most of them didn’t think there was anything useful to be learned from the Indigenous peoples of the region, in terms of keeping warm and fed. But a few did, and one of them became a full-on Arctic stan.

JON HAUKUR INGIMUNDARSON: Vilhjalmur Stefansson was… maybe Iceland’s second most famous person after Bjӧrk, the singer.

GRABER: Jon Haukur Ingimundarson is a senior scientist at the Stefansson Arctic Institute. He happens to be a distant relative of Stefansson’s. Stefansson was born in Canada in 1879, but his parents were Icelandic. As a kid he lived in North Dakota, and he also spent quite a long time in New York.

HAUKUR INGIMUNDARSON: So we claim him, Icelanders claim him, Canadians claim him, Americans claim him.

TWILLEY: After moving around a bit, Stef, as he liked to be called, ended up studying anthropology.

HAUKUR INGIMUNDARSON: He wanted to go to Africa, that was his first choice. But he ended up, he went to Iceland and Greenland. And then, went up north to, to Alaska and Arctic Canada.

GRABER: He eventually made three extended and extensive trips to the region, he explored areas of the Arctic that no Westerners had ever seen before. Today he’s considered one of the most famous Arctic explorers from that time, but like we’ve said there was one way in which he was a little different from most of his contemporaries.

HAUKUR INGIMUNDARSON: The explorers, they really rejected the Arctic diet. And therefore they brought the food with them.

STARKS: Stefansson was a little different. Because he lived with a native woman for two years and she traveled with him. And gave him a son. And he did write every night. He journaled. And would talk about the things she made. And so actually, he was probably one of the first that ever talked about Native food, and he was not derogatory about it. There was one reference that he had made, and he was talking about blood soup. And he was quite enamored that she knew how to keep the blood from curdling in the soup. It was just that kind of connection that made his writing a little bit different than others. Very few said anything about the food, except it was pretty disgusting.

TWILLEY: Because it was mostly women who were responsible for preparing the food as well as catching a lot of it, Stef’s relationship meant that he got to see a side of traditional Arctic life that not many other outsiders had seen. And he was at least humble enough and curious enough to learn from it.

STEFANSSON: I used to think that I was well informed on the Arctic before I went north. But I concluded eventually, that out of ten things that I believed about the Arctic before I went north, about six were wrong.

GRABER: This is Stef himself in a TV interview from 1957.

STEFANSSON: What we need to do is to learn from them. But we have a weakness, of not learning from the natives but rather teaching them—that’s one of our great weaknesses.

GRABER: He ended up spending the equivalent of about a decade in the region, and he made a career of writing and talking about his experiences when he was back in the US.

HAUKUR INGIMUNDARSON: In, in his 20 books and 400 articles. And, he wrote a, an Arctic manual for the, for the US military, where he even describes, as I was just reading now for myself, how polar bear meat tastes, depending on whether it is frozen or half frozen. Here it is. It’s. It says here: chewing frozen raw bear meat is like eating raw oysters. Half frozen, it has, like other raw meats, the consistency of hard ice cream. So, I don’t think anybody shared in this kind of a, organized way, his experiences of how to survive in the Arctic as he did for the US military.

TWILLEY: There were other explorers that learned how to adapt to the Arctic from the people who lived there, but Stef really went one step further. He was a huge Arctic promoter, he called it the friendly Arctic, which was shocking to an audience that imagined it as an icy wasteland.

HAUKUR INGIMUNDARSON: So, he did probably more than anybody else in North America to change the image of the Arctic, away from being a bleak, lifeless place, that you can’t adapt to, to a place where—the friendly Arctic, as he called it—where you can actually thrive, if you adopt the Inuit way of life.

GRABER: But in a kind of weird twist, although maybe not that weird considering human history, Stef also had an idea that Westerners should move up to the region and set up vast organized reindeer farming.

HAUKUR INGIMUNDARSON: He wanted development in the North. I know that he also, you know, advised the generals on how to get submarines to go up through the ice. There were all kinds of things that he taught the military also, about the North. And he probably, without really meaning to, he of course helped the people of the South to see the Arctic as, as a place where they could navigate.

TWILLEY: Basically, Stef loved the Arctic so much he wanted to colonize it. And then make it more like America, yay.

STEFANSSON: They, cities like that could be built and food produced, and people could live comfortably all over the North if they wanted to do so. And the great difficulty is that we don’t want to.

GRABER: So Stef had his flaws, like we all do. He also doesn’t sound like the kindest of men. When he traveled to the Arctic and the team ran into problems, he basically wandered off and left his fellow explorers alone to starve.

HAUKUR INGIMUNDARSON: Of course, some of what he shared, created disasters like the Wrangel Island, where he said that he expected others to be able to adopt his means of surviving in the Arctic, and then they would go and they would die.

TWILLEY: But Stef wasn’t discouraged. In fact he was such a fan of the indigenous way of life that he adopted it even when he was back living in Greenwich Village, in New York City, with his non-native wife Evelyn.

HAUKUR INGIMUNDARSON: She said that when she was with Vilhjalmur living in Greenwich Village, they would go to a restaurant. Then he couldn’t get seal blubber. So he would order a bar of butter. And just eat that.

GRABER: Stef became a huge advocate of following what he thought of as the American equivalent of an Arctic diet. He decided that since people in the Arctic didn’t need to eat vegetables or grains, he didn’t either, and he lived off an all-meat and fat diet for a year in New York to prove it.

TWILLEY: So we’ve talked about these kind of protein- and fat-heavy diets before on the show, in an episode called the Keto Paradox. But what we didn’t talk about in that episode is the science behind how the indigenous peoples of the Arctic stay healthy on such a fat-heavy, vegetable scarce diet. That story, after the break.


GRABER: So, and this is not news: we know that vegetables and whole grains provide critical nutrients that our bodies depend on. And also, scientists have said for quite a long time that eating excessive amounts of animal fat can be harmful.

TWILLEY: And the traditional Arctic diet basically breaks down to 45 percent protein, 55 percent fat, which adds up to 100 percent. There’s really only trace amounts of plants. So, let’s break this down. First of all, that’s a lot of animal fat. What do the scientists have to say about that?

RASMUS NIELSEN: Well, there have been a lot of speculation about the diet in, around the Inuit. And one of the reasons was, for that, is back in the seventies when people figured out that eating a lot of fat from animals was bad for you, it could cause an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

GRABER: Rasmus Nielsen is a professor of integrated biology at UC Berkeley.

NIELSEN: So, when anthropologists were studying the Inuit, they were puzzled by this fact that, they eat all this animal fat. But they don’t seem to have any problems with their cardiovascular health.

TWILLEY: At the time, in the 1970s, people assumed that maybe the Inuit were OK with this high fat diet because it was the right kind of fat.

NIELSEN: It’s these omega-3s, long-chained omega-3, polyunsaturated fatty acids that they’re getting from this marine mammal diet and diet based on fish.

GRABER: It was this belief, that the Arctic natives didn’t get heart disease because of omega-3s, this started the whole omega-3 supplement fad. We’ve made an episode about that, too, called Omega 1-2-3. The science turns out to be pretty complicated, but long story short, so far it does seem like omega supplementation in pill form doesn’t provide much cardiovascular benefit.

TWILLEY: So Rasmus was curious, was there something *else* going on that allowed the Inuit to eat tons of animal-sourced fat without health problems?

NIELSEN: Is it possible also that the Inuit might have some special genetic adaptations to that diet? They’ve had that diet for a while, and it’s possible that they’ve adapted to, to that diet. And that was one of the questions we were interested in.

GRABER: Rasmus and his colleagues got access to DNA data from a few thousand Inuit from Greenland, and they were able to ensure that this population hadn’t mixed much with Europeans. And then they looked to see if there were any ways in which the Inuit genomes were different from European genomes.

TWILLEY: So one thing to know is that as well as getting these omega fatty acids from the food you eat, humans can also make them in-house. We have genes that can do that.

NIELSEN: And it turns out that the Inuit had some very remarkable adaptations in those genes, so that they produce much less of those fatty acids themselves. So what we think is going on is that they have compensated for the high dietary intake. They genetically evolved to produce less of those fatty acids themselves because they get so much in their diet.

GRABER: The activity of these genes has many impacts in the body. And so the mutations in these genes do, too.

NIELSEN: We could see that these mutations had a huge effect on average weight, on height, on obesity, on cholesterol levels. So these are mutations that have a strong systemic effect on individuals and really changes the physiology quite drastically.

TWILLEY: So not only are Inuit people with this particular variant of these genes—not only are they making less fatty acids total in house, but that mutation also seems to have a protective effect on cholesterol levels. So this genetic variation really seems like it could be a key to how Arctic peoples stay healthy eating their traditional high-animal source fat diet.

GRABER: And this genetic change seems to have emerged a really long time ago, as people adapted to a northern diet.

NIELSEN: So, the Inuit actually came to the Americas relatively recently. Maybe just a few thousand years ago. And they only came to Greenland about a thousand years ago. But this selection predate that. We estimated that it’s been going on at least for 20,000 years. So we think that this is natural selection that’s been going on in Siberia and in northern climates in Eurasia for thousands of years, and then have been even stronger in the Inuit as they moved into the Americas and as they colonized Greenland.

TWILLEY: Rasmus told us there are other examples of this kind of genetic variation occurring in response to a particular diet—the best known one is probably lactose tolerance. If you can digest milk as an adult, that’s because your ancestors’ genes mutated to be able to do that once they started dairy farming back in the day.

GRABER: Rasmus says the genetic change among Arctic people seems to be a significant reason that they can thrive on their extreme diet. And he also says that Stefansson wasn’t necessarily correct in advocating that all of us non-Arctic folk should be following that same diet, too.

NIELSEN: And the major conclusion from that is that, just because it’s good for the Inuit and healthy for the Inuit to eat a lot of these long chained, polyunsaturated fatty acids, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s also good for the rest of us. Because the Inuit have special adaptations to that diet.

TWILLEY: So that’s one question about the Arctic diet answered, how people can thrive on such a high fat diet. But there’s another: this issue of how few vegetables it has and how humans can possibly stay healthy without them.

GRABER: One major issue is vitamin C. We’ve talked about this before, too—without enough vitamin C, which we mostly get from fruits and vegetables, if we don’t eat enough, we can die in just a few months. Now, a lot of animals can make vitamin C in their bodies, so some scientists thought maybe Arctic people developed variants that allowed them to make their own vitamin C, too.

TWILLEY: But no. No genetic dice this time. Instead, the solution is really to do with which parts of the animal they ate, and how they prepared and preserved it, and it’s really clever.

GRABER: There’s not a lot of vitamin C in muscle meat, but there is a decent amount in organs, like liver, and in things like fish eggs. But the problem is that if you cook the liver or the eggs, that actually destroys a lot of the vitamin C pretty quickly. Vitamin C is really unstable, it’s destroyed by heat and it also just falls apart easily over time.

TWILLEY: But if you eat your animal parts raw-ish, then you do get a decent amount of vitamin C. And then you can also store the meat in such a way that help keep the vitamin C stable. The secret is: microbes—drink!

AVIAJA HAUPTMANN: What the fermentation practice could do is it can preserve vitamin C in whatever foods you stuff into it.

TWILLEY: This is Aviaja Hauptmann, she’s from Greenland and she’s a microbiologist, and this is from a really fascinating presentation she gave all about Arctic fermentation and microbiology as part of North Carolina State University fermentation lecture series, we’ll link to it on our web page.

HAUPTMANN: When you hunt a caribou, you take out the liver, which is high in vitamin C. And vitamin C is very volatile. It will disappear out of foods really quickly. And being a very critical vitamin, to get in the Arctic, you would need to find a way to preserve it. So you take the liver, you cut it up in small pieces, and you stuff that into the caribou stomach. Which has a low pH, and vitamin C preserves better at low pH.

GRABER: Getting a low pH, making sure that you’re preserving the liver in an acidic environment, that’s key to keeping the vitamin C around. Caribou and seal stomachs are acidic. And they’re full of microbes that like acidic environments. Also during the process of fermentation, the microbes create a more acidic environment. Basically the liver is rotting, and this might sound counterintuitive, but that makes it healthier.

TWILLEY: And so it’s not surprising to hear that, as well as ice cellars and seal pokes and drying, a lot of meat in the Arctic is preserved by, kind of, not being preserved—it’s buried and allowed to rot in a controlled way.

GRABER: That’s what fermentation is, and what many beloved foods like cheese are—it’s all just controlled rot. This helps us store perishable foods for longer and create new delicious flavors, too.

TWILLEY: Even today, for outsiders there is kind of a ew factor with the idea of digging up a rotten seal and eating it. I actually was served this delicacy when I spent a month in Greenland on a volunteer project as a kid, and I have to be honest, I did not appreciate it like I would a fine Camembert. But today I realize, that’s really what it is—and it’s also the key to not getting scurvy during the harsh Arctic winter.

GRABER: But our favorite friends, the microbes, they’re good for more in the Arctic than shoring up vitamin C. Aviaja pointed out one favorite dish, which was the plants that were found in a caribou’s stomach when it was killed.

HAUPTMANN: And maybe ten years ago, you would be able to go down to the hunter’s market, and you could buy bags of this green stuff from the caribou stomach. But it’s not very common today to eat it. But it used to be considered a delicacy. And Kaj Birket Smith, who was an ethnographer in Greenland, described this as one of the most treasured vegetables that was acquired from the animal kingdom, this fermented and acidic content of the caribou gut.

TWILLEY: So you might think people are eating the green, half-digested plants from a caribou’s insides to get the nutrients in the plants. But Aviaja says there’s actually something else going on. She says to think of the caribou stomach contents as kind of like taking a probiotic.

HAUPTMANN: This was, would be a nice way to prepare for a summer where there might have been a little bit more plant material in the diet, otherwise you wouldn’t have got a lot of energy out from that plant material.

GRABER: The problem is that the people in the Arctic don’t eat many plants, and so they don’t have the microbes in their guts to help them digest those plants.

HAUPTMANN: If I had traveled back in time and met an original Inuit population in Greenland, and I had brought with me the modern diet pyramid, and I would have seen these people eat a lot of meat. And I would have said, you probably need some whole grain to have a healthy gut microbiota. And I would have shared whole grain foods to them. I believe that we wouldn’t have gotten the health benefit from those whole grains back then, because, as we know, our gut microbiota adapts to the foods that we eat.

TWILLEY: Basically, there are particular families of microbes that you need to have in your gut to be able to break down the complex carbohydrates in plants. And if you haven’t been eating plants all winter, you won’t necessarily have a lot of them living in your gut. So then if you want to take full advantage of the summertime bounty, you need to get some of those microbes from the half digested contents of a caribou stomach.

GRABER: The bigger point that Aviaja and Rasmus are both making is that the people in the Arctic are adapted to the diet in the Arctic that they’ve been eating fairly unchanged for thousands of years—at least until quite recently. But today, that’s not the diet that’s being recommended to them.

HAUPTMANN: There’s a great disconnect between the formal food system that we push in Greenland. So in Greenland, our diet recommendations are exactly the same as the Scandinavian ones. We promote whole grains rather than seal meat. We also promote milk to children in a population where half of the population are lactose intolerant, rather than promoting dried fish that we eat, including their bones that have higher content of calcium.

TWILLEY: One of the reasons for this disconnect is that policy around food, and health, and food safety still kind of has the old explorer attitude—that these traditional Arctic foods are maybe a little primitive and unsafe. And that normal American or European foods are better and safer. Like American and European foods are still kind of seen as an upgrade, so of course those are the ones you’re being told to eat in the official guidelines.

GRABER: This is a problem especially when people aren’t able to hunt or gather food for themselves. Cyrus told us about a long-term senior care facility in his community, where federal regulations meant that the kitchen couldn’t serve traditional food.

HARRIS: And it was very heartbreaking to see them move to long term care and their foods couldn’t because they were restricted from being in a federally operated building. It bothered me a lot, not being able to feed our elders at the long term care.


HARRIS: Excuse me. I tend to get emotional here. Their native foods, that they were raised with. That they grew up with.

TWILLEY: One issue is that seal and caribou haven’t really had a mainstream USDA approval process the way domesticated cattle and sheep have.

HARRIS: Well, you know, when you look at foods in the market. They do have their nutrient label. They do have their, an approved source. And they do have that USDA stamp or whatever you may call it. Our wild games didn’t have that. We couldn’t prove our, the difference between our ptarmigan and the Western chicken. [LAUGH]

GRABER: Cyrus looked into the regulations, and he realized he could get around that ban by making a plate and bringing it to a family member.

HARRIS: But where does that bring the other 18, 17 elders, you know? The family members can do that, but we have other elders there within that community that didn’t haVE that the family members, you know, there 100 percent of the time.

TWILLEY: So Cyrus kept brainstorming and he found another loophole. If he brought in traditional food and called it a potluck, everyone could eat it.

HARRIS: So, since then we’ve created this potluck that happens once a month. And the elders of all at long term care would always look forward to that. That was the only time they were able to eat the restricted food items, which was one being seal oil.

GRABER: A few things have happened since then. In 2015 there were changes to the Farm Bill that said you can serve traditional food as long as it’s appropriately processed and tested. So they’ve now also set up a facility to do that, to make sure the seal oil is good to go.

TWILLEY: And now with the hunter support program Cyrus runs, there’s also funding to help hunters pay for the gas and the ammunition to get out and harvest wild game to feed folks back in the village.

GRABER: But there are still more challenges when it comes to getting traditional food onto the dinner table. A lot of the knowledge of how to make these traditional foods has been lost. Like for example the poke. Cyrus doesn’t know how to make it.

HARRIS: My mother was the one in charge throughout the whole process. Nobody else interfere. Nobody else get in between. And when it’s time, it’s time, and we gobble down. So my parents have passed, and yet I yearn to have that same food. And so I followed her footsteps, you know. Followed her footsteps. And I made it. And I, when I figured it was done, the time was right. It looked so good, but I didn’t trust myself, you know. But I didn’t trust myself.

TWILLEY: This anxiety makes sense. There’s a real risk with these traditional fermentations that if you don’t get it right, then you can get bad microbes growing instead of good ones, and that can be fatal.

GRABER: That’s a problem. But also, sometimes people just haven’t passed down how to make a dish.

STARKS: In fact, I went to an elder conference. There was an elder woman who was teaching a class on how to make Eskimo ice cream. And the teacher said, how many of you know how to make Eskimo ice cream? I was the only person there. None of them knew how to make Eskimo ice cream.

TWILLEY: One thing it’s important to point out is that it’s not just that this knowledge is not being passed down or practiced by the younger generation—it’s also been forcibly erased in some cases. Sheila told us that her husband’s family were part of Canada’s High Arctic Relocation program, where the government forcibly moved Inuit families far away from their ancestral lands where they knew how to support themselves.

FLAHERTY: When his parents were relocated from Inukjuak to Grisefjord, Inukjuak is a very lush environment. It has everything, everything an Inuk could want to eat, it’s there. But when they were relocated, to Aujuittuq, the vegetation there was next to none. It was all gravel. It was, it was pretty stark. It was pretty bleak. You know, his mom, she was starving to the point where she couldn’t produce breast milk, so Pete had to suck on seal skins to get any kind of nourishment at times. So, it took quite a while for the Inuit who were relocated to get a feel for the type of wildlife and, and such, that are in those parts, in the high Arctic.

GRABER: Another issue is that both in Canada and in the US, native peoples were forced into schools where they weren’t allowed to speak their language or practice their traditions. In America these were called Indian boarding schools, in Canada they were called residential schools.

FLAHERTY: My late mum was a residential school survivor. At the young age of six, she was taken from her family, and brought by schooner to the Roman Catholic residential school in Aklavik. And, so I remember my mother sharing with me, you know, really wonderful memories of her going on the trap line with my grandfather. But then all of that came to a screeching halt when she was taken away.

GRABER: Hunting, or making pokes—that wasn’t on the curriculum at residential schools. In fact, learning about Native life was actively discouraged. And a whole generation, including Sheila’s mother, they lost their opportunity to learn those skills from their parents.

TWILLEY: Sheila wants to be a part of saving, reviving and sharing some of that lost and endangered traditional knowledge through workshops at the restaurant she’s planning to open next year. It’s going to be called Sijjakkut.

FLAHERTY: It’s, it’s really important that, that we do that because… for Inuit, food, our culture is around our food. [LAUGH] Like, you can’t talk about us without talking about our food. And, so I think that’s really beautiful. And I want Sijjakkut to do that. To promote and preserve and protect Inuit culture through our foods.

GRABER: Sheila is a chef, and although she’s incredibly proud of her native foods, one other thing she’s known for is updating these traditional foods with modern flairs and flavors and ingredients that are not native to the Arctic. It makes sense: the region does have a rich food tradition, but just like people everywhere, they’re interested in expanding the flavors and foods they have access to.

TWILLEY: And it makes a lot of sense that not everyone wants to live a life centered on finding and preserving food today. The full-time subsistence lifestyle of traditional Arctic people was ingenious and incredible, but it’s not necessarily something that folks want to spend all their time on now that they have a choice.

GRABER: And even if they did want to, frankly, it’s getting harder and harder to survive entirely on traditional Arctic foods because of climate change. Even if regulations change to allow people access to traditional foods, and more people learn how to prepare them, and more people want to eat them, the poles are warming much faster than the more temperate regions of the planet.

TWILLEY: Arctic sea ice is vanishing at a shocking rate, it’s disappearing.

HARRIS: Today, I couldn’t go out there as it is right now because of the climate change that we’re facing. And I haven’t been out on the sea ice for the midwinter for the past… five or ten years, probably. Just because of the unstable shore fast ice.

TWILLEY: And that’s a problem not just for hunters like Cyrus who can’t get out to hunt, but for all the creatures he would like to be hunting. The bottom of sea ice floes is covered in algae and seaweed and fish live on that buffet, and seals and other marine mammals and seabirds live on fish. And polar bears live on them. So, without sea ice, there’s not much to eat.

GRABER: And so for Cyrus, protecting his traditional food means protecting the very environment he lives in.

HARRIS: Each time I think about our oceans, our waters, our land. The mountains, the lakes. I see that our wild game, our traditional foods, have a very healthy ecosystem out there. It should, it should be protected. Bottom line.

TWILLEY: The landscape and food and the people who live in that landscape and on that food—they’re all interconnected. And although this way of life is threatened, it’s also much richer than you might ever believe from the outside.

FLAHERTY: I think the work that I’m doing is, is actually showing people that, you know, the Arctic is not a food desert. You know, we have a foodways that is super delicious and nutritious and—yeah, I think more people need to come to the Arctic just to see how, how beautiful our lifestyle is.


GRABER: Before we get to our thanks, we wanted to give a couple of shoutouts to our supporters. Happy belated birthday to Joakim in Oslo, and happy birthday to Amy Chen!

TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to Sheila Flaherty, Cyrus Harris, Zona Starks, Jon Haukur Ingimundarsonn, and Rasmus Neilsen, we have links to their work and writing on our website. For those of you signed up to support us at the Gastropod superfan level, stay tuned for some archive photos of my rotten seal experience as well as much more coming to your inboxes shortly.

GRABER: Thanks as always to our fantastic producer Claudia Geib. We’ll be back in two weeks with a trip to the other side of the planet. We’re going to travel to the south pole during the heroic age of exploration, and hear about the most important thing to us—and to them!—their food. ‘Til then!