Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Greenlander Feast.

In August 1761, the Dutch missionary David Cranz was sent by his sect to propagate Christianity in Greenland – “a region of cold, gloom, and defoliation, where nature has scattered no herbage, and art can produce no grain: where there are neither flocks nor herds, nor woods nor fields … and the inhabitants are savages, deplorably wretched and grossly ignorant, living in hovels no better than the dens of wild beasts, and subsisting on the oil and flesh of whales, frequently in a state of putrefaction.”

Some years later he published his insights in The History of Greenland, containing a description of the country and its inhabitants, and of the mission carried on for above thirty years by the Unitas Fratrum and New Herrnhuth in that country.

The author describes in great detail the day to day lives and traditions of the Greenlanders – noting (in spite of himself, it seems,) the unfailing hospitality, the good humour, and the high morals of the “savages” who are his putative flock. Naturally, the discussion of the foodways of the eighteenth century Greenlanders is what interests us on this blog. Here, then, is a description – filtered, it must be remembered, through the Christian European eighteenth century sensibilities of the author.

“They are very dirty in dressing their meat as well as in every thing else. They seldom wash a kettle, the dogs often spare them that trouble, and make their tongue the dishcloth. Yet they like to keep their bastard marble vessels neat. They lay their boiled meat in wooden dishes having first drunk the soup, or eat it with spoons made of bone or wood, but their undressed meat lies on the bare ground or on an old skin not much cleaner. Fish, they take out of the dish with their hands, pull fowls to pieces with their fingers or their teeth, and flesh meat they take hold of with their teeth, and bite off the mouthful. When all is over they make the knife serve the office of a napkin, for they give their chops a scrape with it, lick the blade and lick their fingers, and so conclude the meal. … And when they vouchsafe to treat an European genteelly, they first lick the piece of meat he is to eat, clean from the blood and scum it had contracted in the kettle, with their tongue; and should any one not kindly accept it he would be looked upon as an unmannerly man for despising their civility.
… They know nothing of salutations, tokens of respect, or reverence: they laugh at a European’s compliments, and at a man standing uncovered [presumably unhatted] before his superior; and wonder to see a man strike his servant.
They sometimes visit, and give entertainments. The following is the bill of fare at a great entertainment, given by some principal Greenlanders to a factor: 1. Dried herrings. 2. Dried seal-fish. 3. Boiled ditto. 4. Half-raw and half-rotten ditto, called mikiak. 5. Boiled willocks. 6. Piece of half-rotten whale’s tail; this was the dainty dish, or haunch of venison to which the guests were properly invited. 7. Dried salmon. 8. Dried rein-deer venison. 9. A desert of crow-berries, mixed with the chile [chyle] from the maw of a rein-deer. 10. The same enriched with train-oil [whale oil.].”

Well, there it is. The eighteenth century European was revolted by the thought of mikiak, but expected his own partridge to be “well-hung” (i.e slightly putrefied). Even in the best regulated households however, things can get a bit out of control, but the housekeeper be unwilling to throw away good and expensive protein. Some of the “rescue” attempts made on stinking meat products in the English kitchen of yesteryear seem pretty scary today. Here is one such retrieval method, from The Art of Cookery, made plain and easy, by Hannah Glasse, 1774.

To save potted birds that begin to be bad.
I have seen potted birds which have come a great way, often smell so bad, that no body could bear the smell for the rankness of the butter, and by managing them in the following manner, have made them as good as over was eat.
Set a large sauce-pan of clean water on the fire; when it boils, take off the butter at the top, then take the fowls out one by one, throw them into that sauce-pan of water half a minute, whip it out, and dry it in a clean cloth inside and out; so do all till they are quite done. Scald the pot clean; when the birds are quite cold, season them with mace, pepper, and salt to your mind, put them down close in a pot and pour clarified butter over them.

Quotation for the Day.

It is not the quantity of the meat, but the cheerfulness of the guests, which makes the feast.
Edward Hyde.


Tri2Cook said...

I love this site. I've spent tons of time trying to catch up with the information available here.
Food history is a relatively recent but completely fascinating area of interest for me. It's one journey I wish I'd started much sooner. The views into how things were done makes me wonder what some of them could do today with the modern conveniences and ease of gathering and sharing information. And I challenge anybody to find a modern food text that uses "well-hung" and "whip it out" to describe the cooking process...

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Tri2Cook. I love it that you love my blog - and it is never too late to start developing an interest! I love the language of old recipes too - especially funny are the double entendre bits, as you say ....