These stories print in the Alaska Dispatch News Sunday insert. It’s been a great relationship and I have a good editor who lets me use my village talk and Inupiaq without explanations. Sometimes.
I feel like this story was waiting to be told for a long time. I often don’t know what will make it on the page until the night before my deadline. But, most stories like this one have germinated and are ready for the light once I sit in front of the computer and get my fingers on the keyboard. The seasons or activities kind of boss me into what’s written.
Side story for Living Village readers: My Gram made achaaqhluk every year. And her achaaqhluk was strong and delicious. After a supper of native foods she’d defrost a container of the greens mixed with blackberries. We’d fill a small bowl and add sugar and maybe canned milk. And enjoy our dessert.
I absolutely loved her achaaqhluk and I always felt like I could eat bowl after bowl after bowl. But I had always known the dish as Knock Out. I thought everyone called it that. One day in college I learned the name Knock Out is as specific to our family as Across There (keep reading). Apparently one time after eating far more than my fair share of her greens I passed out. Hard. With the bossy, little girl asleep and quiet, the family credited the calm home to Gram’s achaaqhluk. It knocked me out, hence the name: Knock Out.
Gram. What love she showed us. Even through stories of weirdly named fermented green food.
UNALAKLEET — We drove Across There. Anyone in my mom’s family knows the exact spot when using that generic place name.
Pulling up, the space looked much smaller than I remembered it to be when I was a little girl. Pulling up, I remembered my Papa Fred and Grandma Laura’s whitewall tent, pitched to the side of the fish rack.
I remembered meals of uuraq. Boiled humpies, onions and potatoes filling our bowls. Papa grabbing tukaiyuks, or sea lovage, from the bank and placing the greens straight into his uuraq bowl.
And swimming in the slough with my cousins. I remember walking just south of Gram and Papa’s place to the muddy corner of the beach, hoping our parents wouldn’t tell us to “get out of there” and come back to the camp/fish cutting/picnic site. We walked toward the mud, hoping to explore the squishy feeling of muck covering our feet. The feeling of mud covering our legs if we got the chance to sit down. But usually we got the words. “Get out of there! You kids come back,” one of the adult voices would say and we’d listen. No talking back. No whining. No trying to argue with our parents or grandparents. We’d just listen.
Just yesterday I returned to that spot to pick achaaqhluk, or beach greens, to make a dish my Gram served after meals of dried fish, seal oil, carrots, potatoes and turnips. A taste specific to Grandma’s house. Grandma. And the years growing up here at home. It’s a taste so homey it makes you ache for the feeling of the full family that filled Grandma’s house. All the people she took care of, from the youngest grandchild to our great-uncle Gulat, all in one place. Love. Teasing. Stories. Laughter.
One summer, after having kids of my own, I helped Gram make achaaqhluk. She had a mountain of stems with the succulent, green leaves on her kitchen table — and more on the counter. For hours we’d grab a cluster of stems and chop. Grab a cluster of stems and chop. Grab. Chop. Grab. Chop. I enjoyed my time with Gram, but I remember wanting to see that enormous mountain of greens disappear. It took forever.
As I stood and chopped at her table, she got water boiling in a big pot. She blanched the chopped beach greens until they were bright and beautiful and packed them in a big glass jar.
For the next few months, maybe longer, she checked on the jar of greens, allowing them to ferment on the back porch. Once the blackberries were ripe, she mixed them in and froze the greens until the fall and winter nights of inviting family over for supper. Nights where white 5-gallon buckets were grabbed as chairs for those who walked in late.
Last summer, I missed the window of time to pick the beach greens that scatter the beaches of Unalakleet. Once the plant flowers, or bolts, the greens are no longer tender. So this year I watched. I waited. And we drove Across There.
We set the anchor and got picking.
While picking, a forgotten memory emerged where Gram and I walked to the beach from her home and filled plastic AC bags with the sweet-smelling, happy-looking plant. I told Timm about the memory. And realized he and I likely would not have traveled Across There had Gram not taken me out that day. Had she not shown me the plant. Had I not felt the squeaky, shiny leaves. Had she not told me to take a bite.
Gram took me out one day. We picked greens. Today, a bucket of achaaqhluk ferments in a shed in the back.