By KYLE HOPKINS
KWETHLUK — The simple ingredients are available at the tribe-owned village store: instant mashed potatoes, condensed milk, sugar and a handful of Crisco. Add as many blue and red berries (cranberries) as you can pick.
This is how you make Alaska Native comfort food on the Lower Kuskokwim River.
“Upriver people, they like to make akutaq out of fish,” said Xenia Nicori, 61. Remove the bones, boil the meat for 20 minutes and squeeze out any juices.
After weeks of picking blueberries, blackberries and cranberries by the gallon, Nicori was already “berried out” when our boat arrived at the village on a recent fall afternoon. Still, she agreed to deliver a crash course on making her flavor of so-called “Eskimo ice cream,” provided we help with the picking.
First, some advice. Don’t cook angry.
“Some ladies are mad when they cook and their cooking don’t turn out right,” Nicori said.
An elder esteemed in the village for feeding visiting construction crews and family members alike, Nicori grew up in nearby Bethel. Her late husband, Frank Sr., would drive a dog team on the frozen Kuskokwim River to visit her for dates.
When the couple married in the summer of 1968, Frank wore a slim black tie and rockabilly hair. Xenia’s ring, dress and shoes came from the Aldens mail-order catalog. A float plane pilot waited on the Kwethluk River for a preacher to finish the 10-minute ceremony.
“He married us in Yup’ik even though he had blue eyes,” Nicori said.
That’s around the time Xenia learned to cook from her mother-in-law, she said. Her sons learned from her the same way and now punch dough for donuts sold in the village.
With a bag of cranberries, blueberries and what Xenia called blackberries but Anchorage berry pickers would call crowberries, Nicori said it was time for us to walk back to town. Moments later her grandson arrived on a four-wheeler, fresh from gathering firewood. We climbed on the back. A blessing! Nicori said.
That night she whipped the mashed potatoes, Crisco, milk and sugar by hand before combining the berries with the creamy paste. No need for a measuring cup. Already, her freezer is brimming with old coffee containers and shortening cans filled with akutaq.
“I told my sons, ‘Do not touch these until I take them out. They’re for winter,” she said.