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Muktuk memories are enough to make one blubber

When I think of the holiday season, I can't help but salivate like Pavlov's dog.

Dancing in my head are colorful dishes filled with mounds of golden-brown turkey, piles of spicy stuffing, mountains of mashed potatoes covered with oceans of gravy, green bean casseroles, celery and carrot sticks with creamy dip, yummy candied yams, cranberry sauces and homemade butter rolls.

Then I start dreaming about the pumpkin pies and cheesecakes.

Obviously, porking out on all that rich food will turn you into a giant Pillsbury Doughboy waddling into the new year.

So I've come up with my own special diet technique before a big holiday meal: I think about the worst food I've ever eaten.

I'm not talking about the cold fried eggs and bologna dished up for breakfast in the Marine Corps, albeit boiled boot leather would have been tastier.

Nor am I referring to that vile victual dredged up in a stew during a visit to Vietnam in 1999. While we were visiting an orphanage in Danang our giggling hosts dug deep into the pot to present me with the special treat.

Its origins were never determined, this loathsome thing from the netherworld between animal and vegetable kingdoms. It was grainy yet slimy, something akin to biting into a sweaty, stale sock and finding it full of toe jam.

I very nearly had a long talk that day with that distinguished Irish gentleman, Mr. Ralph O'Rourke.

But the foulest food that has ever passed these lips has to be muktuk.

In this case it would be the raw skin and blubber from a beluga whale served up at an Inupiat Eskimo gathering in Alaska in 1985. Since I was doing an article on the Eskimo culture, I figured it would be a good idea to try some of their chow.

Besides, I had read that muktuk was an Eskimo delicacy. That fascinating factoid probably came from the same article alerting me that real Alaskans never eat yellow snow.

No doubt the Eskimo folks at the gathering figured the lone cheechako — a greenhorn Alaskan — needed a little muktuk to get a real taste for the last frontier.

One smiling fellow reached into a large bowl on a table and pulled out two fat strips of muktuk. There was clear liquid in the bowl, but I can't recall if the muktuk was floating in it or had settled on the bottom like cold, dead fish.

I distinctly remember looking down at a pinkish-yellow blubber with a darker layer of inner skin and a whitish outer layer of what could have passed for the outside of a battered soccer ball.

At this point my hosts were all watching to see if I would take the bait. I'm not a particularly brave person, especially when it comes to food, but it would have been very bad form not to chow down.

I bit into my first piece of muktuk.

Somewhere, I suppose, there is good muktuk that would make your mouth water. And no doubt some muktuk years are better than others.

Perhaps I had a bad vintage. But it was certainly a very robust year. Think sushi gone rancid.

Fresh muktuk it was not.

Cold whale oil filled my mouth along with a taste not unlike the smell of dead soreback salmon rotting along the river.

My goal was to chew it up and swallow as quickly as possible. But the muktuk put up a good fight. It bounced back with each chew.

When I finally got it into swallowable pieces, my stomach balked at the offering. Gastronomical juices churned. My eyes watered.

Yet I clinched my teeth and swallowed. Fortunately, the muktuk didn't swim back upstream.

I grabbed the other piece, chewed fast and swallowed. Again the muktuk stayed down.

The Inupiats were favorably impressed. My stomach was not. It grumbled and rumbled for days afterward.

And it took weeks to get the smell of the muktuk out of my Alaskan beard.

I know it's a cultural thing. The thought of my Scottish ancestors on my mom's side slurping up hot dishes of haggis would probably cause most Inupiats to blow their chips.

Still, next to muktuk, a heaping dish of sheep lungs, heart and other unidentifiable innards boiled in the animal's stomach doesn't sound half bad.

But I'm not hungry just now.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or at pfattig@mailtribune.com