In 1906 I went to the Arctic with the food tastes and beliefs of the average American. By 1918, after eleven years as an Eskimo among Eskimos, I had learned things which caused me to shed most of those beliefs. Ten years later I began to realize that what I had learned was going to influence materially the sciences of medicine and dietetics. However, what finally impressed the scientists and converted many during the last two or three years, was a series of confirmatory experiments upon myself and a colleague performed at Bellevue Hospital, New York City, under the supervision of a committee representing several universities and other organizations.
A belief I was destined to find crucial in my Arctic work, making the difference between success and failure, life and death, was the view that man cannot live on meat alone. The few doctors and dietitians who thought you could were considered unorthodox if not charlatans. The arguments ranged from metaphysics to chemistry: Man was not intended to be carnivorous - you knew that from examining his teeth, his stomach, and the account of him in the Bible. As mentioned, he would get scurvy if he had no vegetables in meat. The kidneys would be ruined by overwork. There would be protein poisoning and, in general hell to pay.
I was in a measure adopted into an Eskimo family the head of which knew English. He had grown up as a cabin boy on a whaling ship and was called Roxy, though his name was Memoranna. It was early September, we were living in tents, the days were hot but it had begun to freeze during the nights, which were now dark for six to eight hours.The community of three or four families, fifteen or twenty individuals, was engaged in fishing. With long poles, three or four nets were shoved out from the beach about one hundred yards apart. When the last net was out the first would be pulled in, with anything from dozens to hundreds of fish, mostly ranging in weight from one to three pounds, and including some beautiful salmon trout. From knowledge of other white men the Eskimos consider these to be most suitable for me and would cook them specially, roasting them against the fire. They themselves ate boiled fish.
Trying to develop an appetite, my habit was to get up soon after daylight, say four o'clock, shoulder my rifle, and go off after breakfasts on a hunt south across the rolling prairie, though I scarcely expected to find any game. About the middle of the afternoon I would return to camp. Children at play usually saw me coming and reported to Roxy's wife, who would then put a fresh salmon trout to roast. When I got home I would nibble at it and write in my diary what a terrible time I was having.Against my expectation, and almost against my will, I was beginning to like the baked salmon trout when one day of perhaps the second week I arrived home without the children having seen me coming. There was no baked fish ready but the camp was sitting round troughs of boiled fish. I joined them and, to my surprise, liked it better than the baked. There after the special cooking ceased, and I ate boiled fish with the Eskimos.
In the morning, about seven o'clock, winter-caught fish, frozen so hard that they would break like glass, were brought in to lie on the floor till they began to soften a little. One of the women would pinch them every now and then until, when she found her finger indented them slightly, she would begin preparations for breakfast. First she cut off the head and put them aside to be boiled for the children in the afternoon (Eskimos are fond of children, and heads are considered the best part of the fish). Next best are the tails, which are cut off and saved for the children also. The woman would then slit the skin along the back and also along the belly and getting hold with her teeth, would strip the fish somewhat as we peel a banana, only sideways where we peel bananas, endways.Thus prepared, the fish were put on dishes and passed around. Each of us took one and gnawed it about as an American does corn on the cob. An American leaves the cob; similarly we ate the flesh from the outside of the fish, not touching the entrails. When we had eaten as much as we chose, we put the rest on a tray for dog feed.
After some three months as a guest of the Eskimos I had acquired most of their food tastes. I had to agree that fish is better boiled than cooked any other way, and that the heads (which we occasionally shared with the children) were the best part of the fish. I no longer desired variety in the cooking, such as occasional baking - I preferred it always boils if it was cooked. I had become as fond of raw fish as if I had been a Japanese. I like fermented (therefore slightly acid) whale oil with my fish as well as ever I liked mixed vinegar and olive oil with a salad. But I still had two reservations against Eskimo practice; I did not eat rotten fish and I longed for salt with my meals.
About the fourth month of my first Eskimo winter I was looking forward to every meal (rotten or fresh), enjoying them, and feeling comfortable when they were over. Still I kept thinking the boiled fish would taste better if only I had salt. From the beginning of my Eskimo residence I had suffered from this lack. On one of the first few days, with the resourcefulness of a Boy Scout, I had decided to make myself some salt, and had boiled sea water till there was left only a scum of brown powder. If I had remembered as vividly my freshman chemistry as I did the books about shipwrecked adventurers, I should have know in advance that the sea contains a great many chemicals besides sodium chloride, among them iodine. The brown scum tasted bitter rather than salty. A better chemist could no doubt have refined the product. I gave it up, partly through the persuasion of my host, the English speaking Roxy.
Through this philosophizing I was somewhat reconciled to going without salt, but I was nevertheless, overjoyed when one day Ovayuak, my new host in the eastern delta, came indoors to say that a dog team was approaching which he believed to be that of Ilavinirk, a man who had worked with whalers and who possessed a can of salt. Sure enough, it was Ilavinirk, and he was delighted to give me the salt, a half-pound baking-powder can about half full, which he said he had been carrying around for two or three years, hoping sometime to meet someone who would like it for a present. He seemed almost as pleased to find that I wanted the salt as I was to get it. I sprinkled some on my boiled fish, enjoyed it tremendously, and wrote in my diary that it was the best meal I had had all winter. Then I put the can under my pillow, in the Eskimo way of keeping small and treasured things. But at the next meal I had almost finished eating before I remembered the salt. Apparently then my longing for it had been what you might call imaginary. I finished without salt, tried it at one or two meals during the next few days and thereafter left it untouched. When we moved camp the salt remained behind.After the return of the sun I made a journey of several hundred miles to the ship Narwhal which, contrary to our expectations of the late summer, had really come in and wintered at Herschel Island. The captain was George P. Leavitt, of Portland, Maine. For the few days of my visit I enjoyed the excellent New England cooking, but when I left Herschel Island I returned without reluctance to the Eskimo meals of fish and cold water. It seemed to me that, mentally and physically, I had never been in better health in my life.