Viljhalmur Stefansson and the Foodways of the Arctic - Part I

"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."

From "Adventures in Diet" by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Harper's Monthly Magazine, November 1935

Thriving in the frozen vastness of Eastern Siberia, Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, the aboriginal peoples of the arctic are considered a paradox.  Their diets, largely, if not exclusively, comprised of sea mammals (whales and seals), large game (caribou and bear), and fish (cod, char, and trout), paint a picture of human nutrition that is in direct conflict with the notion of nutritional "balance" promoted by such groups as the USDA ( and the ADA (

The Inuit were likely the first New World group to come into contact with Europeans in the form of Viking explorers.  From their home base in Iceland, Vikings established settlements in Greenland with exploratory parties penetrated even deeper into Inuit territory.  At the time, the Vikings did not possess a clear technological advantage over the Inuit, and the worsening climate (the "little" Ice Age had begun) led to the abandonment of settlements.  As such, the Inuit were spared the annihilation and assimilation meted out to other North American aboriginal groups, which allowed them to preserve their culture and traditions well into the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Eventually, the arctic circle, looming above Western civilization as the final frontier of exploration, was  mapped, charted, and documented by intrepid individuals who sought knowledge and fortune.  It was during this time that the traditional foodways of the Inuit, Yuipk, and Aleut tribes (collectively referred to as "Eskimo", a term now considered pejorative in Canada and Greenland) began to capture the attention of the Western scientific community.  Much of this attention was due to the exploits of one man, the Canadian explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson.  Between 1906 and 1918, Stefansson embarked upon a series of arctic explorations (1906-07, 1908-12, and 1913-18) that covered more than 100,000 square miles of territory.

Traveling by by ship, sled, and on foot, Stefansson spent considerable time with indigenous populations, referred to at the time as 'Eskimo', and learned their ways of hunting, foraging, and surviving.  In a three part Harper's Magazine feature that ran from November 1935 to January 1936 Stefansson detailed his experiences which started with his first winter as an adopted member of the "Mackenzie Eskimo".

The Mackenzie were a tribe that lived along the western coast of Canada as well as the northern span of the Mackenzie River Delta, and had traditionally supplemented their winter dietary with hunted game.  The particular winter in which Stefansson found himself fully dependent on his Eskimo family was unusual as all terrestrial game had been exterminated by whaling fleets.  At this point, the whalers were gone, rapidly abandoning the area when the market for whale bones dried up, but the Mackenzie remained, depending on fish as their only means of sustenance.  This put Stefansson in the particularly undesirable position of facing several months of a diet wholly composed of fish and cold water.

Ironically, fish just so happened to be the one food that Stefansson had a professed distaste for.  He went so far as to say, "I had a prejudice against fish all my life...I had nibbled at it once or twice a year...always deciding that it was as bad as I thought."

Sympathetic to his plight, Stefansson's adoptive family initially made special accomodations for him.  Knowing that Europeans were more fond of Salmon than other fish, they reserved such specimens for his dinner and baked them, rather than boiling them in the traditional style.  About two weeks in, however, he returned to camp early, and his Eskimo family had been unprepared for his arrival.  They were gathered around a fire eating boiled fish and, deciding against fasting, he joined them in eating.  Much to his surprise, he found that he actually preferred boiled fish over baked, marking the first unraveling of his Western dietary sensibilities.

It took considerably more time, however, for Stefansson to come around to other traditional dietary customs, namely the lack of salt and the fermented fish prized as a delicacy by the Eskimo.  His desire for salt was eventually sated by the auspicious arrival of another explorer, who had a significant portion which he gladly gave to Stefansson.  After his first glorious meal of salted fish, Stefansson used the salt once or twice more, and eventually forgot about it, finding that his memory had outpaced the actual experience of eating salted food.

When it came to the fermented, or, in Stefansson's words "fully rotten" fish, it took considerably more mental maneuvering to warm to the idea.  He contemplated the Western practice of "aging" meat and milk, and how it was in all ways the same as "aging" fish.  Connoisseurs generally enjoyed "rarer" cheeses than novices and he considered that it might be possible to cultivate a taste for fermented fish in much the same way.  Eventually he gave in to curiosity and found that he "liked it better" than his first taste of Camembert cheese.

In addition to mental adaptations, Stefansson noticed that after that first winter of fish and cold water he was physically in better health than at any other point in his life and that he "did not get scurvy on the fish diet nor learn that any of my fish-eating friends ever had it."  Anticipating the argument that an unvaried diet was inherently boring, he also noted that, "The longer I followed it the better I liked it, which meant, at least inferentially and provisionally, that you never become tired of your food if you have only one thing to eat."  (Studies have actually shown that food variety alone can increase consumption, indicating that endless variation and diversity in food choices may directly influence overeating and the development of obesity.)

In subsequent expeditions, Stefansson, having acquired the skills required to hunt and survive in the Arctic from his aboriginal family, made a particular point to document the way other individuals responded to the Eskimo dietary.  His crews, at any given time a mix of European, African, and Pacific Islanders did not show any appreciable racial differences in handling a "meat and water" diet but individual differences were pronounced.  By his observations, the way one person took to a diet of meat and water was largely dependent on how influenced a person was by "what they have read and heard about the necessity for a varied diet."

Stefansson noted that many of the men cultivated, "Specific fears of developing the ailments which they have heard of as caused by meat or prevented by vegetables," and they often considered him as "peculiar, a freak," and that "a normal person will not react similarly, and that they are going to be normal and have an awful time."  These same "specific fears" have survived into contemporary scientific circles as evidenced by the recent 2010 expedition by Cambrige University researcher Dr. Stephen Pax Leonard.  Leonard decided to spend a year living with an Inuit community and when asked about the challenges he expects to face during his trip, he noted that because the diet of "seal, walrus and narwhal" is "extremely fatty" and "very low in carbohydrate" with little "fruit and vegetables" he will "be living on vitamin supplements as well."

Stefansson went on to describe the the typical method of "breaking a party into a meat diet".  Starting the expedition on "the best type of European mixed diet that money and forethought can provide" and gradually introducing hunted game or sea mammals.  This gave the men a period of relative comfort at the start of the journey where they could eat several "squares" a day with the meat portion of their diet made up of bear or seal .  The men's feelings towards bear and seal were no different than that of any other meat, so long as enough provisions remained and that these items could be eaten along with other "groceries".  At the end of "four, six, or eight weeks," however, Stefansson and his men would suddenly find that they are "on nothing but seal."

In some cases, usually with men "middle-aged and conservative", the prospect of an all-seal diet is was so distasteful that some individuals would "go two or three days practically or entirely without eating," and that "some have lost anything from ten to twenty pounds, what with the hard work on empty stomachs." But, "after a few days even the conservatives begin to nibble at the seal meat," and "after a few more they are eating a good deal of it."

Ultimately, Stefansson found that without exception, all of his men took to the diet well and there were no reports of maladies resulting from a lack of vegetable nutrients. The men might pine for "hotcakes and syrup", or "bread and butter", but they were by no means starving and fit and energetic enough to endure the arduous work of Arctic exploration.

The regiment of meat and water was occasionally punctuated by trips back to the well supplied ship (expeditioning took place on land travelling via dog sleds). With the opportunity to indulge in whatever their heart's desired, the men would inevitably request sweet or starchy foods like "mashed potatoes and gravy" or the aforementioned "hotcakes and syrup". The food was found to be "good, although not quite so superlative as they had imagined," and "then they get indigestion, headache, feel miserable, and within a week, in nine cases out of ten... they are willing to go back to meat again."

Continue to Viljhalmur Stefansson and the Foodways of the Arctic - Part II


Excerpt from A Prehistory of the North: Human Settlement of the Higher Latitudes by John F. Hoffecker

"Adventures in Diet" by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, 1935-36 Harper's Monthly Magazine Parts 1-3,


"Inuit Diet"

"Vilhjalmur Stefansson"

"Stefansson and the Canadian Arctic" by Richard Diubaldo, pg 1-3

"Mackenzie Inuit" The Canadian Encyclopedia

"Scientist will live as an Inuit for one year" By Victoria Gill Science reporter, BBC News 12 August 2010
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About Unknown

Tony is the host of the Paleo Magazine Radio podcast, author of "Paleo Grilling: A Modern Caveman's Guide to Cooking with Fire", and Cofounder of Powerful PT, an innovative information resource for Fitness Professionals. He has appeared on numerous local and national television and radio broadcasts and regularly hosts healthy cooking workshops and informational lectures. He is also a full-time Personal Trainer and Wellness Consultant who lives in Jacksonville Florida with his wife Jamie.
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  2. Thanks Dave! One does not earn the Papa Grok seal of approval easily!