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Vermont Quarterly

A Whale of a Tale

Penelope Easton


A Whale of a Tale

Penelope Easton ‘44 talks territorial Alaska, whale blubber, and her new book, Learning to Like Muktuk

By Sarah Tuff Dunn

Could whale blubber be the new kale?

Probably not, but long before “locavore” became the word du jour, Penelope Easton ’44 was proselytizing the value of locally grown foods. Her pulpit just happened to be the far reaches of our 49th state, in the wake of World War II. And while today’s produce pundits push watercress, beets and berries, Easton was more interested in the nutritional components of needlefish, rosehips, muktuk (whale skin with blubber attached) and Eskimo ice cream (which sounds far more delicious than it actually is).

Those hungry for more can find a smorgasbord of travel adventures, dietary tips and eye-opening accounts of starvation and redemption in the 190-page Learning to Like Muktuk: An Unlikely Explorer in Territorial Alaska (Oregon State University Press). Peppered with photographs, dietary guidelines, and even recipes for Alaska frybread and “research hospitality coffee cake,” it’s a tome that’s as topical as ever in today’s farm-to-table, GMO-obsessed culture, where pockets of Americans are still as hungry as ever.

The 92-year-old Easton was raised in Craftsbury, Vermont, during the 1930s, an era that would shape her entire life. “The best possible preparation to go to Alaska was growing up in Vermont during the Depression,” Easton says via Skype from her home in North Carolina. “We had a small farm, and gardens; we picked dandelion greens in the spring, and we butchered our own cattle.” She would grow up to study at UVM, receive her master’s in public health, and serve in World War II before accepting the post of dietary consultant for the Alaskan Territorial Health Department in 1948.

In Alaska, says Easton, “so many of the people were like Vermonters—independent, make, do, ‘Let’s get the job done.’” They were not, however, getting the job done when it came to feeding themselves healthfully. There were weevils in the flour stashes, and little knowledge of the “wheel of good eating” that Easton would introduce to schoolchildren who were subsisting on diets of soda, candy, and chewing gum. “A common lunch was two dishes of ice cream,” she writes.

So many Alaskans, Easton discovered, were ignoring the bounty in their backyard while trying to emulate the lower forty-eight. As the Rocky Mountain News reported in a clip, “The main trouble with the Alaskan diet, a woman who ought to know declared here yesterday, is that every restaurant there insists on serving steaks instead of blubber.”

Easton admits that she didn’t see the possibilities either initially. “I was so blind the first couple of months I was there,” she admits. “I didn’t see the native people, and neither did the other white people. But then I saw how the native people’s fishing and hunting and preserving of fruits and berries had to last them through the winter.”

There was a spirit of fun and freedom in the last frontier, says Easton, that got her through the dark days, too, particularly after her college years of 9 p.m. curfews when one “certainly couldn’t kiss a man goodbye at the door.” In Alaska, side trips to Anchorage for supplies sustained her spirits. “I had such fun, because I felt guilty when I was in the villages in the winter and they would serve me their best food and entertain them,” she says. “It was a great joy to be able to shop for them and send things back.”

Having travelled the world and seen strife in India, Easton shrugs off any real low points in Alaska, preferring to focus instead on the high points of staying in the children’s homes, and in returning several times over the years to be considered an elder among the native populations. Buoyed by the positive reception of her first professional book (she has written textbooks) and busy with readings, Easton is now considering a prequel to Learning to Like Muktuk.

Not that she actually likes muktuk herself, mind you. When asked about her taste for the territorial Alaskan delicacy, Easton responds with a long pause. “Well,” she says, “I can’t say that I would order it by choice, but I respect it as a cultural delicacy. I use muktuk as a word to include all the customs, all the delicacies in that area, and every area. Everybody has their muktuks, and we should respect them.”

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