In the orientation we learned that many members of the native communities were Russian Orthodox and held fast to the tradition of feasting when a member of their family had passed away. They feast for about three days after the death, and then have a commemorative feast on the 20th and 40th days after their loved one’s passing. This symbolizes the community eating to aid the loved one on their journey to heaven, with the 40 days being highly symbolic biblically.
On our first full day in the village we attended one such feast at the house of the school’s secretary, Joe. His mother had passed that week. One of the other teachers, Seraphima, was gracious enough to take the rest of us under her wing and explain what to expect and how to act. Unlike many events in the lower 48, we were told that it would be considered rude and insulting to bring anything to his house in terms of food for the feast. Food is still a sign of wealth and well-being in a subsistence culture, and to bring food when someone is hosting you is akin to saying that you don’t think that they can provide.
When we arrived at Joe’s house, we saw lots of other villagers there already, and a swarm of children playing all over the yard and porch. Going inside, we did not have to take off our shoes because there were a lot of people there, rather we proceeded to the dining room/kitchen where a large table was set up with chairs all along and food on it. There were a number of large pots and serving bowls in the corner of the kitchen as well, with Joe’s family members manning the serving duties. We sat or stood quietly around the edge of the room and introduced ourselves to members of the community after saying hello to Joe who had met us at the door. I have heard so many new names in the past week, I’m not sure I will ever learn who everyone is. As overwhelming as it is right now, I’m sure that I will look back on these writings later and laugh.
As each person finished eating, they would rise and leave, and a person who had been waiting would be called to sit in the now vacant seat. As new teachers and members of the village, we were invited to essentially skip ahead and eat before some of the people who had been there before us.
Taking my seat at the table I was offered a variety of different dishes, including clam chowder, moose stew, and another type of fish soup. I took the clam chowder (having been told by a priest who was leaving that it was very good) and I was not disappointed. It was very good- warm, tasty and familiar. Elders sitting around the table urged me to try other types of food that were on our table. I tried some dried whitefish that had been smoked. I almost choked on the first bite, not prepared for the deep smoky flavor. Now I’m used to what we call ‘smoked flavor’ down in the lower 48- a subtle taste that compliments, but doesn’t overpower. This must have been a delicate fish to start with, because it tasted like I had solidified smoke or a wood chip in my mouth. I politely finished the piece, but learned to take smaller bites!
At a feast, it is said that it is “all you can eat” but that is not really the case. It is important to come and show your support, but it is also important to realize that there are simply not enough calories in the village for everyone to eat to their fill all the time- and “all you can eat” is a way for people in the community to provide for each other and support their friends as well as family. The feast continues all day until the family simply runs out of food.
After eating, the group of new teachers took our dishes to the girls washing them in the sink, and thanked the family again for the meal. It is very humbling to be welcomed into a community so openly.